As a multiverse melodrama, Run Lola Run was ahead of its time 25 years ago

Tom Tykwer’s frenetic crime film conveys branching paths and endless possibilities through inventive and inspired filmmaking

As a multiverse melodrama, Run Lola Run was ahead of its time 25 years ago
Run Lola Run Image: Sony Pictures Classics

Given the bleak prospects of our collective futures in this eco-wrecked, cash-strapped, politically decimated 21st century, it’s no wonder stories about alternate paths continue to enjoy their moment in pop culture. After all, what is the multiverse but a vibrant kaleidoscopic dream of the possibilities we’ve been denied, or have denied ourselves?

The what-if, the branching path, that left turn at Albuquerque we should have taken but for some strange reason did not—our minds are hardwired to dwell on what could, would, should have been. The optimistic view is that we might learn from past errors to make the days that follow better. This could factor into why the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All At Once, with its unique brand of raunchy but warm-hearted coulda-woulda, snagged the 2022 Best Picture Oscar, and Marvel’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, which saw three on-screen Web-Heads team up via sci-fi contrivance, thwipped past COVID fears to net Marvel Studios’ biggest post-Endgame success.

Despite criticism that the multiverse concept is now exclusively abused to exploit nostalgia, it will continue to be Marvel Studios’ creative path for the foreseeable future. Following the second season of Loki, Marvel has upended its X-Men toy box for Deadpool & Wolverine, which, through universe-hopping shenanigans, will see Hugh Jackman return for (one presumes) his for-real-this-time final bow as the mutant. Its animated series What If…? returns later this year for another jaunt through Marvel’s multiple dimensions, and there’s still the threat/promise of Avengers: Secret Wars, which just might unite all of Marvel’s various live-action incarnations for one big cosmic jamboree. And why not?

It’s the promise of seeing what can be that brings people back to stories like these and more genial examples, such as the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring Sliding Doors, which explored alternate realities through wigs, rom-com tropes, and plenty of Dido. But while Doors and the Marvel machine present unquestionably agreeable (if smug) takes on the branching-path film, their exploration of the consequences that come from impactful split-second decisions feels slighter than they should. In life, these choices have an immediacy, if not an outright sense of panic, that is found in abundance in one of the more energetic examples of the cause-and-multiple-effects film: Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, the ambitious and surprisingly soulful crime caper from 1998.

RUN LOLA RUN | Official Trailer

Perhaps it’s because the multiverse has since shifted to something more obvious and less artful that, 25 years on, Run Lola Run remains the most electric example of this byzantine story structure. The film’s enduring cult popularity stems from its visual eclecticism, to be sure, but it also helps that the technicalities of its premise never bog it down. Had Tykwer felt the need to explain how his film worked with some expository jargon—it’s safe to say general audiences might not have fully absorbed the gist of “the multiverse” through media osmosis by 1998—his movie might not have endured the way it has. Instead, Tykwer’s chief concern is propulsion, achieved through photographed athleticism and a dizzying array of editing tricks. Why must Lola run? That’s the movie’s hook, not its gimmick.

Its premise is rather concise for a complex crime story: Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) loses a bag of cash to a homeless man that belongs to the local mob kingpin, and his girlfriend Lola (Franka Potente) must race on foot to help him because, today of all days, her moped has been stolen. It’s the first of many stress-inducing things to go wrong for her in the film—though time will be chief among them. (Tykwer is unsubtle about how the ticking clock is perceived in his film; one of the first clocks we see is carved into the likeness of a beast that, distressingly, cracks open its maw to swallow the frame whole.)

In short, Lola has 20 minutes to find 100,000 Deutschmarks and, as we discover through the film’s two narrative resets, three chances to resolve Manni’s problem. So off she goes into a hive of complex variables, changing the trajectory for her life and the lives of those into whom she collides, resulting in three sets of engrossingly unpredictable outcomes that seem to share the same cosmic space.

Manni’s edginess increases the tension and threatens to disrupt an already precarious situation further. We discover he has a gun, which we then add to his anxiety, the rapidly dwindling span of time before someone puts the kibosh on him, and the building standing right in front of him: one of those big corporate stores that pull in heavy cash. Manni is impulsive, not terribly bright, and, as we discover through one of the film’s what-ifs, reluctant to yet capable of putting himself and his girlfriend in mortal danger. Lola, whether she knows it or not, is running not just to save Manni, but herself, which imbues the frenetic proceedings with an element of doomed romance. Maybe Lola’s next boyfriend will be a bit more boring.

