26 January, 2010

Der Krieger und die Kaiserin (The Warrior and the Empress) (2000)

Put preconceptions aside

Nominated for European Cinematographer of the Year and Audience Award (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director) European Film Awards 2001.

German cinema and I have never seen eye-to-eye. I don't really get why this is - I am not a man who is fearful of the odd subtitle. If a non-English-language DVD is to be found in my player, it will almost certainly not have dialogue in German. And yet, nearly every time I happen across a piece of German cinema, I'm impressed. I defy anyone with heart and a conscience not to sit slack-jawed in awe of the majesty of Wolfgang Peterson's Das Boot (1981), for example. Another stand-out moment for me - albeit for entirely different reasons - was Tom Twyker's Lola Rennt (Run Lola, Run) (1998). This segues nicely into the fact that the quite beautiful Der Kreiger und die Kaiserin (2000) was also directed by Twyker - although it would have been hard to have guessed just how different the two films could be.

Lola Rennt is a fast-paced original - smash cuts and sick-making fades and wipes abound. It does the job of delivering the story very well, and I enjoyed it immensely. I imagine that with a few movies under his belt before attempting Der Krieger... (including the similarly beautiful and disturbing Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)), Twyker had proved his directing chops and probably just went ahead and made the film he wanted. A good choice.

I don't know if I'm allowed to say that the female lead in both Der Krieger... and Lola Rennt movies isn't talked about enough, given my earlier admission of my ignorance of German movies, but Franke Potente certainly deserves a lot more credit for her acting skills than any number of so-called Hollywood A-listers I could name. If anyone can make a role 'real', it's her. Her performance here manages to be touching, sad, confusing and frustrating - all seemingly by turns. You will notice by the lack of the word 'funny' that this is not a film that's going to cause you to split your sides. It's quite an oddity, in fact.

The story begins in a psychiatric hospital in the German town of Wuppertal. Sissi (Potente) is a nurse there, and leads a fairly ordinary, humdrum life. She lives and works in the hospital and the building is pretty much the centre of her existence. While out walking one day with a blind patient, a series of unfortunate events causes her to be hit by a truck. The unwitting instigator of these events is Bodo (Benno Fürmann), a small-time crook being chased by two men for his part in a grocery shop robbery. As Sissi lays under the truck, unable to breathe, help arrives. Bodo, having given the his pursuers the slip, rounds the corner to see the scene of the accident. He crawls under the truck and performs an emergency tracheotomy with a drinking straw and a pocket knife. As Sissi is rushed into surgery, she and Bodo become separated. After leaving hospital some 52 days later, she vows to find him.

The story slowly unfolds, revealing plot twists, coincidences and, more importantly, shows the effects that the choices have on one's destiny. Fate is writ large across the screenplay. It seems every character and situation encountered adds not only a new dimension, but a new complication to the plot. The movie has been attacked critically for being too slow, but for me, the pace of the story was perfect. As layers of the onion were peeled away, the story was laid out. Any attempts to rush it would have been a disaster.

Twyker re-established his connection in Der Krieger... to not only Potente, but to his cinematographer on Lola Rennt and Perfume, Frank Griebe. The film is exquisitely shot, and the gaps in sometimes spartan dialogue are barely noticeable when there is much to look at. It's a real camera-fest, and definitely in a good way. To me, it was never excessive, always enhancing rather than masking the story.

If you liked Lola Rennt, you might like this. There's absolutely no guarantee, though. It is something utterly different. Set aside any preconceptions you might have and enjoy this quirky and touching story of love, fate and - ultimately - a kind of redemption.

Awards: Click here for details.

135 mins. In German.

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