I haven’t read any reviews for Run Lola Run, but I can almost presage the charges of “pseudo-intellectual” and “pop philosophy” and all the terms that follow works of art that dare shape themselves around such theoretical concepts in an attempt to dramatize them and transform them into something entertaining. Run Lola Run explicitly introduces the age-old debates regarding fatalism, determinism, free will and choice, chaos theory and all of the ideas that surround the question of how life plays out in time. It does this with an inventive narrative structure that sets an event in motion and then follows it through until its conclusion three times, with each telling a slightly different story with different outcomes that seem to depend on the slightest of initial biases.
The story concerns Lola (Franka Potente) who receives a call from her boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu), who tells her how he’s in big trouble after accidentally leaving the money he just made from a drug deal behind on the subway. If he doesn’t get 100,000 Deutsche marks (approximately $60,000) within 20 minutes when he’s supposed to meet his boss, he’ll certainly be a goner. He thinks of robbing a local supermarket, but Lola tells him not to do anything until she gets there because she’ll think of something. She’s forced to run the whole way since her Moped was stolen (the event that, indirectly, set the events in motion that lead Manni to lose the money), and she decides to visit her father (Herbert Knaup), who’s a higher-up in a bank, and beg him for the money.
Considering so much has been made of Lola’s unique narrative structure, I don’t feel enough has been made of its similarities to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1981 film, Blind Chance, which offers a nearly identical concept, but in a different mode. In Blind Chance, Witek is a young man who attempts to catch a train to Warsaw. Depending on whether he does or not (which is itself dependent on several minute and seemingly disparate phenomena), his life takes three radically different paths. The differences between Blind Chance and Lola reveal what a bevvy of richness such a theme is capable of, as it’s nearly limitless in its variations and possibilities. While Lola spreads 20 minutes of time into a feature length film, Blind Chance observes a whole life three times, starting from one fulcrum point.
The biggest difference between Blind Chance and Lola besides their structural method is their tonal quality and intellectual approach. More people may be inclined to treat the former more seriously because it’s more meditative; it’s certainly a graver, more nuanced and sophisticated exploration of such themes. Lola, by comparison, can be summed up by its Netflix jacket, which calls it “a thrilling post-MTV roller coaster ride”. Lola is as energetic and vibrant as Blind Chance is subdued and natural. But that difference undeniably works to this film’s advantage because it proves that even the most sophisticated of themes and concepts can be turned into thoroughly entertaining art that’s no shallower than works that treat it with greater sincerity.
But Lola has a vivacity that’s bursting at the seams—its style is a thing of pure energy, like a flaming meteorite shooting through the burning atmosphere. With an Average Shot Length of just a few seconds, it barely stops to breathe, and the remarkable thing is that all aspects keep up with the rapid-fire pace of the narrative. Tykwer’s visuals are quite dynamic, with a camera that’s constantly on the move tracking Lola’s runs. It can pull up, dive down, move in and track with a tremendous alacrity. A variety of editing techniques, from cutting with the pulsating beats of it’s techno score to reverse jump-cuts (which jump back in time like a skipping record), enhance the aesthetic. The film also uses animation for its opening and returns to it when introducing Lola dashing from her apartment in each of the three sections. The choice of animation is quite apt, considering that the concept of “anything can happen” perfectly fits the inherent abstraction of animation more so than concrete visuals. It also effortlessly switches between the sheen of 35mm and the roughness of video.
But Tykwer, with great cinematic intelligence, also knew that such a concept and energy can only work from an intellectual and visceral level, and that without an emotional anchor the film would be nothing more than a curiosity or cheap thrill. To create that anchor he inserted two quiet scenes of Lola and Manni bathed in red, lying in bed, discussing things like love, death and how they can be sure they feel what they feel. These also join the scenes of Lola’s father with his mistress, having a dispute over him making a decision whether or not to leave his wife. All good thrillers need to make it clear what’s on the line for its characters or else they just become cogs in a machine rather than motivated human beings. While I won’t argue that these characters are incredibly rich, they give us just enough to buy into the sense of urgency.
Another thing that sets Lola apart is its wonderful use of details. As Lola makes her runs she continually bumps into people, including a woman pushing a baby stroller, a man on a bike, the bum who stole the bag full of money and a few others. In each instance the film shifts to a series of still photos that tell what becomes of their entire life after that moment in a matter of seconds. The condensation of their life in stills told in mere moments is echoed by how a mere 20 minutes is being stretched out into over 80. Each time Lola passes them, however, their future changes; the woman goes from being destitute to winning the lottery, for instance. While such transitory causality may be quite dubious, we certainly can’t say it’s impossible, and that’s part of the magic of the film. It takes a thing that we’ve all experienced—the recognition of small moments that have a monumental effect on the course of our life—and turns it into a provocative representation of such themes, while also being genuinely thrilling.
Of course Tykwer uses plenty of echoes and subtleties to make rewatches rewarding. One that struck me while listening to the commentary was how the camera spinning around Lola while she’s trying to decide whom to go ask for money echoes the roulette wheel in the third section, when Lola misses her father and goes to a casino to try and win the money. Another is the humorous (and mysterious) bank guard who always seems to be uttering riddles that seem to make sense, but not quite; Tykwer implants the idea of him having a heart problem, which comes into play in the third section when Lola hitches a ride in the back of an ambulance where the guard is being taken after having a heart attack. She gently grasps his hand—in one of the film’s other rare, quiet moments—and his heart stabilizes.
Tykwer also implants a few references to Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the form of the spirals (the staircase, the café) and, more obviously, the painting of Kim Novak (from behind) that hangs on the wall in the casino. While Hitchcock’s exploration of shifting realities, identities and the fragility of sanity and perception don’t seem to bear any direct influence on Lola, one can see an abstract similarity in how they both explore the conflict between life as it really is versus how we experience it. We can’t ever actually explore alternative paths that our lives might have taken, yet we can certainly ponder them. Lola is one of those films that uses the magic of cinema to explore those “what if…” possibilities, and the fact that it does so with such zest, style and coolness should be applauded. Lola may not be profound in and of itself, but I’ve always believed that the real strength of art lies in its ability to dramatize concepts rather than deeply explore them.