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One morning in early June, Mark Jenkins and Darrow Montgomery meet Tom Tykwer and Franka Potente at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. Everything goes as planned, but Tykwer and Potente could have failed to catch their plane in New York and missed the interview. Or Montgomery’s arrival could have been delayed by an exploding manhole. Or Jenkins could have been hit by an SUV that ran a red light near Dupont Circle.
None of these things happened, but it’s best to be aware of happenstance when dealing with Tykwer. All three of the German director’s films that have been released in the United StatesWinter Sleepers, Run Lola Run, and the new The Princess and the Warriorturn on events occasioned by collisions and near-collisions. It’s no surprise when he cites Amores Perros, the Mexican film in which three stories are linked by a car crash, as one of his recent favorites.
“It’s not like I’m sitting down and planning how to squeeze fate into this story,” maintains Tykwer, who’s dressed in the universal art-film-director uniform of black and gray. “It happens to dig its own way inside. Are we victims of a chain of coincidences, or is it something that has been planned somehow by someone or something? To me it seems obvious that it’s totally both. That chance depends on fate, and the other way around. They influence each other.
“The other thing,” he continues, “is that it’s very cinematic. It’s exactly what you experience when you cut a film. You have a chain of scenes, and they seemingly are chaotic, and then you put them in an order. Suddenly there’s a frame. I really like the fact that specifically Franka’s characters, especially in The Princess and the Warrior, do something with this fate. There seems to be something that’s driving her in a direction, but she doesn’t let herself be pushed. She takes over at a certain moment and says, ‘OK, I’m going to construct my fate myself and not just continue to be one drop of water in the river.’”
Run Lola Run, Tykwer’s best-known film, flaunts its artifice with a series of variations on the same basic story. The Princess and the Warrior is by no means naturalistic, but it does combine the fairy-tale mood its title promises with the director’s goal of depicting “realistic people in realistic environments in medium-sized German cities.” The two main characterssheltered psychiatric nurse Sissi and shattered ex-soldier Bodomeet when Sissi is hit by a truck and Bodo cuts a hole in her throat to save her life.
“The tracheotomy scene, I hope, never really totally loses the weird quality of being still in a fantasy moment,” Tykwer says. “Its violence stays strangely romantic. We didn’t tear people out of the mood of the film. It’s part of the mood of the film.”
Potente, who played both Lola and Sissi and became the director’s girlfriend in the process, thinks the scene is both realistic and fantastic. “It’s the moment when they fall in love,” she says. “Where they are the closest they ever get to each other in the film. They lie on top of each other and sweat and cry and smell each other. But you have all the blood and all the sounds at the same time. It’s like in a certain zone or whatever.”
The scene “tries to represent what the film will be like,” Tykwer explains. “The film will be very intimate, and also have a very strong romantic aspect. But not afraid of violence, or the pain that is evoked when people get into passionate areas.”
Though the three movies feature very different looks and moods, Tykwer says that “they really feel very strongly connected. There are some subjects that I am obviously, I don’t know, obsessed with. No matter what frame I put around a film, in the end I feel like that there’s all these things that I’m really interested in that reappear.”
Asked for specifics, the director laughs. “Franka, for example. She reappears in my movies. And look at the difference in the parts she’s playing. She represents something as an actress, but also as the characters she’s portraying, that I’m curious to observe in films. People who are determined to cross certain borders, exploring the territory of passion. Finding out what it means to really understand, to really care, to really share emotion with somebody else. It means sometimes breaking amazing rules. Lola was breaking rules of physics, or whatever, but in this case I think that Sissi is much more breaking the rules of the environment she’s stuck in.”
“I think in all of Tom’s moviesI’ve been in twobut I think in all the movies there’s always a very strong heroine,” says Potente, who keeps covering and uncovering her cropped, hennaed hair with either a skullcap or the hood of her sweat shirt. “What was interesting to me, after having done Lola together, there was much more of an experiment set up. In this movie, we dig into these things a little more. It’s like going into a microcosmos of the questions that were there in Lola.”
“Lola was about the structural elements of the whole subject,” adds the director. “Princess and the Warrior is much more about the emotional paths and strange ways your life goes. It shouldn’t look that planned. We follow this woman and this man, and we have absolutely no idea where it’s going to go, because they are very specific human beings and there is nobody behind them who’s planning their path. Of course there is a screenplay, but the feeling should be guiding us, instead of the film guiding the audience through the games that Lola was running.”
Most of Tykwer’s films survey the range of contemporary German ground transportation: trains, cars, bicycles, boats, andin his latestthe monorail that swoops through Wuppertal, his hometown. “I like motion,” he says. “If you’re interested in film, everything that moves catches your eye. Specifically, I have to say I like things that move people.”
“And hit people, right?”
“Well, that’s a way of moving somebody,” Tykwer laughs. “I really like things that make people become in motion. Running is one thing, but in Princess and the Warrior Franka is never running reallyhow do you call it?”
“It’s kind of stomping,” she suggests.
“It’s totally a Franka Potente invention. Copyright by Franka Potente,” he grins. “But it shows how much movement can express about character, history, or whatever. If you compare Lola and Sissi, just five seconds of how each character walks, and you have the whole universe of what is behind that. And it’s great to be able to show that on film.”
Unlike Run Lola Run, which was written before Tykwer and Potente met, The Princess and the Warrior was scripted with the actress’s input. “I was around when he wrote it,” she says. “We worked on Sissi very early. Tried the walk, tried the talk.”
“We constantly talked about her character, and how to develop that,” Tykwer notes. “We wanted to be extreme about her, but we never wanted her to be just a movie character and not believable. Something decisively extreme, but always rooted in reality. So it was really good to have the reality in front of me when I was writing it. To rehearse, actually, while the lines were written.”
Potente also went undercover at a mental institution, working as a nurse for a week to better understand Sissi’s life. “It was very scary, because I’d never seen or been around people like that,” she says. “I didn’t really learn much for my character, because it was me, Franka, in there. If I had been Sissi, I think a lot of things would have been easier. Because she had the ability of not judging, just being there, taking the people for who they are.”
Tykwer sees the inhabitants of the asylum as a sort of clan and thus The Princess and the Warrior as a parable of growing up. “I’m basically just drawn toward very closed-circle interior spaces, where people set up structures of family life without being a family. One of the big issues of the film is how much you have to leave behind when you find somebody you want to live with. That you leave somebody else behind. That other people might suffer for it. The family issue became very strong by the end of the film.”
This explains the director’s decision to shoot the film in his hometown. “I feel that a film should be driven by the characters’ subjective experience,” he says. “Bodo’s and specifically Sissi’s way of perceiving the world should become part of the film. Because she is very youngshe has this tough experience in the asylum, but for the rest of the world she’s like a childeverything is like a forest in a fairy tale. This is exactly what I remember myself when I was young. This whole attitude of being able to take your dreams from your sleep on your path to school. I love that potential in the town, because I remember being like that there.”
Tykwer’s next film is called Heaven and stars Cate Blanchett instead of Potente, who had other commitments. “I’m editing it, so it’s not really existing,” he says. “There’s just this chain of events on the editing table, and we don’t know how to make sense of it.”
It’s a good bet, though, that the movie will include a variety of vehicles, moving in the name of love. “I somehow seem to like the connection,” Tykwer muses, “that people are getting closer to each other by these instruments.” Mark Jenkins