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Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Run Lola Run (1998)

Director: Tom Tykwer
Stars: Franka Potente and Moritz Bleibtreu
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Here's about as nineties a film as there could be, an elevation of MTV style attention grabbing to feature length art form, and art it really is. I find myself scrutinising the details of this film just like I'd scrutinise a wall-sized old master in an art gallery, because it isn't just the picture it's the technique. In fact here it's mostly the technique because the picture is very much relegated to playing second fiddle. With Run Lola Run, German writer/director Tom Tykwer manipulated a simple plot by applying video game logic and adding distractions. After a few viewings I'm now wondering if perhaps he subverted it even further into being a parody of ADHD filmmaking by asking what would happen if it isn't just the audience that has ADHD but the scriptwriter too. Those distractions are at once utterly irrelevant to the story at hand and the key to the whole film. Collectively they're akin to a MacGuffin except the characters don't care about them either.

What this ends up being is a film that becomes more and more impressive with each repeated viewing. The first time round, I felt that it was a style over substance affair, quintessentially cool with its nuns in sunglasses, credits rolling in reverse order and Franka Potente's startling shock of red hair, but without much actual substance. Watching afresh I realised just how much of a devil Tykwer had in the details and each time through I've found more and more to see. Perhaps this is inevitable because of the approach Tykwer takes to spring the key on us a third of the way through the film. At this point, we the audience are forced to make a complete reevaluation of everything we've just seen because the whole thing starts all over again. By the time the same thing happens again after another third, we've got the point but we still probably aren't thinking deeply enough about why Tykwer chose to do things this way.

Again this is inevitable. Unless we have eidetic memories this really forces us to go back and watch the film again to see what we missed because we weren't equipped to ask the right questions first time. This is underlined by a blurry dance through a mass of faceless humanity that accompanies the credits. Nobody means anything to us on a first viewing, but a second shows us that the people that the dance slows to focus on are key players in the story to come. For any of us watching who aren't German, there are also cultural references that we miss out on entirely until we read up on the film afterwards. The narrator is Hans Paetsch, who generations of Germans would instantly recognise as a teller of fairy tales, and the opening philosophical quote that the ball is round, the game lasts ninety minutes and everything else is theory comes from legendary German football coach Sepp Herberger. It applies well to a wider stage here.

Our heroine is Lola, whose boyfriend Manni is in serious trouble. He's a small time crook who has got himself caught up in some dubious cross-border criminal enterprise. It's a reasonably safe job as such things go: he merely has to pick up 100,000 DM and transport them to his boss but, racked with nerves, he promptly leaves the money on the train where it's found by a nameless homeless man. Manni has twenty minutes to find the money or he is in serious trouble so he rings his girl from a phone box outside the Spiral Bar. From then on, Lola's running, the spirals are spiralling, the clocks are ticking and we have to watch intently to keep track of all the things we should be watching, especially as Tykwer bombards us with a dazzling array of power zooms, split screens, hand held camerawork, repetition, animation and all the rest of the MTV eye candy effects that serve the ADHD generation so well but critics tend to hate in feature films.

However there's actually a lot of depth here and we have to pay attention to realise just how much, beginning at the point where Lola finds herself breaking the fourth wall and crying, 'Stop!' The previous twenty minutes have been busy. Initially Lola runs to the bank where her father is the manager, hoping that he'll lend her the money. Not only does she fail to persuade him to do this, she also discovers that he isn't her father anyway and that he's about to leave her mother for his mistress. She runs on to find Manni already robbing a supermarket, so helps him collect the money and run on out, only to be accidentally shot in the chest by one of the many police officers who quickly surround them. It's not a good ending for a movie, especially as it's only a third done, so she cries 'Stop!', Dinah Washington sings What a Difference a Day Makes and Lola is off running again to try to get it right on the second try, just like a video game character.
While her quest could now be seen as a game level which she's attempting again after simply losing a life, there's more to it than that. Throughout her initial run, Lola had interacted with a host of characters, all of whom we initially assumed were merely incidental, perhaps obstacles or diversions, but surely nothing of consequence to the wider story. However Tykwer uses these characters to provide a surprising philosophical underlay that ends up being the point of the film. The technique used is a set of rapid fire photo montages that illustrate the future of each character, sparked simply by the presence of Lola in their lives, through a touch or a glance. It's the fact that these futures change with each of Lola's runs that highlights that in starting again she changed everything, not just her own destiny but theirs too and it's surreal and somehow anachronistic to find a modern pop culture movie asking such a serious question on the sly.

