Pieces of the Action
A low-budget no-brainer, Run Lola Run is a lot more fun than Speed, a big-budget no-brainer from five years ago. It’s just as fast moving, the music is better, and though the characters are almost as hackneyed and predictable, the conceptual side has a lot more punch. If Run Lola Run had opened as widely as Speed and it too had been allowed to function as everyday mall fodder, its release could have been read as an indication that Americans were finally catching up with people in other countries when it comes to the pursuit of mindless pleasures. Instead it’s opening at the Music Box as an art movie.
Why try to sell an edgy youth thriller with nothing but kicks on its mind as an art movie? After all, it’s only a movie–a rationale that was trotted out for Speed more times than I care to remember. The dialogue of Run Lola Run is certainly simple and cursory, but it happens to be in subtitled German–which in business terms means that it has to be marketed as a film, not a movie. And of course nobody ever says “It’s only a film,” just as no one ever thinks of saying “It’s only a concert,” “It’s only a novel,” “It’s only a play,” or “It’s only a painting.” Because they’re omnipresent, movies almost oblige us to cut them down a peg or two just so we can breathe around them.
“It’s only a movie” is another way of saying “So what?”–a way of protecting ourselves from the high claims made for cheesy products shoved so aggressively into our lives. Nothing if not aggressive, Run Lola Run is a movie in every sense of the word, but our cultural planners have deemed that it has to wend its way toward us as a foreign picture. But foreign in what sense, particularly given its devotion to the Tarantino model of narrative organization? Frankly, the only thing that keeps it foreign is industry shortsightedness and perhaps our own knee-jerk responses.
Don’t be put off because Run Lola Run begins with two weighty quotes, one of them from the last of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, “Little Gidding.” I didn’t quite catch what it said–the person seated in front of me decided to stretch at that point–but I can’t believe it has any serious bearing on what follows. I take it to be a quintessentially Germanic reflex gesture claiming some sort of significance, like the elaborate presentation of a Gothic clock that follows, or the pixilated city crowd that comes next, or the narration about “man” as “the most mysterious species on our planet,” which reminded me of Edward D. Wood’s early musings in Glen or Glenda? Yet the jazzy visual effects and punchy sounds accompanying the clock, the crowd, and the subsequent credits are the basic text here, and all the ponderous trimmings are basically fashion statements, not pertinent commentaries on what’s to come.
When the minimal plot finally slides into view, Lola (Franka Potente)–a Raggedy Ann punk with blazing orange red hair–gets a frantic phone call from her boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu). Some pithy flashbacks in black and white explain the cause of his panic: he just picked up 100,000 marks’ worth of drugs for his boss (Manni’s narrative), but she wasn’t there to pick him up because her moped got stolen (Lola’s narrative). So instead he took the subway, and his bag of drugs got lifted by a tramp (Manni’s narrative). It’s 20 minutes to noon, and his boss, who’s meeting him at noon in front of the phone booth he’s calling from, will kill him if he doesn’t have the 100,000 marks. His only recourse is to hold up a nearby supermarket.
She says she’ll get the money somehow and bring it to him in time. Tossing the red phone receiver into the air, she darts out of her apartment before it can land, whizzing past her mother. The camera spins 360 degrees around her mother to catch an animated cartoon on a TV set that shows a cartoon Lola running down the stairs, followed by a live-action Lola emerging from the apartment house and racing across town.
Most of the remainder of the movie gives us three successive versions of Lola’s 20-minute race against the clock, with radically different outcomes deriving in each case from various chain reactions as she runs across the city to her father’s bank. In the first two versions, for instance, she collides in a different way with a woman pushing a stroller, and the third time she just misses doing so. Waiting at the phone booth, Manni also goes through three alternate sets of adventures that are intercut with Lola’s progress. (Some less successful interludes–prefaced by the title “and then…”–offer rapid digressions about minor characters in the form of successive snapshots.)
Which 20-minute stretch “really” happens and which two are speculative? From the outset, writer-director Tom Tykwer makes such a question both unanswerable and meaningless. The arching trajectory of the phone receiver and the TV-cartoon Lola rushing down the stairs signal that this is theme and variations, a stylistic exercise, not even a loose approximation of anything that could conceivably happen to anybody. And this hyperbole only gives Tykwer further license to exaggerate one outrageous confluence or coincidence after another, confident that no one could object. Both the exhilaration and the hollow affectlessness of everything that follows proceed directly from this game plan. Given that “it’s only a movie,” the two qualities can even be said to fit hand in glove.