Director: Tom Tykwer (Germany). Year of Release: 1998
Can it really be over 20 years since Lola Rennt was released? This must have been the first film I ever saw in German – dragged along by mates, and helped by the fact that there’s really not that much dialogue. Just a lot of, er, running.
For those of you who’ve been otherwise engaged for the past 21 years, here’s the plot, such as it is. Lola (Franka Potente) gets an urgent phone call from her boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu). He’s stuck in a callbox in the middle of town and has fucked up big time. Having sold a load of dodgy diamonds for some dubious types, he left the bag of money on the train. He now has 20 minutes to find DM100,000 (yes, Deutschmarks, the film really is that old).
Lola springs up and starts running. She may have dyed red hair and tattoos on her shoulder and around her belly button, but she also has a father who’s a rich banker. She’ll run to his office and get the money from him. Except for some reason he’s not too keen on giving her that much money, so she runs on towards Manni. She’s too late and interrupts him while he’s trying to rob a supermarket. The police arrive and there’s a fatal shootout.
This is where the film plays its trump card. If you don’t like that ending, why don’t we try a different one? We return to the beginning of the film and see what might have happened if Lola had been tripped on the way, slowing her down. The film has already strayed a little from pure realism – as Lola bumped into passers-by, we were shown how their lives would end up (usually in deepest luxury or tragedy as it happens). This time round, also their fates are changed. And just for good measure, we will also get a third pass at how things may have ended if Lola were a little quicker.
There is a legitimate charge that the film is a triumph of style over substance. It looks great, containing many iconic scenes, such as Lola running through a group of nuns. Many a student kitchen has been bedecked by a poster of Potente with flaming hair and a sweaty grey top. Also the music – by director Tom Tykwer in colloboration with rapper Thomas D is pulsating and gives every scene a sense of hurried urgency.
But while some scenes may seem fairly unlikely (and the maths in a casino scene are particularly dubious), none of this matters as we are swept along. Besides which, this is a film about the Butterfly Effect – how much substance do you really need? Basing the whole of a film on a single “What if?” concept may be fairly low concept, but it worked for Rashoman and it also works here.
Twenty-one years on, the film generally holds up very well, and the choice to film in the photogenic areas of Berlin means that most of the places are still very recognisable (though seeing as they are in several different districts it would take way more than 20 minutes to run through all of them). And yet a number of scenes are very much of their time.
For a start, the film wouldn’t really work in a world of mobile phones. Not just Manni’s scene in the call box, but all the running around trying to find someone who doesn’t have a phone in their pocket. On top of this there are a couple of scenes which are culturally fairly time-specific – one scene mirrors one in Trainspotting and we see cartoons that are very similar to those by the bloke who did Radiohead’s Subterranean Homesick Alien and that one by Moby.
This all works in the film’s favour, giving it a specificity that you couldn’t have expected at the time, when we thought that that sort of cartoon would maintain its ubiquity for more than about three days. On top of this, there are some specific connotations that bind the film to me, if probably to no-one else.
Lola Rennt was released in 1998, when I’d been living in Germany for about 2½ years. I still hadn’t come fully to terms with the language, so my tv watching was unhealthily dominated by music channels, which had the title song from the film by Potente and Thomas D on heavy rotation.
The following year, Potente appeared in a video (and sang) on “Easy Day”, by the long forgotten Bananafishbones. The current significance of the song is perhaps shown by the fact that you can’t even find it on youtube any more (though there is a version on VIMEO which I’d recommend looking up, as it was very good). Potente graduated to doing Bourne films in That Hollywood, but this was her breakout film. And her musical diversions were always more important to me than Big Screen Events with Matt Damon,
I enjoyed the film every bit as much as before. It is unsentimental, and quite prepared to sacrifice its lead characters, especially as it has already made it clear that these deaths are not real but the wild imaginings of the writer and director. And for all its hip stylishness, it also contains several very funny scenes, not least when the fastidious bank clerk slowly counts out notes while Lola watches the clock with increasing anxiety.
Of course any film that can solve its predicaments through rich relatives leaves itself open to criticism, but it does reverse one gender stereotype, with the hapless Manni being dependent on Lola’s staunch resolve. And to say that none of Potente, Bleibtreu and Tykwer has produced anything better since is only partially a comment on the dubious nature of some of their later works. This time they really do deliver.
Second viewing – December 2022
Some further thoughts after seeing it again in a Sunday midday showing.
Firstly, a Mea culpa. In the original review, I rather arrogantly said “the maths in a casino scene are particularly dubious”. In fact they work pretty perfectly. If you bet DM100 on roulette at 35-1, you win DM3,500. If you put all that on the same bet, you raise the DM100,000 required with just about enough to cover house charges. I really should stop trying to show off in reviews like this.
Moving on to the film, it was even more evident than before how much this was a film of its time, and in particular, how much it followed the influence of Trainspotting, which had been released 2 years before to great acclaim on the Indie scene. It’s not just the jumping into a car scene which almost exactly mirrors the one from the Trainspotting trailer (minus Lust for Life). There is also a slightly similar approach to the soundtracks.
Lola Rennt does not try to do exactly the same as Trainspotting, which mixes old classics with Britpop artists covering old Indie songs. But at times, especially the scene(s) of Lola leaving her house, it looks like director Tom Tykwer is trying to reproduce the Trainspotting moment when Underworld’s Born Slippy helped made an alternative audience feel that Trainspotting belonged to them. At times, the fiim’s soundtrack sounds so close to Born Slippy that it can’t be a coincidence.
At other times, there is a different familiarity which I hadn’t noticed before. As Lola runs along to a pulsating synthesiser soundtrack, it sounds very much like the Tangerine Dream soundtracks which scored so many films in the late 1970s and 1980s. As Tangerine Dream were one of Germany’s most prolific contributors to film in the 2 decades leading up to the release of Lola Rennt, this makes a certain sort of sense, but I’m not sure how it affects the film’s Indie credentials.
One other thing that occurred to me only after watching the film a few times (this was my third time in the cinema, and I’ve seen it on VHS – remember them? – a couple of times on top of that). It is a tribute to how slick the film is that we don’t notice that Lola is essentially Violent Elizabeth Bott – a red haired spoilt little rich kid who cries and screams at the top of her voice when things don’t go her way. We should hate her, but somehow we stay on her side.
I’m not sure that Lola Rennt could be reproduced, and I can’t think of any films that followed it which were quite like it, but as a one-off, it still looks great, nearly 25 years on.