What do you get when you combine a race-against-time thriller, late 90s techno music, philosophical navel-gazing, post-Tarantino grimecrime, and aspirations for a Best Foreign Language film nomination? In most cases, you get an unholy mess, the kind that gains sentience overnight in a government laboratory, breaks free, kills all the staff, and then tries to take over the world. But sometimes, the universe is kind, and random factors line up in a way that produces good results instead of bad. That probably explains the existence of Run Lola Run, because honestly, nothing else does.
The story takes place in Berlin, 1997 or so. A small-time criminal named Manni has just facilitated the illicit sale of some diamonds for 100,000 Deutsche Marks on behalf of his kingpin boss, Ronnie. Manni’s girlfriend Lola was supposed to pick him up after the buy and failed to show, because her moped was stolen from her along the way. Manni hoofs it to a train, gets on, and absent-mindedly leaves the bag of cash behind. In a panic, Manni calls Lola to inform him of what happened, and how Ronnie expects to get his money in 20 minutes, and when he fails to deliver, Ronnie’s going to kill him. Manni tearfully announces to Lola his intention to rob a nearby supermarket in a desperate bid to raise the cash, knowing that such a heist will likely result in his arrest or death. Lola isn’t having it. She is going to save Manni, even if she’s only got 20 minutes to do it. So, she forms a plan and bolts from her apartment, sprinting across Berlin, bumping into plenty of people along the way in her high-speed, high-stakes effort to impose her will upon a universe that seems hellbent on thwarting it.
This movie is only 80 minutes long—the average threadbare comedy is at least 85—but somehow it feels like 120. And that is not meant as a criticism. This is a nonstop, turbocharged thriller of unusual style and substance that feels like it packs three movies into one, and as a result, it’s all muscle and no fat. Those 80 minutes go by fast, but what minutes they are.
What really makes this movie is its branching narrative as the story plays out, hits a conclusion, then rewinds and plays out again with different actions and different results until we exhaust all options and see how this day for Lola and Manni is going to end. Along the way, we get these tantalizing snapshots as Lola literally bumps into people as she runs, and the story suddenly flashes forward to see how the rest of that person’s life turns out, simply because of their split-second interaction with a girl running full-tilt past them on the street. It’s an intriguing cinematic exploration of the Butterfly Effect, and ties in nicely with the movie’s central themes of cause, effect, destiny, fate, will and determinism.
Throughout the story, we see Lola refusing to accept things as they are, no matter how impossible. And for the most part, the universe seems to punish her for it. She doesn’t just fail, but she fails in a way that seems to say that she really would have been better off had she never event tried. At the very beginning of Lola’s first run, as she gets off the phone with Manni, he cautions her against trying to save him.Even she can’t help this time, he says, in a hangdog admission that Lola’s proven her ability to move the gears of the universe to her satisfaction before, but maybe this time, some of those gears are just too big to be moved, and will grind up those who try. Certainly, for much of the movie, Manni is proven right.
We’re not sure what to make of the movie’s interludes, when Lola and Manni discuss their relationship between Lola’s different “runs.” It’s like they are in a weird purgatory where they are given a chance to reflect upon their various failures before they try again to prevail. It feels like these two souls are fated to keep failing until they get this day right. At first glance, we’re not really given a reason for it. It’s not like they deserve it—one is a criminal and the other easily joins his exploits. And it’s not like they are particularly important members of society—Manni appears to have been a small-time loser forever, and Lola is the wayward daughter of a prominent banker from a cynical and disintegrating family. It’s almost like these two aren’t important at all.
And yet…they are. The flash forwards suggests that if Lola does things correctly, she can not only save herself and Manni, but she’ll do all kinds of good along the way. Lola doesn’t know this, of course. She’s hardly acting out of altruism, and most of the schemes she tries to execute to save Manni are blatantly harmful toward others. So why does she keep getting chances to make things right? There is no clear answer, really, though by the third run, we start to see some signs from certain characters – the bank guard, the blind woman – which suggest precisely that. Maybe it’s all because the lives we live are themselves a kind of punishment unless we create a chain of events that does more good than harm. In such a universe that runs on self-inflicted retribution, perhaps the point is redemption more than anything else.
If that’s the case, then it certainly explains the moment of truth, when, during Lola’s final run, she is presented not just with a chance to help another person, but to do so means forgetting for an instant why she was running in the first place. In that brief pause, poised on the brink of success, she stops running and focuses truly on how somebody else’s run might come to an end, and she answers it with kindness rather than desperation. Now that is how you cross a finish line.