Run Lola Run

The young woman has twenty minutes to get 100,000 marks for her boyfriend, or else a local gangster will kill him. Her moped has been stolen, so she has to run all over the streets of Berlin, and the camera runs with her. Run Lola Run, which broke records in its native Germany, is the revolutionary back-to-basics movie some of us have been waiting for. It’s pure movement, pure adrenaline, pure cinema. As you watch, you know you’re seeing a reminder of what movies can do better than any other medium. The movie’s antecedents are clearly Natural Born Killers and Trainspotting — it has a similar whiplash style, fracturing linear narrative, batting us around the way a cat plays with a mouse — yet it has a pulse all its own. It’s ecstatically show-offy, deeply in love with its own editing-table whiz-bang, and that takes a little getting used to. The hip MTV style, it turns out, is a cover for most unhip ruminations on existence and the meaning of love. Run Lola Run is ironic only in form, not in content.

Lola (Franka Potente) is our heroine, a tight woman with fierce red hair that flies about as she runs, as if her brain were burning with purpose. Her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) is in serious trouble: He left a bag on a subway train, a bag containing the 100,000 marks he owes a fearsome gangster, and a subway bum has made off with the bag. Lola makes a beeline for her dad, a banker who is having an affair with a co-worker. The young writer-director, Tom Tykwer, shows us three possible versions of Lola’s quest. Each time, slight variations in the journey — does Lola bump into this old woman or avoid that car? — affect everything else that follows. The subject of the movie appears to be nothing less than the randomness and fragility of life itself.

Yet in 81 rocketing minutes, Tykwer is able to give us three stories that feel distinct, that feel like mini-movies in and of themselves. You’re never bored with seeing the movie start up again, because you want to see how it unfolds this time, what minuscule events will send it spinning off the tracks. I believe it was Roger Ebert who likened the form of the movie to a video game: The second and third versions hit the ground running, just like the restart in a game, and Lola gets another chance — but only for our benefit, never for hers. Watching a movie or playing a video game holds no lasting consequences for us, but within the experience, we know that everything that happens has consequences. Lola has no extra awareness in each new variation of the story: she can’t go into the second part and learn from the mistakes she made in the first. In any event, it doesn’t matter, because her actions are so dependent on the smallest disturbances that either happen or don’t happen.

If there’s any justice, Franka Potente should emerge as a new international star. Her work in Run Lola Run doesn’t just amount to running. Her features have the severity of Lili Taylor or Amanda Plummer, with a little vulnerable hint of Elisabeth Shue (from certain angles) to soften them. Potente is aptly named: she’s potent, all right — she has a hard-driving force as Lola that might be a little scary if we weren’t rooting for Lola to burst through her obstacles. When she gets upset or excited and shrieks loud enough to shatter glass, we believe it. (I don’t really know why this detail is there, other than to terrify everyone else onscreen; it’s a cool, cathartic effect, though. It may also be a nod to the little boy in The Tin Drum, who did the same thing.) Lola has strength and speed; she’s the perfect post-feminist icon, a riot grrrl with wings of desire. Unburdened by psychological muck, she identifies what she wants and just goes after it. Her mission has the mad purity of relentlessness, and so does Potente’s near-wordless performance, which is just about the last word in character defined by action.

On some level, Run Lola Run is just masterful eye candy. That red hair, the blue tanktop and jeans, hurtling through the vertical maze of Berlin. You could conceivably not care at all about Lola’s quest and still sit there trancing out on the color and movement. But Tykwer, for all his mixmaster tricks, isn’t a detached hipster. His games bring us closer to the characters, whether it’s a cartoon vision of Lola running down a long, long flight of stairs or a gallery of near-subliminal snapshots that brief us on the futures of some of the people Lola runs into. (The futures are different each time; the effect of a life summed up with brutal efficiency in five seconds is both funny and chilling.) Early on, Lola stands in her room with the camera circling her, and we get strobed with images of people we don’t know; we get ready to rebel at the pretentiousness of this until we realize that Lola is flipping through her mental Rolodex, thinking of people who can give her the 100,000 marks. She decides on her dad, and we never see any of the other people again; she doesn’t have time to go to anyone else.

Is Run Lola Run a great movie? I think it’s a great ride, great moviemaking — the art film as high-powered entertainment. Once again, someone outside the studio system has shown Hollywood how it should be done. You set up a conflict, you set your characters in motion, you leave out anything unnecessary, and you let the meanings emerge organically from the material instead of throwing the meanings onto the material like an ill-fitting coat. You engage the eye and the mind, and you resolve the conflict. How hard is that? Apparently very hard, since so few Hollywood movies manage to check off any of the goals on that list, but Tom Tykwer makes it all look easy and natural.

Run Lola Run has gotten some critical acclaim in America, but it hasn’t really broken out to become the cult smash it deserves to be, and that’s a shame: This should have been the youth hit of the summer, not the empty Blair Witch Project, with its calculated stabs at sending the audience out buzzing. Run Lola Run sends us out buzzed; we come out feeling cooler, sharper, refreshed. We feel ready to take another run.

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