1999, the year I turned 12, was supposed to be "etched on a microchip as the first real year of 21st-century filmmaking"—or at least so proclaimed Jeff Gordimer in an article in Entertainment Weekly released in November of that year with a cover proclaiming it, "The Year That Changed Movies." My family had had a subscription to that magazine (on my insistence) for a while. A few years earlier, in 1996, some kind of switch flipped in my brain and movies became my all-consuming focus, and at the time the ones that caught my attention were blockbusters like Independence Day and Twister. But thanks to The Matrix, 1999 was the year that changed movies for me too, opening new vistas of what art and entertainment could be and how they would function. And so I cherished every page of Gordimer's article, rereading it dozens of times over the months that followed, keeping it on the floor next to my bed like a talisman.
Director: Tom Tykwer
Producers: Stefan Arndt, Gebhard Henke, Maria Köpf, Andreas Schreitmüller
Writers: Tom Tykwer
Cinematographer: Frank Griebe
Editor: Mathilde Bonnefoy
Music: Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, Tom Tykwer
Cast: Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu, Herbert Knaup, Nina Petri, Armin Rohde, Joachim Król, Ludger Pistor
Runtime: 81 min
Premiere: August 20, 1998 Germany
US Theatrical Release: June 18, 1999
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
I was barely too young to be "allowed" to see several of the movies named in Gordimer’s article--Fight Club, Go, Being John Malkovich—but I relished every detail mentioned, mentally manufacturing ideas of how they would look, sound, and move. And as parental strictures loosened over the next year or so, I dutifully consumed them all. Among these films was the frenetic German action thriller Run Lola Run. Like most of the movies Gordimer lavishes with praise, I loved Run Lola Run as a teenager, and it has since become a foundational text for my interest in film.
Before rewatching the film to write this review, I still remembered Run Lola Run with an overwhelmingly positive gloss. And sure enough, it’s as visually radiant as I remembered, with its breakneck pace and manic kitchen-sink style intact. More surprising, though, was a new layer of the film, farther from the stylistic surface and closer to its beating heart: here, Run Lola Run is ultimately a parable about morality, contingency, and the hapless, unstable interconnectedness of the universe.
It tells the story of Lola (Franke Potente) and her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu), and it tells it three times. As the film begins, Manni is desperate for cash after losing a bag containing 100,000 German marks on the subway in Berlin—largely because Lola was unable to pick him up after a drug deal. He calls Lola in a panic, telling her that he has only 20 minutes to recover the money and hand it over to his boss, lest he get himself killed. So Lola runs—down her stairs, through the streets of Berlin, to the bank where her father works, or to the casino, or wherever else she needs to in a frantic attempt to save Manni. The film presents three versions of this 20-minute run, each unfolding and ending in a drastically different fashion thanks to minute differences in timing that alter the chain reaction of events in ever-magnifying ways.
This three-part narrative structure certainly has shades of Rashomon, but whereas that film brilliantly deploys it in a meditation on memory and perspective, Run Lola Run is more interested in the inbuilt malleability and volatility of certainty, not just in terms of plot and story but also when it comes to truth. The three retellings vary not based on perspective (like Rashomon’s) but by imagined causal trip-wires that realign the interconnected network of people and things that comprises our universe. If the determining forces of our lives are largely left to chance—if all it takes is a few wrong turns to make Manni or Lola a violent criminal (or a dead body)—then who can know with any certainty who they really are?
This, it turns out, is what Lola is getting at when she interrogates Manni about their relationship during an interstitial scene between two of the runs. “Do you love me?” she asks Manni as they lie in bed, bathed in red light (only a few scene's earlier, Lola's father is confronted with the very same question from his mistress—just one instance of the sly repetition and echo used throughout the film’s script). Refusing to accept his answer that love is an ineffable gut feeling, she pushes forward, forcing him to look deeper for real, concrete reasons. “I could be some other girl,” she insists, certain that if things had gone differently Manni would be lying there with someone else.
The sense of the universe as a set of recombinant and recurring possibilities is forecast in its opening title sequence. It’s a curious non-diegetic idyll in which the camera navigates a chaotic, roving crowd while a narrator ponders the mysteries of “the most mysterious species on our planet”—mankind. “Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? How do we know what we think we know? Why do we believe in anything at all?” Answers to these questions, the narrator believes, will only lead to more questions, in a never-ending chain. “In the end, isn’t it always the same question? And always the same answer?"
Neither question nor answer is ever revealed explicitly, perhaps because whatever it is, it eludes expression in words. But this riddle is at once complicated and illuminated by one of the film’s most distinctive tropes: several strangers that Lola passes on the street, although initially seemingly insignificant, become crucial to the film’s narrative as we’re shown a frenetic glimpse of their life-to-come, in the form of a rapid-fire sequence of still photos lasting a mere handful of seconds. Each of these flash-forwards recurs with each retelling of Lola’s run, and just as microscopic changes in timing affect the outcome of Lola and Manni’s conundrum, so too do they change the course of these bystanders’ lives, sometimes drastically.
Even when they have dire consequences, these causal ripple-effects are treated largely as incidental, but the film’s crucial scene comes when one such cosmic splintering is reframed as a choice. In the final version of the story, Manni recognizes, chases and confronts at gunpoint the homeless man who grabbed the abandoned bag of money from the subway. "That's mine," Manni insists, and the thief hands over the cash, grudgingly asking "What about me?" Pausing and nodding towards Manni's weapon, he pleads, "At least give me that." And Manni, too, obliges, rendering their encounter something of a fair trade.
In handing over the gun, Manni recalibrates the universe just as so many other characters do throughout the movie. But by having chosen this path, Manni is deliberately setting off another potential chain of events, one that—unlike the futures of the people Lola passes while running—we never get to see. During my teenage viewings of the film, this scene passed as a whimsical, trivial twist secondary to the overall narrative thrust. This time around, it became an audacious hanging question, a dare to both the characters and the viewers. Here the movie wonders aloud: if morality is contingent, does that mean that the randomness of the universe is inherently moral? Half-fable, half-Rorschach’s-blot, Run Lola Run is as bold thematically as it is stylistically, and remains as exciting today as it was in 1999.