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Tom Tykwer, Bringing a Bold New Concept to German Films: Fun

By Paula Span
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 1999


Tom Tykwer
Tom Tykwer is the director of "Run Lola Run." (Helayne Seidman/The Washington Post)
NEW YORK – Night after night, self-taught filmmaker Tom Tykwer slipped quietly into movie houses in Berlin last year, gawking at the audiences gawking at his film "Run Lola Run." Germany's biggest domestic movie in 1998, a phenomenon that almost single-handedly put an enervated film industry back on the international map, low-budget "Lola" grabbed scads of awards, was sold to 40 countries and put its stamp on everything from hairstyles to music charts. As startled as anyone by its unexpected triumph, Tykwer sat in the dark with ticket-buyers "dozens of times," watching and listening.

"People responded loudly," he reports with pleasure. In art houses and at megaplexes, audiences clapped, laughed, cheered and occasionally called out suggestions to the heroine dashing across the screen. "It was hilarious. They were so immediate and uncensored. . . . 'Lola' is a cheerful movie. It wants you to jump up in your seat and feel happy."

Cheerful is not a word generally associated with recent German cinema, as Tykwer and his posse, a production collective called X-Filme, are painfully aware. After the ascent of acknowledged geniuses like Fassbinder, Wenders et al., seriousness tipped over into earnest gloom. By the late '80s, German movies "had this reputation of being sincere and solemn and not fun to watch," says X-Filme production head Maria Kopf. "Even Germans didn't want to go" – they flocked instead to American action flicks that came to dominate the market.

No more, Tykwer vows: "We have a new generation that cares for different subjects and a different film language, that tries to be inventive and inspiring." A lanky 34-year-old with a slickened semi-pompadour and major eyebrows, Tykwer (pronounced tick-vair) is both a spark plug of this renewal and its beneficiary. He has an air of . . . not arrogance, exactly, but vindication. Holding forth in excellent English in an Upper West Side hotel cafe, a university dropout who hasn't yet learned to be blandly circumspect, he's part radical critic, part savvy entrepreneur. "We are getting back the audience's confidence that German films are not necessarily boring," he says.

Whatever else one can say about "Run Lola Run," which opens Friday in Washington, it's hardly boring. In fact, audiences are likely to emerge feeling like pinballs in a propulsive game that flashes and chimes and never stops moving.

Lola, played by 24-year-old Franka Potente with hair dyed the shade of a maraschino cherry, gets a phone call from her lover, a wannabe gangster who's not terribly bright, and goes flying out of her apartment and galloping across Berlin in her Doc Martens: She has 20 minutes to come up with a fortune and save his sorry life. Her first attempt ends badly, but no matter – Tykwer hits the mental rewind button and unspools two more versions of the same drama, except that minor plot shifts lead to vastly different outcomes. "Fate and coincidence have a big part in it," he says. "What way can our lives go? What could they become because of a small incident?"

Along the way, "the idea of a film about the possibilities of life became a film about the possibilities of film." Other movies have played with what-if scenarios, tales retold from various perspectives, but they didn't look like this. Tykwer seems to relish every possible razzle-dazzle tactic – he switches from film to video and from live action to snippets of animation, inserts speeded-up sequences and slowed-down ones, uses black-and-white for flashbacks and still photos for flash-forwards – and entwines it all with a throbbing techno soundtrack that he co-wrote.

Is Lola's boyfriend really worth her pavement-pounding devotion? Is she the passionate heroine Tykwer admires, or a nitwit too willing to give her all for a two-bit thug? There's hardly time to frame the question: The camera flies down hallways, then soars overhead; the screen splits in half, then in thirds; the action barely pauses.

Some critics have compared "Lola" with a computer game or a music video, to the director's distinct annoyance. "Videos are made to sell something," he says. "They're advertisements. And only 20 percent of them can be considered art." Whereas "Lola," the implication is clear, is definitely art. But like a game or a video, the movie has had enormous appeal, especially but not exclusively among the young. Shot for $2‚million in the summer of 1997, it took in $12 million in Germany and spawned a soundtrack album with a hit single.

The mayor of Berlin promptly borrowed its graphics and slogan for his reelection campaign. Tykwer, aghast, went to court to stop him. "I find him disgusting" is his casual assessment of the candidate. "And he didn't ask." Meanwhile, the filmmaker adds more approvingly, "the hairdressers are making messes of money from people coming in and saying, 'I want to look like Lola.' "

Now it looks as if "Lola" may prove a sensation here as well. It opened the New Directors/New Films festival at the Museum of Modern Art here in March. "The choice was unanimous," says Laurence Kardish, MoMA's curator of film and video. "It generates its own set of fireworks." Critics have been generally dazzled. There's a soundtrack hitting record stores – distributor TVT Records is busily passing out CDs to hundreds of dance club deejays – and a video aimed at MTV. Impressive opening weekends in New York and Los Angeles indicate that Tykwer could be right when he calls it "an experimental film for a mass audience."

Like a number of rising directors, he learned to make movies by watching them; self-taught, he jokes, "means that I was rejected by all the film schools I tried to get into." His first after-school job was taking tickets at a theater in his home city of Wuppertal, a ploy that gave him access to mature-audience films he was technically too young to see.

When an art theater opened in town, Tykwer hired on as a 16-year-old projectionist. "This was paradise," he recalls. "We had our own print of 'Blade Runner' because we showed it every week. I had the key to the cinema, and I could close the door after the last person left and watch movies." He frequently spent nights in front of the screen, then in the morning hustled off to school, where he slept. He insists he passed his history exam only because he'd seen old dramas like "Quo Vadis?" and "Ben-Hur."

He'd left college – he studied philosophy at the Free University of Berlin – and was the programmer at a Berlin art house when he, two other fledgling directors and a producer founded X-Filme. It aims to produce "films that stay with you after you leave, play with your mind, leave you infected with new ideas," he riffs. Its members share the major decisions and the profits – which, until "Lola," were largely theoretical. "Being able to live on my income as a filmmaker is very recent," he points out.

It's Tykwer's third film, though the first to be distributed in the United States. Now an American distributor has acquired "Wintersleepers," his very different second movie, which will appear next year. There's a pause in Tykwer's rapid-fire conversation as a sleek blonde in a ponytail and knock-around clothes passes the cafe window and puts her hand up to the glass. It's his leading lady, Franka Potente, no longer required to have cartoon hair, who's meeting him in New York to help promote the movie. He's been fussing about not seeing her in three weeks, and when she comes into the hotel, their smoochy embrace shows that this is not a purely professional relationship. Their romance began shortly after "Lola" finished shooting, "but we always say it began to be a real relationship on New Year's Eve," she says, because that somehow sounds like more of an occasion.

Now everything has changed for both of them. Potente is showing up on magazine covers and in trendy publications like Interview and Paper. She appeared on a German talk show and dyed the host's hair red. She even had a hit record after Tykwer persuaded her to talk-sing the soundtrack songs that express Lola's thoughts. "I was famous before, but Lola became something of an icon," she says.

Tykwer, meanwhile, is hot stuff. Various big shots have been showing up at screenings, agents and studio execs are calling, and he could likely strike a nice Hollywood deal. Instead, he's about to start shooting his next movie in Wuppertal, an X-Filme production in which Potente will play a resident of a mental hospital. It's a love story, he says. The German title translates to "The Empress and the Warrior," but he's decided that the American release should be called "The Princess and the Warrior."

"If it's coming out in America," Potente adds.

Tykwer allows himself a little smile. "Oh," he says, "I have the feeling it will."


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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