Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Trailer Tuesday: YELLA (2007)

YELLA (2007)

Directed by: Christian Petzold.
Written by: Christian Petzold.
Starring: Nina Hoss, Devid Striesow, Hinnerk Schönemann.
Produced by: Florian Koerner von Gustorf.
Cinematography by: Hans Fromm.
Music by: Stefan Will.

German movie star Nina Hoss is one of my movie crushes, and I stalk her whenever one of her films plays in the cinema or is released on DVD. Very soon I will have exhausted all of the USA releases and have to figure out how to see her work that hasn’t been released here. Hoss is an unbelievably beautiful woman... who looks as if she hasn’t slept for a week. I have no idea whether she looks this way in everyday life, or if it’s just a method to offset some of her beauty, but she is usually cast in roles where the look adds to the character. She is often in thriller films (why I know that she exists) and YELLA is an interesting example. It’s made with frequent collaborator writer-director Christian Petzold, and she won Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival for the role. The last movie that I saw that both worked on was PHOENIX (2014) which had a CASABLANCA vibe... and the same year she was in a great spy flick with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright and Rachel McAdams: A MOST WANTED MAN based on a novel by Le Carre. I have seen several other Nina Hoss movies like BARBARA and JERICHOW and may write about them later.

YELLA is a slow burn thriller, and probably more drama than thriller - it’s a small personal story with a hint of suspense. Last year I wrote an article about slow burn horror films using MIDSOMMAR as an example, and the same principles apply to thrillers or any other genre: A slow burn is always on fire.

A “slow burn” story, instead of being action-action-action like your standard Hollywood film, has the story develop slowly and methodically towards a explosive boiling point. So all of the action is usually “back loaded” - with the story building and building and building until a big climax. Those writers with a story where nothing happens until the end may be okay, right? Probably wrong, because the main thing to remember about a slow burn story is that it is always on fire. Always. The water may not be boiling until the end, but you can still burn your finger if you put it in the pot. Things are happening from the very beginning and building. And “slow burns” usually start strong to make up for the slow burn. There are slow burns in every genre, from Horror to Thrillers to Romances to Dramas. They aren’t stories where nothing happens until the end, they are stories where things are simmering and eventually boil over, and YELLA is a good example.

Nina Hoss plays Yella Fichte, a woman from a small town who married her high school sweetheart Ben (Hinnerk Schnemann) a successful businessman who is young and handsome. But when his business goes south, he begins physically abusing her. She leaves him and files for divorce and goes into the city to look for a job so that she won’t be stuck in the same small town as him. But Ben does not accept the end of their relationship, and begins stalking her.

When she finds a job as an accountant, she returns home to pack her things and move... and Ben is waiting for her. He follows her to her father’s house - walking on the opposite side of the street (protective order) but when there is some construction he is *forced* to walk behind her on her side of the street... explaining how he has changed and that there’s no reason to go through with the divorce. He is both charming and creepy... and dangerous. With a hair-trigger temper.

The threat is set up in the very beginning of the story - the first scene or two. Ben is a violent young man and can’t accept that Yella would want to divorce him. This scene where they are walking down the street is filled with tension. It’s an explosive situation. Tension is a present but unresolved conflict - and this scene is packed with that simmering conflict just below the surface of every line of dialogue or movement that Ben makes. You are afraid that he might strike her...

She gets to her house, and Ben must walk away due to the protective order.

After packing her things and telling her Father (Christian Redl) that she will stay in a hotel until she finds an apartment, and pay for the hotel room with her first week’s earnings; her Father gives her a hidden stash of cash. She declines the money, but he sneaks it into her coat pocket. This is a great moment. It’s always important for the audience to care about the characters, and one of the techniques I look at in the Protagonist Blue Book is giving them “someone to love”. Here the father / daughter relationship is shown in a very simple moment that we can instantly understand. Widowed father loves his daughter and wants to look out for her and help her even after she moves to the big city... so we also know that he will miss her when she is gone. That “money for later” is all about the later - he is worried about her living alone. Within the first ten minutes of the film we get this great emotional moment...


Which is shattered when Yella leaves the house to find Ben waiting outside for her. He apologizes, and offers to drive her to the train station. She accepts, figuring there will be less conflict - and once she is at the train station? It’s over. She starts life new in the big city. Except all the way to the train station, she is trapped in the car with this violent man. More tension! One of the things I looked at in the MIDSOMMAR article is “poking the tiger” - frequently reminding the audience that there is conflict present to keep the tension and suspense alive. There is no suspense or tension if Ben is kept offscreen - he must be constantly pushed into the same scenes as Yella to keep the threat active. So instead of Yella just going to the train station in a taxi, she is stuck in this car with her violent ex-husband taking her to the train station... and no matter how polite the conversation, the tension is simmering away... threatening to boil over into violence.

A major part of that simmering in the car: Ben makes his last ditch effort to “win her back” (as if she’s some sort of human prize?) and when she declines... he drives his car off a bridge into the river where it sinks like a stone!


Shocking twist!

One of the things about Slow Burn stories, no matter what the genre, is that they tend to start with a bang. The audience gets a jolt right up front, and that “tides them over” while to suspense or horror or drama or romance or whatever the genre is continues to simmer in the background. It reassures the audience that this *is* a thriller (or horror or whatever) - and if they are patient there is much more to come. MIDSOMMAR has a big horror moment about ten minutes into the film, and then simmers until the ending’s big horror scene. You need that big jolt in the first ten minutes... it’s what shows the audience the things to come later. Here, the car crashing off the bridge and sinking doesn’t just show us how far Ben will go to get Yella back - which infuses every scene afterwards with suspense - it shocks the audience. This is a film that isn’t fooling around - it’s going to eventually get very dark. You want a big scene like this or the one in MIDSOMMAR around the ten minute mark to show that fire burning just below the surface for the rest of the film.

