September 6, 2001

Unhappily Ever After

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As a number of them make the trip across the Atlantic, it is quite obvious that contemporary European films espouse what is often neglected by many of their American counterparts: a plot. And so it goes for The Princess and the Warrior — the most recent offering by German writer/director, Tom Tykwer — a wonderfully spun dark comedy tracing the star-crossed and slightly disturbing love story between a masochistic wanna-be bank robber and a lonely mental ward nurse.

The film revolves around Sissi (Franka Potente), who lives a tranquil, reclusive life while working in a Swiss mental hospital. Loved as she is by her inmates and co-workers, Sissi yearns for a life outside her bubble. And it’s by the most horrific of instances that she discovers it.

One day on the way to a bank to run an errand for a friend, Sissi is abruptly struck down by a massive truck. While lying underneath the body of the truck, scarce of breath and energy, she finds her future in the form of a Bodo (Benno Furmann), a miscreant whose plan is to rob the very same bank and flee afterwards to Sydney, Australia.

His plans are put off track, though, by Sissi’s calamity. With tears oddly streaming down his face, Bodo comes to her rescue by painstakingly sticking a straw down Sissi’s throat, allowing her to breathe (unfortunately, this is not the sole instance of the film’s penchant for graphic scenes). Not exactly the stuff of Prince Charming, but this perversely enthralling scene plants the seed for the rest of the movie, which is characterized by Sissi’s insatiable urge to find Bodo and earn his love.

Tykwer should already be well-known to American audiences, having directed the successful import Run Lola Run (which coincidentally also starred Potente). His distinctive and innovative style — an amalgamation of slick cinematography and novel use of chronology that was made famous in Lola — is once again on display in The Princess and the Warrior.

Most striking is how Tykwer manages to weave a web around characters who initially seem to have no glaring connection. He does so by opening the movie with a pair of vignettes — one of Sissi’s mundane nursing life and one of Bodo’s tortured existence on a hilltop house — and then wrapping them together through the strangest of incidences: a botched-up bank stick-up.

The crux of the film as it progresses into the latter stages, however, is the dynamic interplay between Potente and Furmann. Both veterans of German films, the chemistry between the pair is exemplified by the complementary portrayals of Potente’s sensitive, loving Sissi and Furmann’s soul-searching Bodo.

Aside from the stars, Tykwer also does a masterful job of developing the rest of the film’s ensemble, particularly the cast of characters that makes up the mental ward. From the sinister, conniving Steini (Lars Rudolf) whose crush on Sissi is made obvious from the start, to a cranky old woman whose favorite word to yell is “Asslicker”, they give priceless comic relief to a film that at times becomes physically painful to watch.

The Princess and the Warrior often paints a picture of doom and gloom (one line that sticks out is Bodo’s assertion that “I don’t believe in happiness”). But never does it stray far from a tongue-in-cheek style that makes even the most abrasive scenes more than swallowable. Emotionally draining and laced with frequent nuggets of delightful humor, The Princess and the Warrior will hopefully serve as a lesson to Hollywood that thought-provoking films can be produced from the scarcest of resources.

Archived article by Shiva Nagaraj