What If: an analysis of “Run Lola Run”

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As she lays dying, Lola flashes back to a conversation she had with her boyfriend, Manni.  When Manni questions her about the possibility of her leaving him, she says, “I think I have a decision to make.”  Then—flash back—as she watches the red bag of money she stole from a grocery store with Manni, she says, stop—and we go snap back in time to the point when she first hung up the red phone, after learning that she has twenty minutes to come up with one hundred thousand marks to save Manni.

This move, of a character breaking the fourth wall and reversing death, is reminiscent of a scene in another German film, released a year before this one, in 1997.  In Funny Games, a character reverses a shotgun blast to his comrade’s chest by using a remote control in the house’s living room to rewind the scene.

Lola’s refusal to die about a quarter way into the film not only rends the plot structure (the first of many such rends), but also presents the audience with a task. Lola says, “I have a decision to make,” but it is the viewers of Run Lola Run who bear the burden of the greatest decision.  Her ‘I’ is not the authorial I, but the ‘I’ of Descartes’ Meditations, the I of me watching the film, or the I of you reading what this author is writing.  Which of the three scenarios presented is the true one?  Does Lola live, die, or end up in jail?  Does she save Manni, fail him, or does Manni save himself?  Does she go to the bank, or the casino, or the grocery store?  Can we, or should we, choose between these at all, or would such a wooden insistence on a single, true path somehow diminish the film?  These are the  questions and issues that are in our hands, should we choose to pick them up.

Each time a new scenario initiates, we are taken back to the apartment building, into a neighbor’s room, and through a television, where we see a cartoon of Lola running down a seemingly infinite spiral staircase. These fluid transitions between animation and live action complement the general cartoonish character of the film, with its speed, playful self-refernces, quick-cuts, kinetic focus (running, jumping, turning, dodging), and rhapsodical color motifs, especially red (Lola’s red hair, the red money bag, the red phone).  Indeed, Berlin bristles with potential motion and emotion, the setting itself anthropomorphized and given power to influence the plot.

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Throughout her runs, Lola encounters various people, who in any other movie would be simple extras, part of the background, but here are given context, life, story, as the camera zooms in on their faces, and their own pasts, presents, futures briefly seize hold of the narrative.  For example, in her father’s bank, Lola sends a respectable-looking, bespectacled blonde clerk to get money.  We are treated to a brief glimpse of his world, of falling in love with a dark-haired secretary Lola ran by upstairs earlier, and of his secret life as a male submissive to the secretary’s whip-wielding dominatrix alter-ego.  At another point, Lola bumps into a woman pushing a stroller, who turns and curses the strange runner.  In different runs, depending on whether or not Lola bumps into her (as each run differs by a few seconds), we are shown how such a minute change can make the difference between the woman falling into poverty and losing her child to the custody of the state, or winning the lottery and front-paging the tabloids.

Such visual and spatial departures from the main plot may have been inspired by the two-hundred-page-long set of end notes in Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s 1995 postmodern masterpiece, which he uses to flesh out his book’s world, give it robustness and depth in a way unimagined by authors before him, where we can read the entire tenant history of a character’s apartment, or the side effects of a fictional antidepressant, or the stream-of-consciousness musings of a bum on a bench someone happens to pass.  The same can be said for “Lola Rennt,” as it is called in German: it tells not one story, but opens a whole world.

These brief ripples free the film from a liner plot path, allowing it to expand laterally across various axes, those of time, of place, of the hypothetical and actual.  This is aided by a few double- and triple-shots (first used in the 60s and homaged by Tarantino in Pulp Fiction, also made within a few years of this), where we see Lola, Manni, and a giant clock-face at the same time.  So, we as the audience float in a kind of multifarious phase-space, rather than being locked onto the rigid track of an amusement-park ride, as in most plots.  We are in the past, present, and future, we see in cartoon and live action, we are here and there, we inhabit the will, the won’t, the maybe, and the what if, at once.  And what’s more, we are not given a road-map to judge between these possibilities.

The camera itself is liberated from the rootedness of a tripod, and often circles the protagonists, frozen in time, just as the Wachowski’s camera would do (much more famously) just a year later, in the Matrix.

Even the film’s soundtrack embraces the film’s structure, and treats us to variations on a theme, songs- just as the scenarios- similar enough to bear a family resemblance, but not quite the same- euro-techno riffs interspersed by snatches of singing, spoken-word rhyme poetry, and David Byrne-esque sprechgesang, much of it performed by the multitalented Franka Potente herself, who also plays protagonist Lola.  So the film does for cinema what jazz did for music- broke the rigid classical notation of a past era, and replaced it with improvisational deviations from plan.

As noted before, the world of the narrative bustles with self-awareness: one of the recurring images common to all the scenarios is a massive plate of glass being carried across a street, which the red ambulance must brake to avoid.  In one run, the world conforms to the audience’s secret wish, and the ambulance crashes through, shattering the glass.  A literalization of the film’s tendency to break the fourth wall, perhaps?  After all, the fourth wall of cinema is a glass one- the lens of the camera which separates viewer from subject.

In Run Lola Run, fate- that of characters major and minor- is not set, but contingent.  Fortune and failure, life and death, can turn on a few seconds’ difference, on bumping into a pedestrian or not, on catching a train or not, on your lover hearing your shout or, tragically, missing it.  In director Tom Tykwer’s Berlin, homeless bearded bums can find bags of money and utter, “Life is crazy, huh?”, resonating with Andre Gregory’s words in “My Dinner with Andre,”: I may seem weird to you, but on these weird voyages, weird creatures appear! It’s part of the journey!”

Manni is in this jam because he lost a bag of money, a delivery to his criminal overlord. As he hangs up a pay phone, bereft of hope, a blind woman, apparently a seeress and modern-day female Tiresias, grabs his arm and points to the street, where a bum passes, by chance, on a bicycle.  He catches sight of the money- the package he lost- in the bicycle’s basket, and, in near disbelief, runs after it.

A final scene: When Lola enters the casino, the music jumps back in time from its usual hip german techno, simplifies to a single drum beat.  Someone’s voice undulates wordlessly from a deep pre-civilization past, a tribal chant.  At the sight of Lola, the casino workers and gamblers freeze, and the wood chamber takes on an almost religious hush, the roulette wheel- upon whose turn Manni’s life depends- a whirling idol.  As the wheel slows, Lola utters a primal scream so powerful that it shatters glass, and perhaps, vibrates the table, knocking the ball into her number’s slot: 21.

Derrida_mainLola: Derrida would be proud.

In rebellion against the tide of modernity, Lola Rennt places human will at the center of the cosmos.  Woman and man are not passive cogs in a vast machine, but active agents of change, and the love they share (contrary to Manni’s doubts) able to conquer all, overturn the odds and reunite the lovers.  Or was it all chance, random luck?  We are left to decide.  The text of the film, just like the text of life (see Derrida’s famous words, “Everything is a text,”) is open to multiple interpretations, an unfinished puzzle lacking only the final pieces of the audience’s hopes, doubts, judgements.

Or, we can reject all that high-falutin jazz, and just watch the movie, running alongside Lola, following where she leads.  And what an adventure it is.

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