Of course the question is the old chestnut that pits free will against determinism, something that goes back at least as far as Aristotle and will no doubt continue on for as long as there are still philosophers to ponder it. Those who believe in free will believe that any one of us can change anything purely because we choose to do so, that choice having no precedent and just springing out of nowhere. On the other hand, determinists believe that everything is cause and effect, from the tiniest human thought to the largest natural disaster. As Philip Merilees famously asked, 'Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?' This film asks precisely the same question, with Lola representing the butterfly's wings and all these characters as their own individual tornadoes. It took Ashton Kutcher an entire movie to explain the butterfly effect, but Tom Tykwer manages it with a set of photographs prompted by a single touch.

It's so strange to focus on the incidental characters that it's hard to actually do. Our eyes keep following Lola as she runs, both because Franka Potente is magnetic to watch and because all that we've learned from the movies tells us to follow the action, especially if it's represented by the lead character whose name is in the title. Tykwer keeps Lola running, even as he throws out these little snapshots of the future to hover in our minds as meaning more than the pounding of Lola's feet. We gradually learn more about these characters too, once again subverting our initial assumption that they aren't important. As we realise that the slightest thing these characters do affects Lola's story just as much as her actions affect theirs, we begin to understand just how complex this matrix becomes and what an insane number of possibilities explode from any single action. Some could take this insight as proof of the existence or the non-existence of God.

Our first hint at this comes right at the beginning of her second run. Lola meets the same punk standing on the staircase inside her apartment block with his dog that she did on her first run, but instead of it growling at her and prompting her to run faster, this time out he trips her and she runs slower because of a limp. The minor car accident she causes in the first run happens in the second too, but now we know that one of the drivers is a colleague of her father's. Because she arrives at the bank a little later, the whole dynamic about her father's infidelity changes and his mistress has the time to explain that she's leaving him because she's pregnant by somebody else. This time out Lola gets the money by robbing the bank, infuriated at her father, but it does no good because instead of her dying after the supermarket robbery, it's Manni who dies at the end of her second run, hit by an ambulance as he crosses the road to meet her.

Yes, it all changes again on the third run. No, I'm not going to tell you how it comes out in the end. You should watch this film yourself to find out. Then you can start puzzling about the how and the why of it all and imagine an infinite amount of monkeys generating an infinite amount of further runs for Lola, because that's what the laws of determinism call for. Infinite divergence means that one run would have you in the car accident, another would have you as the driver of the ambulance and a third would have you as her father's mistress, regardless what sex you are. I love these little glimpses of how easy it must for philosophers to go completely insane and how someone like Douglas Adams, who turned precisely this sort of quirky concept into science fiction humour, might just end up being the most accurate of them all. And it all starts with what appears to be an apparently throwaway gimmick conjured up by Tom Tykwer to distract us.
There are other techniques Tykwer uses here that resonate with me. At one point Lola wonders about who could help her in her hour of need and because she's a human being, this wondering works at the speed of thought. Everyone she knows, or perhaps has ever seen, promptly leaps into her thoughts at rapid fire speed. We see them each for a mere fraction of a second as she conjures them up and then discards them all, but as she gradually focuses certain people reappear more and more until only her father is left. I've never seen a better example of either the brute force approach to computational power and the sheer anarchy of human thought. It's a welcome reminder that, just because a film employs cinematic gimmickry, it doesn't necessarily mean that it doesn't have substance behind it and a reason to be there. Compare any episode of CSI with one of CSI: Miami and you'll see the depth in the former and the surface in the latter.

