Life, the Videogame: Run Lola Run


The success of “Pulp Fiction” inspired a flood of films and a fair number of TV shows; I recently wrote about one of them for this site, 1999’s “Go.” But one of the many things that’s fascinating about the “Pulp Fiction” derivatives is that they all zero in on a different aspect of Quentin Tarantino’s hit crime thriller and spin it out into something different. “Go” seemed most intrigued by the ability to jump around in time and space, and examine different parts of the same ensemble narrative in the manner of an early Internet user discovering that they could click on a hypertext link and be taken to a new, self-contained page—as in the second story in “Go,” which takes viewers to Las Vegas for a half-hour interlude, after leading them to believe that the story would focus on characters in Los Angeles. 

German filmmaker Tom Tykwer’s art house action movie “Run Lola Run,” released a year before “Go” and four years after “Pulp Fiction,” goes its own way, and becomes more of a “butterfly effect” or “sliding doors” narrative that explores how changing one seemingly minor detail in a narrative (or a day in the life) changes everything else, too. The story is broken into three discrete sections that make the totality feel like an anthology of short stories. But rather than enlarge the scope of the narrative, the structure creates variations. That lends what might otherwise have been just a technically brilliant race-against-the-clock movie an undertone of playful philosophical rumination.

The title character, played by Franke Potente, is a young Berlin woman whose boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) was coming to town on a train to deliver a bag containing 100,000 Deutschmarks to his criminal boss Ronnie (Heino Firch), then panic-fled when he saw ticket inspectors and left the bag behind. (It was taken by a homeless man, who will show up again in the film.) Manni calls Lola and tells her that his boss is going to kill him in the next 20 minutes as punishment for his failure, so he’s going to rob a supermarket to replenish the funds. 

Lola bursts into action and heads to the bank where her father is a manager to ask for help, but the plan doesn’t work and she ends up joining Manni at the robbery. This section  of the movie ends tragically. The other two episodes replay the main story but elaborate on it differently and have their own outcomes. The film’s opening narration establishes that “Run Lola Run” is concerned with determinism versus autonomy, and won’t be giving viewers definitive answers to the questions it poses. (Significantly, the score by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, who would go on to do music for HBO’s “Deadwood,” quotes composer Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.”)

The most important moment in the opening section, possibly the most important in the movie, is fleeting: while racing downstairs from her apartment, Lola passes a young neighbor with a dog, and the film shifts into animation. This encounter will be replayed three times: the second time, the dog’s owner trips Lola and she falls, but the third time, she jumps over his extended leg. As Lola runs through the city she’ll pass other strangers, and we’ll sometimes see a swiftly edited parenthetical sequence of “flash-forward” still photographs showing how that person’s life changed as result of briefly encountering Lola. 

And yet this is not a film in which things exclusively happen to people. Nor is it about the effects of people actively doing things. Yes, a lot happens to people—in some cases, to people who have little or nothing to do with the main narrative of Lola trying to save her boyfriend’s life. But as you watch the whole thing with its three variations, you can feel the tectonic plates of the main story shifting and drifting. The totality of “Run Lola Run” feels like an exercise in learning or problem-solving, even though there’s no way Lola that could “learn” from a story that resets itself each time, always restarting with Manni’s phone call and seemingly negating what you previously watched, like a writer in the pre-Internet era deciding that the page of the novel that they’re typing at that moment is not working, angrily ripping it from the typewriter, crumpling it up, and tossing it into a wastebasket.

The final section of the movie brings Lola into a casino, where she appears to be able to affect the outcome of a game of chance through force of will (her piercing scream seems to shock the cosmos into realigning in her favor). It’s a startling and delightful as the moment at the end of the first “The Matrix” where Neo holds up his hand to block bullets fired at him by his enemies, looks down at the slugs falling on the hallway carpet, then looks up again and sees how the virtual world is comprised of ones and zeroes and can therefore be completely altered or reprogrammed by him—or at least transcended through the recognition that it’s all a construct or illusion.

There’s a lot going on under the surface, even though it initially seems to be just a superficially clever exercise in logistics and puzzle-piece rearrangement. Manni and Lola’s relationship is at risk even before the film even begins, and although the movie emphasizes physical action over dialogue throughout, we can sense how Lola’s feelings about Manni change as the story is told and retold. 

This aspect plus the whole “sliding doors” thing are fascinating when you think about the fact that all three of the stories have definitive endings but then restart or reboot, like a video game after a mission fails or a player’s avatar is killed. In theory there is no way that Lola or any other character could “learn” anything over the course of three variations of the same story. The end is the end. Right? 

But, as in a video game, the player (Lola; but also, in a way, the viewer) gets to retain knowledge acquired during the preceding play session. So maybe we need to revise that earlier comparison to a novelist: the page tossed in the wastebasket is negated/discarded, but the writer leans from the mistakes that they made in writing it, and can apply that knowledge in the next draft. 

There’s also something tantalizingly karmic happening, if you think about life and storytelling as something other than a series of events unfolding on a linear timeline on an entirely earthbound plane. What if we can learn from the mistakes we make in this lifetime and enjoy a different outcome in a different/alternate reality? Or in the next life?

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