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Review: “Run Lola Run” (1998)

The choppy bright-red wigs that popped up everywhere, the increased female desire to own Doc Martin-style boots, cargo pants and wife-beater tanks, the pithy parodies on VH1’s “I Love the ’90s” … all of it mystified yours truly, perhaps the one member of the MTV generation who did not see pop-culture phenom “Run Lola Run” in 1999.

It’s hard to say what my initial reasoning was, really — it wasn’t playing anywhere; I didn’t like foreign films; I hate running. Then a few of the alternatives (the “crew” I stuck with in high school) raved about it. Then everyone raved about it. Then I decided it was too mainstream and refused to see it. For a few years after that resolve deepened, and then I forgot about this wildly inventive post-modern music vid/feature-length film.

But the Powers that Be — also known as Netflix — had different ideas for me last week when I finally clicked on my “Movies You’ll Love” tab. Lo and behold, listed there with “Goodbye, Lenin!” and “Mostly Martha,” was “Run Lola Run.” I sensed, in that way one sometimes does, that the universe — again, also known as Netflix — was trying to tell me something … namely, “Quit being a self-righteous, holier-than-thou snob and watch this.”

So I did … and the universe was right. I was a dope; “Run Lola Run” is a schizophrenic, time-warping, reality-bending work of genius. Apparently the Beck’s commercials were wrong; Germans can do two things: beer and movies.

Part of the brilliance of “Run Lola Run” exists in the wish-fulfillment plot. Here we have Lola (Franka Potente, who delivers a fine performance despite the fact that all she’s asked to do is, uh, run), an ordinary 20something woman in an ordinary live-in relationship with Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu). Except things get extraordinary really, really quick when Manni loses the 100,000 Deutschmarks he owes his mobster boss. He demands Lola find the money in 20 minutes or he will put the gun in his back pocket to good, practical use.

Enter the wish-fulfillment fantasy/time-bending technique. Director Tom Tywker presents, in rapid succession, three possible storylines, each ending with Lola essentially hitting the “do-over” button no one else in the known universe has discovered. And each scenario is equally gripping — behind doors one and two, Lola goes to drastic measures to secure the 100,000 she needs and the results are as unpredictable as they are violent. In scenario three, wild circumstances reunite Manni with the homeless man who lifted his score … yet still the pieces don’t fall into place as we expect.

So in essence what Tykwer does is present his leading lady, Lola, with the ultimate human desire: a chance to change her fate by altering her choices. But this power, he reminds us, doesn’t mean we control the direction and shape our lives take. It just sends us down another path, another fork in Frost’s “yellow wood,” where we end up like Lola — berating ourselves for doing what we did, choosing what we chose, believing we could control fate.

Granted, this technique — called the time loop or reset-button technique — has the potential to get really old really fast. (See “Vantage Point” for a prime example of this.) That’s where Tywker ups the ante — with kinetic, damn-near frenetic action sequences (all of which, of course, involve Lola running) perfectly choreographed; with a suitably energetic techno soundtrack (which includes Potente on several songs); and with film slicing techniques that let us see how, in each scenario, the lives of people Lola encounters are changed. It’s a fascinating reimagination of the Butterfly Effect.

Potente deserves heaps-o-praise for making Lola into a flawed, layered character we care about, even root for. Somehow, in the few quiet moments we see between Lola and Manni, she communicates emotions in tiny, almost imperceptible gestures. (Note the bedroom scene and Lola’s expression when she sides with Manni in the first run.) She may spend an inordinate amount of time running, but we spend just as much time caring where she’s going and why. A thriller about a character we like who has almost no dialogue? That’s a miracle almost as impressive as Netflix putting me in my place.

Grade: B+

6 Responses

  1. Interesting to see what you thought of it as a first time viewer. I saw the movie when it first came out and have seen it on DVD many times since then. Here is my review from a couple of weeks ago:

  2. “Run Lola Run” was one of those movies I convinced myself I was going to be a snob and not see because everyone raved about it. Years upon years later I realized I was a big idiot because there was much TO rave about, and I’d missed out. The whole experience reminded me to give all movies a shot … except, maybe, for anything starring Larry the Cable Guy.

    M. Carter

  3. Just missing out on the ol’ A. Watched this again last night and never fail to get blown away. It’s all the little details like the yellow train and the (stolen) moped crashing at the end that do it for me.

  4. This is a good one for sure, but I prefer what Kieslowski did with the same idea almost 20 years earlier with “Blind Chance.”

  5. My old media teacher nearly killed this movie for me by using it for almost every lesson she taught about narrative. Thankfully, it’s such a fun film, I can still watch it without constantly trying to remind myself of Barthes’s interdisciplinary approach to narration…or whatever it is.

    • @ James Blake — I haven’t heard of “Blind Chance”; I’ll have to check it out. Usually when a movie comes along that’s “innovative,” though, someone else did the same thing years before and it flew under the radar.

      @ Dan — Way to go all film school-y there, Dan.

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