Run Lola Run
directed by Tom Tykwer
She Do Run Run
Myself, I’d rather not. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Run Lola Run is the chance it offers to embrace two diametrically opposed ideas simultaneously. Can it really be smart and vapid, pregnant with meaning and barren of same all at once? Well, yes. And not only does that contradictoriness make Lola an ideally discordant embodiment of the present cinematic moment, it also handily mirrors my experience of watching the film—an unreconciled mix of enjoyment and annoyance, momentary exhilaration and reflective disgruntlement.
Let’s at least allow that its title is a model of truth-in-advertising. Run Lola Run is all about Lola running. It starts with her thick-lipped, fashionably scuzzy boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) caterwauling at her from a payphone about how he’s just lost a huge stash of dough—left it on a train, where it was presumably snagged by an ambient bum—a loss that will cause him to be instantly wasted when his crime boss shows up 20 minutes hence. Manni obviously is in no state to save himself, so Lola (Franka Potente) jumps to the task, clock ticking. What ensues is like a Speed that transpires in Doc Martens rather than a bus.
She runs. Through the house, down the stairs and onto the street. Well-muscled, with a saucy tattoo bobbing into view on her lean belly, she pounds the pavement like a thoroughbred on the way to Derby glory, or a quarterback rocketing toward a fourth-quarter tie-breaker. There’s drama in her plight, surely, but what grabs you most is pre-dramatic, something elemental about the medium. Movies are what the name says: We go to see things, but most of all people, moving, coursing through a simulation of physical space. The prettier the people and more propulsive the movement, the better. There is magic and intoxication in this, and Run Lola Run wittily knows that no amount of sophistication is a match for it.
The film has an insanely insupportable ambition, which is one reason to admire it. It would like the image of the hurtling Lola to be magnificently self-sufficient, to comprise the entire movie, to overwhelm and obliterate our habitual cravings for a story. Of course it can’t. What happens instead is that “story” gets fragmented, fractured, suppressed, elongated, teased, mocked, denied, tickled and otherwise bent to the purposes of a film that basically would rather not be asked to make sense of sensation.
This evasion-by-explosion of narrative happens in several ways. The film’s basic story (Lola running to save Manni) gets told three times over, with a different outcome in each case—two are dark and dire, the third lightly fanciful and therefore highly appropriate to what’s essentially a musical comedy for the era of techno and tattoos. Meanwhile, within (and between) each telling of the ur-story, reality behaves like quicksilver, darting down different alleyways of possibility.
Lola runs past a gaggle of nuns, a guy on a bicycle, the bum who took Manni’s bundle, a guard in her dad’s bank and so on and so forth—the overarching narrative being comprised of innumerable mini-sagas. Sometimes the film scoots off momentarily (and jumps from film to video as it does) to follow one of these little dramas or, depending on how you read it, examine the moment’s brief decay in Lola’s imagination. But at the center of this galaxy of whirling narratives, and perhaps determining the dynamic of the Lola/Manni saga, there’s a centripetal singularity: that age-old tale called Mommy and Daddy, and their eternal nemesis, the Other Woman.
Mommy is at home blinkered by technology if not blinded by science: She’s plugged into the phone as the tv blares when Lola launches on her desperate crosstown odyssey. Daddy, meanwhile, is downtown at the bank, sitting on money that could save Manni even as he tells
his pregnant mistress that he’ll leave his wife for her. Lola bursts into his office like a spurned superego, yet the wounded subjectivity here is, of course, hers.
Daddy and Mommy could save her if they wanted, if they only paid attention, if they weren’t so shrouded in their own selfishness. This is prime twentysomething mythology, a callow mix of petulance and blame-shifting. Manni and Lola, indeed, might be tangentially identified as the fourth generation, successors of the young bourgeois banditos Fassbinder skewered in The Third Generation, but one giant step further down the road from politics to narcissism—a quality, incidentally, that’s reflected rather than questioned by Tykwer’s film. From a generational perspective, though, it must be allowed that Lola’s undercurrent of jejune resentment isn’t a helluva lot different from the boomer variety captured in The Graduate, another fantasy of romantic rescue.
