Run Lola Run was one of the breakout indie hits of 1998, a propulsive puzzle film led by a hyperkinetic, flame-haired Franka Potente (The Bourne Identity, 2002). She plays Lola, who only has 20 minutes to find 100,000 Deutschmarks or her panicky boyfriend Manni (Mortiz Bleibtreu) will be killed. It’s a branching narrative in which the ambitious German writer-director Tom Tykwer displays three different possible outcomes to her story, from tragedy to comedy and everything in between. Utilizing animation, a techno-music score and a mixture of film and early digital video, it hit the Gen-X zeitgeist with a bullet and pulled in over $7 million in the United States, a remarkable number for an unconventional foreign film.
It was one of the early features produced by X Filme Creative Pool, a German production company founded in 1994 by directors Tykwer, Wolfgang Becker and Dani Levy, along with producer Stefan Arndt. In 1999 Tykwer told IndieWire that the company “is an idea borrowed from United Artists – it’s filmmakers taking over production power and trying to establish power structures that combine the idea that we’re trying to make personal, radical, subjective films and for big screens and big audiences.” The company continues to do challenging work, including Michael Haneke’s Happy End (2017) and Tykwer’s ongoing television series Babylon Berlin, a neo-noir set in the waning days of the Weimar Republic.
Run Lola Run pulls elements of noir, slapstick and melodrama and packs it into its swift 80-minute runtime. Manni handles a drug deal for local gang leader Ronnie (Heino Ferch), but Lola is unable to pick him up afterward because her scooter gets stolen. He takes the subway instead and leaves behind the bag of money inside one of the train cars, where it is grabbed by a bum. He only has 20 minutes before he’s supposed to drop off the money to Ronnie, so he desperately calls Lola hoping she can work a miracle. This is the point where the film branches off into different stories, each beginning the same, with a cartoon of Lola running around a spiral staircase (one of the many references to Vertigo, 1958) – followed by shots of Lola sprinting down Berlin streets in her Doc Martens.
From there each successive story diverges: there is a confrontation with her father, who is having an affair, a police shootout, a car accident, an attempted grocery store robbery and a magical trip to a high-class casino. The pace never flags as Lola keeps circling through the narrative, waiting for a thread that leads her to save Manni. But there are also recurring minor characters who she is continually running by – and Tykwer offers pocket-sized glimpses into their future with montages of Polaroids. These futures keep changing in each round of the story, their lives drastically changed by any diversion in Lola’s path, her decisions creating a butterfly effect that is transforming even the minor characters that she runs by.
And she does run – the film is an exercise in finding different ways to shoot Franka Potente running. Tykwer uses high third-person angles that make her look like a video game avatar, more flat head-on framing that emphasizes her speed, and hazy handheld video that tries to capture her growing exhaustion. In a recent interview for The Guardian, Potente describes her (lack of) athletic training:
“We were shooting in August and the crew told me, ‘When we don’t see your feet, you can wear sneakers.’ However, their footfall sounded different, so I just ran in boots all the time. I didn’t train – I probably smoked two packs a day back then – but I was young. And we wanted Lola to look like a real person, not an athlete. I’m not a runner. Never was. Never will be.”
Her labored exertion makes it feel all too real and adds tension to the 20-minute timer that keeps running out on her. But she eventually finds a way out of the story and into an ending, thanks to some random bounces of a roulette ball and a glass-shattering scream like that of a red-haired harpy. It’s a scream of uncontainable, story-stopping rage, and it is only when Lola can harness that anger that she can find her way out of the loop and walk hand in hand with Manni into the unknown future.