And let’s not forget the obstacles she encounters along these divaricated paths, each one designed to royally fuck up anyone’s day. There’s the dude and his dog blocking the stairwell outside Lola’s flat. A woman pushes a baby carriage on the corner of a sidewalk just as Lola makes the turn. There’s the businessman (Inglourious Basterds’ Ludger Pistor) who pulls his luxury sedan into oncoming traffic while distracted by Lola careening over the hood. A security guard with a poet’s heart (Armin Rohde) holds Lola up outside the office of her banker father (Herbert Knaup). There’s the woman with a stack of folders (Suzanne von Borsody) and the guy looking to sell his bike (Sebastian Schipper). All of them bring their own minor melodramas to the story.

Here, Tykwer tinkers with the micro/macro aspects of this dimensional chamber play. He splices in flash-frames that capture snippets of these people’s future paths as they interact with Lola, with varying outcomes dictated by how they’ve reacted during the split second they crashed into each other. And as these incidents play out differently during each 20-minute sprint, Lola’s bigger obstacles morph into boss-level predicaments: her miserly and faithless dad, the secrets he keeps and are kept from him (by his mistress, played by Nina Petri of Tykwer’s Deadly Maria), a roulette table. All of them are impossible gauntlets for Lola, with chance and dumb luck her only assets. (Though her glass-shattering scream, presumably from her Olympic-level lung capacity, is handy in a pinch.)

Tykwer maintains this tension with a pulsing techno beat. (The film’s score is by Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil, and Tykwer, who went on to score The Matrix Resurrections and Cloud Atlas, the latter of which he co-directed with the Wachowskis.) He also employs every trick in his directorial repertoire to achieve a readable sense of dimensionality (in all its myriad forms), including crude animation, smash-zooms, and flash cuts—his self-aware, “post-MTV” techniques run the gamut.

One minor visual, though, spotted in a blink-and-miss-it shot (a row of falling dominoes), winds up being his most knotty, thought-provoking lynchpin, asking a question that keeps so many of us up at night: Are our paths immutable?

“Multiverse” has become a loaded term. Some might bristle at discussing Run Lola Run in the same breath as Marvel media. Pedants will surely jump on the fact that the word is never mentioned in Tykwer’s film, nor are there portals through which Lola sprints to visit the possibilities of a happier ending. Isn’t it enough to say the film employs the butterfly effect as a story device, leaving well enough alone?

Yes and no. Run Lola Run might have a firmer footing in chaos theory, where the conditions of the melodrama are so minute in detail that seemingly insignificant changes alter its outcome, but it’s the execution of Lola’s three precarious scenarios that suggests that parallel realities exist in the same runner’s gasp—a subtly conveyed, artfully executed multiversal affair.

As this trio of 20-minute vignettes carry on, we see a host of possibilities spin out from Lola’s race against the clock. Tykwer repeats several wide shots to reassert our view of the action (Lola clearing that corner where the mother walks her carriage, Lola running across several streets to her father’s bank, Lola speeding past the businessman’s sedan, etc.), placing us again and again in the immediacy of the moment. This makes the shifting possibilities we’ve just seen feel less like what-ifs and more like moments in time that have occurred, the changes sometimes subtle and sometimes destructive. With each reset, Tykwer places us elsewhere, with a new series of travails and troubles. It makes the entire film function as an axis point for reality to pivot around Lola, the most unlikely of multiversal avatars.

One gets the feeling that Lola and Manni’s story could stretch into infinity, yet it must eventually end. At a fleet 81 minutes, Tykwer’s film scarcely gives us a chance to catch our breath, to say nothing of poor Lola, which makes it an all-too-rare example of the viewer experiencing reality unfold without commentary from the central character. This is the clever way Run Lola Run digs into our memory: by playing with it. It tests our attention to detail because its protagonist is concerned only with the things most important to her: money, time, and love. It is through Tykwer’s ingenuity that his film stands out most prominently from other multiverse jobs; as its three parallel outcomes are played out in total, we weigh the sum of choice and consequence, exhilarated by our explorations without losing Lola’s sense of purpose, or hope.

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