Tykwer also explores time in this film in a very powerful way. Every viewing I make brings more little details to the fore that I missed the last time round. Sometimes he's obvious, sometimes obscure, but everything in the movie revolves around the importance of the passage of time. It even begins with a ticking clock that morphs into a techno soundtrack. As Lola sets off running in an attempt to beat the clock, her boyfriend is waiting to die, her father is waiting to change his life and his girlfriend is waiting for him, and so on. I haven't seen so many clocks in a film since High Noon, to the degree that everything else, like fountains viewed from above, begin to look like clocks too. I'm sure that wasn't accidental. Even the editing plays with time, so we get split screens as there isn't enough time to show two sides of something separately, and jump cuts because there isn't enough time to show Lola getting from one end of the road to the other.

I'm perhaps on my fourth viewing now but I still noticed more new things. This time I caught sight of a tortoise walking across Lola's bedroom floor just before she starts running, yet another indicator of speed, which as distance over time is precisely what Lola has in her sights. I also realised that when these characters actually find time, like when Lola has her father at gunpoint to wait for the rest of the 100,000 marks she's stealing from his bank, they can't even talk to each other because they can only function at breakneck speed. I wonder what I'll see for the first time next time around. No wonder TV shows like The Simpsons and Johnny Bravo paid obvious tribute, just as this paid tribute too, most obviously to Hitchcock's Vertigo, referenced not just in the spirals and the segmentation of the story into an original and a rerun, but even down to a painting in a casino that depicts the famous view of Kim Novak's head from behind.

While overtly influenced by Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, not least his films Blind Chance and The Double Life of VĂ©ronique, Tykwer introduced modern visual techniques instead of the more traditional play with colour and score that Kieslowski used. That puts this movie alongside a whole slew of films that similarly attempted to reinvent modern cinema through techniques used previously in commercials or rock videos. In the States, it happened most notably in the hands of the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix) and Darren Aronofsky (Pi and Requiem for a Dream). In the UK, it was Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave and Trainspotting) and Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch). In Japan it became apparent through the work of a whole slew of filmmakers such as Shinya Tsukamoto (the Tetsuo films), who had the additional influence of anime to bring to bear.

In Germany it was by the filmmakers of the X Filme Creative Pool. This was a pooling of artistic talent, inspired by the formation of United Artists in 1919. Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D W Griffith wanted more artistic freedom than they were accustomed to getting from the Hollywood studios, so they pooled their talents and their money to form a new studio, United Artists. In 1994, four Germans did the same thing: producer Stefan Arndt and directors Wolfgang Becker, Dani Levy and Tom Tykwer. This pooling of talent has collectively led not only to Lola Rennt, which became the highest grossing German film of the year and, as Run Lola Run, the most successful foreign film in US cinema history at the time, but also to even greater international success with Becker's Good Bye, Lenin! and Tykwer's Heaven, which would have been Kieslowski's next film had he not died in 1996.

It also launched the career of Franka Potente, who makes a magnificent Lola, even though the film was created especially for her by her longtime director boyfriend. It certainly paid off as her work here and a deeper performance in another Tykwer film, The Princess and the Warrior, led her to Hollywood. Five years later she was third billed behind Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz in Blow, one more and she was earning a cool million bucks for The Bourne Supremacy. She looks so right in her bright red hair, even though she couldn't wash it for seven weeks as the colour was highly sensitive to water, that it seems really strange to see her elsewhere but her changing hair colour has become her trademark. Moritz Bleibtreu, who plays Manni, hasn't risen to the same heights but is still a much respected actor in Germany who makes odd appearances in American films like Munich, The Walker and Speed Racer. Perhaps he just needs to shout 'Stop!'

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