Yella breaks out of the sinking car and swims to shore... and moments later Ben follows, laying on the shore of the river next to her. Both are exhausted and pass out.

When Yella comes to a few moments later, she sees Ben and finds her floating suitcase and purse and races away - soaking wet - to catch her train. She needs to escape from Ben and this small town, and can’t be late for her first day at work!

Though I didn’t time the car crash, it seemed like around the first ten minutes of the movie... and it sets up most of the story as Yella tries to avoid the violent stalker she was married to and start a new life in the big city. We know that no matter how far she runs, Ben will go to extremes like this to find her. The conflict that Ben brings will always be lurking in the background of every scene.


She barely makes the train, is soaking wet, and when she opens her suitcase? All of her clothes are soaking wet. Great way to start out at a new job, right? When she gets to the hotel in the big city, the clerk takes one look at her - still wet and bedraggled - and insists she pay a deposit. Money that she doesn’t have... until she finds the roll of bills her Father put in her pocket. A hint of hope after the car crash and wet clothes.

After dropping off her suitcase, she rushes to work - not wanting to be late on her first day, but still looking like hell. The executive who hired her is waiting for her in the parking lot. He asks her if she will go up to his office and grab an envelope from his desk and bring it down? This request seems odd, but it’s her first day. The feeling that something is wrong with this request gives the audience that of-kilter feeling that is often part of a thriller story.

After grabbing the envelope from the desk, she is stopped by Security - it seems the Executive was fired for embezzling, barred from entering the building, and because he hired her - she has no job! She is escorted out of the building... where she finds the Executive hiding behind a tree. She hands him the envelope - which is filled with stolen money! He gives her a couple of bucks for her trouble.

Even though this is a slow burn thriller, we have escalating conflict. Her escape from Ben to the “safety” of the big city may not be safe after all! This is part of the slow burn simmering below the surface.

Jobless, in the big city, with her estranged and violent husband hunting for her, she has no idea where to go or what to do next. In the hotel’s restaurant, she’s probably eating the cheapest thing on the menu when she notices a handsome businessman Phillipp (Devid Striesow) studying spreadsheets on his laptop. He notices her and asks with a trace of anger why she is so interested in his business... again, conflict in the big city that shows how it is not the safe haven that she thought it might be.


The next morning, Phillipp knocks at her door and asks if she’d like to earn some money. Um, she’s not that kind of girl. He explains that he’s going to a business meeting and needs an assistant - mostly as a prop. Her job will be to pretend to study the spread sheets as if there is something wrong with them, and on his signal - whisper something in his ear so that the other businessmen become worried... and Phillipp gains the upper hand in the deal. She agrees - she needs the money.

This is kind of a con, and now she is part of it... and that creates some more simmering suspense. What if these businessmen that Phillip is trying to fool realize that something is wrong? She has already helped an embezzler steal money, now she is helping Philipp con some businessmen? What should she help this stranger? More suspense!

But in the meeting, she becomes distracted by kind of an aural flashback of Ben’s car crashing into the river and sinking. Her past - and Ben - reaching out to grab her even in the safety of this business meeting! Will she blow the deal? Will her past ruin her future? But when she snaps out of it and looks at the spreadsheets there really is something wrong with them, and she mentions it out loud, and the deal goes better than expected for Phillipp! She may have a new future working for this man!


But back at the hotel, Ben is waiting in her room. Twist! Once more the threat of Ben simmers to the surface. He has found her! He wants her back - now. The divorce isn’t final, yet. She’s his wife - his property.

When she runs away from him through the maze of hotel hallways, Ben gives chase... So we get a nice little chase scene - some low key action and suspense.

Through the rest of the film, whenever Yella catches a break in life, something goes wrong and / or Ben shows up to drag her back to the small town. You just want this woman to get away from her estranged husband and find happiness - but the story keeps throwing up some great roadblocks.

Though this is more of a slow burn drama than thriller - you want things to start going Yella’s way. Instead, it seems for every step forward in her new life something happens that sets her two steps back. Hoss’ combination of beauty and that haggard look of someone who hasn’t slept in days works perfectly for this character, and in deal after deal her accounting skills save the day for Phillipp - she’s more intelligent that the big businessmen who sit across from her in these deals. There is hope for her escape from the past because she is very good at accounting and Phillipp provides a chance for a new life for her...


But Ben keeps stalking her... and there’s a twist ending (which you may see coming from a mile away - but that just creates dread, so it still works).

The key to any Slow Burn story is that it is always on fire... and eventually that fire erupts and burns everything down. The simmering threat below the surface boils over in Act Three... and causes all kinds of serious damage. And that is what happens in this story. Yella’s escape from her violent ex husband comes to and end... and things get very very explosive and not everyone survives. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but all of this tension and suspense that have building pay off in action - and that action is big enough to satisfy an audience that has been waiting throughout the film for it. Which is another key to Slow Burn stories - when you save all of the action for the end, yoiu have to deliver as much action as there would have been had this been a conventional story with a “genre juice” scene around every ten minutes... but you need to have that all at once!

Til death do they part.

If you are looking for a conventional thriller, this probably isn’t it. If you are looking for an arthouse slow burn story, this will probably keep you interested.... and Nina Hoss gives a great performance.

- Bill

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