We begin this film observing a young woman, neither very attractive nor unworthy of a devoted rake's attention, escaping from an invisible predator. Invisible, because although someone will soon emerge as a long-time tormentor, the pace the woman keeps and the franticness of her stride bespeak a far greater nemesis, perhaps that of time or its knight-errant, conscience. She is not clearly innocent or clearly guilty as far as our eyes can see. But we soon learn that our eyes are substantially limited in what they are allowed to perceive.
Our location is this German town and the woman is a sensitive and somewhat troubled thirtysomething by the name of Yella Fichte (Nina Hoss). Yella is pretty in the way that many German women are pretty: that is, her tough character is imprinted squarely upon her delicate features, a pattern that no amount of makeup or clothing could ever alter. She is not so much a tomboy as a woman who cannot afford to be too feminine in a harsh and unforgiving man's world. One such fellow is her ex-husband Ben (Hinnerk Schönemann), who just so happens to be tailing Yella in his Range Rover and begging for another chance on a relationship that Yella seems to regret with every ounce of her being. "You got a job," says Ben in an oddly high-pitched voice, "I can tell by the way you walk you have a really good job." Ben will often display how very well he knows his wife; yet we never get the impression of happier days past for the childless couple. Rather, Ben, unlike many men of his generation, appears once upon a time to have demonstrated decent earning potential. And in a small former East German town such lottery tickets are scarce. Our heroine breaks the news of her Hannover job to her bald, strapping father, an obvious widower, and we understand that she has been chosen by fate to smash the cycle of lucklessness and mediocrity and emigrate from Wittenberge to a more prosperous pocket of humanity. After a laconic breakfast during which Yella stares at her morose father with the glee of someone who enjoys being missed, she finds that instead of her taxi, an officious Ben has shown up to take her to the train station.
Ben's agenda, of course, does not involve the station. Instead, Yella is subjected to a "sentimental tour" with a failed man's last business plan desperate even to the untrained ear, as well as a brown envelope stuffed with figures and calculations of a revival – numbers that Yella, an accountant by trade and demeanor, refuses to examine. What could she possibly learn now about this man whom she quite clearly abhors? What does it say about her that, once upon a time, she chose to marry him? Without the slightest verbal expression all these emotions race across her face, just as Ben loses his temper with the ease of those accustomed to violence, and just before the Range Rover swerves off a bridge and into the Elbe river – and here our film assumes a curious tenor. Yella awakes on what appears to be the other shore. Ben moves first then collapses near her. When she gets to her feet she finds, quite miraculously, that her bags have been washed ashore as well. When she arrives at the station she finds, quite miraculously, that her train has not left – even though it appears almost entirely empty. And after a quiet if nervous trip, she awakes again, this time in what must be assumed to be Hannover. It is, however, a Hannover that few will recognize, yet that is of no interest to our protagonist or any other person in her world. So many times in Yella we see one, almost trivial scene that we don't understand then later see a very similar scene and understand them both as significant, which is the sign of impeccable storytelling. A deposit on her hotel appears unpayable until she remembers the wad of cash her father silently pressed into her hand; her chance encounter with a creepy, venal man called Philipp (Devid Striesow) leads her into a business world of chicanery and double-dealings not unlike what probably bankrupted Ben; and Ben's implication of Yella's "pretty legs" having helped her secure the Hannover job are echoed by both Philipp's impression of her future employer, Dr. Schmidt-Ott, and the slimy doctor's own actions. Most of all, her notions of what belongs on this earth and what might pertain to another realm become decidedly fuzzy. Take, for example, her long stare at a kimonoed housewife and her child bidding farewell to a million-dollar husband on the driveway of their million-dollar home. This moment's inclusion early on in Yella's journey may simply manifest her wishes for a new life, but later developments suggest something far more sinister.
It is to be expected, I suppose, that some critics have considered Yella an anti-capitalism parable; others, with no greater originality, have smugly pointed out Wittenberge's easternness and Hannover's unbroken alliance with the West. While there is some truth to these interpretations, they are hopelessly inferior to what we may term a grim character study. Why grim? Interestingly enough, the more we see of Yella, who evinces at times a doe-like quality, the less we like her. She is hard and cruel to the series of tribunals (in the form of Philipp's business partners) who, wishing to judge and dismiss her as a woman and possibly as an East German, are invariably humiliated by her methods. Once she consents to Philipp's skulduggery, she fails a test of confidence, which could spell death among thieves with an honor code. And while we do feel sorry for her when Ben reappears, more than once, to convey his understanding that the couple should reunite immediately, we also begin to suspect something deeper at work here. When Philipp informs our heroine that "a large garage, a green jaguar, kids, and a house in the suburbs" could never interest him ("What interests you, then?" asks Yella. "Precisely not that," is the magnificent response), one has the feeling he is speaking for both of them. In fact, Philipp is quickly surpassed by his protégée in ruthlessness, as evidenced by the film's closing scenes. There is also the much belabored matter of the flashbacks Yella endures; water in particular seems to behave unusually in her presence, and in the distance she occasionally hears the caws of raptorial birds. So you may wonder why Yella never quite manages to change out of that lovely red blouse. You may also ask yourself why her last name is Fichte.