Instead of Simon and Garfunkel, this year’s model runs on a dense techno score credited to Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil. The music is extremely important to the film’s effect, and it naturally prompts comparisons to music videos. Certainly Lola has something of the feel of an extended vid-clip, but it happily reverses one of the chief limits of that unhappy and commercially constrained form: Rather than fashioning images to the demands of preexisting music, Tykwer’s film gives the image primacy, and as a result the visuals have a feeling of grace, freedom and structural integrity that they seldom do when harnessed to a songwriter’s plow.
To say that this is eminently cinematic, though, would be as problematic as calling it peculiarly German. At present there are movies that commemorate or reassert cinema’s traditional place in the culturesphere and others that mark and even celebrate its dissolution in the acids of newer media and forms. Run Lola Run is one of the latter. Although it can be said to hark back to, say, silent-era comedies or the spatial dramas of Fritz Lang, it is a movie that’s well on its way to being a compendium of other things: video game, computer graphic, music video, fashion layout, tv serial, Saturday morning cartoon show, what have you.
Giddy quasi-films like Run Lola Run are what the culture gets while it waits for cinema to expire, or to transmute into something else, something less tied to photographic specificities of place, time and character. Naturally, this waiting entails a certain forgetfulness. Lola‘s presskit, for example, calls its 24-year-old star “one of the most exciting faces of the New German Cinema.”
Children, pay attention. The New German Cinema no longer exists. The last (and likely, final) cinematic renaissance in Europe, it symbolically began with 1962’s Oberhausen Manifesto and ended with the death of R.W. Fassbinder in 1982. One of the things that distinguished it was the sense that it was staunchly rooted in German soil and culture. Of his film Tom Tykwer says, “the central driving force…is romance. The film could just as easily be set in Peking [sic], Helsinki or New York, the only thing that would change is the scenery…” Indeed. Where this
Lola is running to may be a brave new world, but it’s not the New German Cinema—if anything, it’s a faint echo of that grand symphony, an inadvertent reminder of achievements that no European cinema today seems remotely capable of imagining.
Among a spate of worthy offerings in the final week of this year’s Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, which runs through June 24 at the Walter Reade Theater, Xackery Irving’s American Chain Gang is a powerful, disturbing documentary about a practice that makes certain corners of the U.S. penal system look about as enlightened as the Soviet gulag.
Chain gangs, as Irving’s sharply crafted film notes, were instituted in the Reconstruction South essentially to replace slave labor. Always targeted as inhumane, they were finally abolished in the mid-1960s—only to be revived in Alabama in 1995, as a means of furthering “get tough” measures against crime.
In other words, they were a project of loathsome politicians preying on the fears of a gullible public. Do they do great harm? Probably not, at least compared to the general brutality of U.S. prisons. Nor does anyone seriously claim they do any real good. Their main purpose, obviously, is punishment by symbolic degradation. Every morning prisoners get on their hands and knees in the dirt and have their ankles shackled behind them. Then they’re led out to the boiling hot Alabama countryside and made to perform chores like uprooting gargantuan tree stumps. One Alabama official views this as teaching the incarcerated “the value of work.”
Malingerers, or those who claimed to be sick, were treated by having their wrists lashed to a “hitching post” and made to stand in the Alabama sun all day. While the Supreme Court ruled that the hitching post constituted cruel and unusual punishment, the phrase seems tailor-made for the chain gang itself—a practice that has been emulated by other states since Alabama showed the way.
An apt companion to Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus’ prizewinning The Farm: Angola USA, American Chain Gang provides an insightful inside look not only at the use of chain gangs but at the whole bottom rung of crime and punishment to which it unfortunately belongs. And lest anyone suspect that our prison systems are not progressive, fear not: as Irving shows, there are now chain gangs for women.
Paired with Slawomir Grunberg and Ben Crane’s School Prayer: A Community at War, American Chain Gang will be on Saturday, June 19, at 1 p.m.; Sunday, June 20, at 7:45 p.m.; and Monday, June 21, at 3:30 and 8:30 p.m.