Berlin International Film Festival

BERLIN -- There are some genuine chills in Christian Petzold's mystery tale "Yella," which recently screened In Competition at the Berlin International Film Festival, and even though many will see through his legerdemain, it won't entirely spoil the pleasure of seeing how he does it.

Featuring a strong performance by Nina Hoss, who won the best actress award at the fest, the picture could travel well internationally, though it could be hurt by audiences learning of the payoff. Hoss plays an earnest young woman named Yella who has just landed a job in another town. She's anxious to leave because her estranged husband, Ben (Hinnerk Schonemann), is stalking her and pleading in a threatening way for her to return to him.

With the promise of a good job and a decent income, Yella gratefully rejects her father's offer of money and can't wait to be off. But Ben shows up begging to be allowed to drive her to the train station. On the way, he starts entreating her again, and when she turns him down, he drives the car off a bridge into a body of water.

Miraculously, Yella survives the plunge and crawls to the water's edge, where she passes out. She wakes up to find that Ben has survived, too, and that her bags have floated to a place she can reach them. Grabbing her belongings, the young woman flees and makes it to her train just as it's departing.

The trouble begins when she arrives, wet and bedraggled, at the hotel where she plans to stay during her trial at the new job. With no deposit and no credit card, she is relieved to discover that her father had slipped a roll of notes into her pocket.

But the job turns out to be nonexistent as her putative employer has been fired and all he's prepared to offer her are some morning oysters and a roll in the hay.

Back at her own hotel, she encounters a young businessman working on a laptop in the dining room, and the chance meeting leads to his offer of a one-off job. His name is Philipp (Devid Striesow), and he's in the venture-capital business. He wants Yella to play his assistant during some negotiations.

Her claim to be knowledgeable in regard to balance sheets turns out to be true, and she spots some elements of the other side's claims that give Philipp an advantage. This results in a tidy payday, and he asks her along on more negotiations with increasingly successful results.

Meanwhile, Ben has shown up and become even more threatening. Yella's imagination begins to play tricks on her, and her recent trauma leaves her with the sensation of rushing water. She and Philipp sense a growing attraction that is not diminished by the recognition that he is actually a crook.

With the price of business negotiations going up, the risks getting higher and the threat of Ben getting worse, the film builds tension to its climactic revelation. Whether that will prove a shock to too many people is another thing.

Still, Petzold has great fun with the cunning strategies of the business deals and he draws affecting performances from his cast. There's a lingering mood of dread that is well established and benefits from the repetition of David Ackles' song "Road to Cairo" performed by Julie Driscoll, Brian Augur and the Trinity.

A Schramm Film Koerner & Weber, ZDF, ARTE, presented by the Match Factory

Credits: Director-screenwriter: Christian Petzold; Producers: Florian Koerner von Gustorf, Michael Weber; Cinematographer: Hans Fromm; Editor: Bettina Bohler; Set designer: Kade Gruber; Costume supervisors: Anette Guther, Lotte Sawatzki. Cast: Yella: Nina Hoss; Philipp: Devid Striesow; Ben: Hinnerk Schonemann; Dr. Gunthen: Burghart Klaussner; Barbara Gunthen: Barbara Auer; Yella's father: Christian Redl; Sprenger: Wanja Mues; Schmitt-Ott: Michael Wittenborn; Dr. Fritz: Martin Brambach; Prietzel: Joachim Nimtz; Friedrich's lawyer: Peter Benedict; Receptionist: Ian Norval; Insolvency administrator: Peter Knaack; Cashier: Thomas Giese.
No MPAA rating, running time 89 minutes.