Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtrau, Herbert Knaup
Directed by Tom Tykwer
The phone rings. It's Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu). He's lost 100,000 marks that he owes to some very dangerous people, and if he can't come up with the money in 20 minutes, they're going to kill him. On the other end, Manni's girlfriend Lola (Franka Potente) hangs up—there's no time for thought, just action. How can she possibly come up with that kind of money in such a short time? Will she succeed? If she doesn't, no worries—after all, she gets two more tries...
Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt) became a minor hit when it exploded onto screens around the world in 1998 and 1999. Showing in the United States alongside bloated, indulgent Hollywood product like The Mummy and Wild Wild West, the lean, kinetic film from German director Tom Tykwer accomplished nothing less than a complete redefinition of what an action film can be. This is one of the fastest movies you will ever see: though Lola only spends about five percent of the movie running, the iconic shot of the flame-haired young woman sprinting down a Berlin sidewalk conveys an impression of a film that is barely able to contain its own energy. Through a series of ingenious tricks involving animation, smash cuts, slow motion, and other unconventional devices, Tykwer crams about two and a half hours worth of story into 80 minutes. Storytelling at this speed is like driving 90 mph on a winding road: one wrong move can bring everything crashing down. That Run Lola Run never feels muddled or confusing is a tribute to Tykwer's skills.
Whether Lola comes up with the money or not, everything's going to be over in about twenty minutes. That doesn't make for much of a movie, so Tykwer flagrantly cheats: when Lola fails to resolve the situation to everyone's satisfaction, he simply presses the reset button and lets her try again. Lola make her breathless journey three times in all, each try producing a very different result from the last because of a very small change right at the beginning. In a video game, unlike in life, you can keep hammering away at a task until you get it right, and surely Lola's allotment of three "lives"—the same number granted to Pac-Man, Mario, and Sonic the Hedgehog—is no coincidence. The tripartite structure also serves as a textbook illustration of the "butterfly effect," in which small, seemingly unimportant events can have unimaginably huge consequences: a butterfly flapping its wings in Hong Kong, it is said, can alter the wind patterns so as to cause a hurricane in the Caribbean six months later. One event builds on another, and tiny variations in initial conditions can lead to completely different sets of results. Life is a lot more random than most people appreciate, and the number of seconds it takes Lola to run down the stairs at her apartment building literally make the difference between life and death.
No examination of Run Lola Run would be complete without mention of the pounding techno soundtrack. Nobody does techno better than the Germans, and here it provides the film with a beat, underlying nearly every scene and providing a constant sensation of forward momentum. The music is loudest when Lola runs, and the three pieces composed for these scenes (called "Running One," "Running Two," and "Running Three") help nudge the tempo up even more, as if daring her to keep up with them.
Franka Potente, who was just 23 when Run Lola Run was filmed, is on her way to becoming an international star; this year she starred alongside Matt Damon in the generally well-regarded thriller The Bourne Identity. There could have been no better choice to play Lola, whom Potente infuses with a combination of toughness and victimhood: berated by her father for living a worthless life, she nevertheless displays an indomitable spirit throughout the film, simply because she has to. Moritz Bleibtreu, who has since starred in the intriguing Das Experiment, is endearingly irritating as Manni; pacing back and forth in front of the phone booth, waiting for Lola, he wears an expression that suggests he's both clueless and yet annoyed with you for some reason. Though the structure of the film denies us all but the most cursory glimpses into Lola's and Manni's lives, the two actors are so good at filling the characters in around the edges that it really doesn't matter.
Run Lola Run is in German with English subtitles.
Points to ponder:
- Herr Schuster's line at the beginning of the film ("The ball is round...") is from quotations by legendary soccer coach Sepp Herberger, who was kind of the Vince Lombardi of Germany.
- For me, the obvious comparison for this film is to Amélie, French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's romantic fantasy that was an unexpected smash hit in the United States in 2001. Both films abandon traditional narrative conventions in favor of inventive techniques like editing in snippets of animation, "breaking the fourth wall," and digressing from the main storyline to briefly examine the life of a minor character. An argument could be made that these films and others like them should be considered part of a new movement in European cinema that is different enough from anything that has come before that it deserves to be recognized on its own. Both films owe a great deal to artistic movements from cinema history like German expressionism, surrealism, and the French New Wave, all of which mixed symbolism and fantastic elements into more traditional storylines to create a fusion between the real and the unreal. What pictures like Amélie and Run Lola Run bring to the mix is the sensibility of the MTV generation: fast cuts, bright contrasting colors, an aesthetic that appeals on an almost purely sensory and uncerebral level; they draw from Tarantino as much as from Truffaut, from Baz Luhrmann as much as from Ingmar Bergman. If you've seen both, what similarities and differences can you spot between them? Do you agree that they constitute the beginning of a new movement in film?
- The action slows dramatically at five points during the film. Two scenes depict flashbacks in which Lola and Manni lie in bed talking quietly (and, presumably, postcoitally); three scenes depict various parts of a serious conversation between Lola's father and his mistress. During these scenes, the omnipresent background music fades away to silence and the storyline, which moves at breakneck speed in every other part of the film, aimlessly meanders through conversations of questionable relevance to the rest of the movie, or indeed to anything at all. What is Tykwer doing here? Why do you think he structured the film in this way? Is it effective?
- An interesting thought: When a character dies in a video game, the player learns from his or her mistakes, and returns to that point in the game armed with the knowledge of what went wrong and the ability to use that knowledge to "change history," as it were. Does Lola represent the character, or the player? Is Tykwer simply illustrating three possible outcomes of Manni's phone call, or is he suggesting that in the second and third versions Lola knows, on some level, that her prior attempt or attempts were in some way unsuccessful and has the power to alter the course of events based on a kind of trial and error process? Think about it, and discuss.