Heavy Rotation: “Run Lola Run” at 25

Tom Tykwer and Franka Potente discuss an ever-changing Berlin, the film’s iconic soundtrack, and how not to go mad making movies.
Steve Macfarlane

Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998).

For movie lovers of a certain age, the image of Franka Potente and her shock of Manic Panic red hair in Run Lola Run (1998) is iconic. A still-potent mix of postmodernism, action cinema, and existential drama, Tom Tykwer’s film fits neatly on the shelf between other millennial canonical classics with strong (or strong-ish) female leads like The Fifth Element (1997) and Amélie (2001). Some saw the breakout success of Run Lola Run as evidence that international arthouse cinema had succumbed to the influence of MTV and Hollywood; others found it a blast of fresh air (or, in the words of the geriatric cinephile who recommended it to me when I was a teenager, nothing short of “the future of cinema”). 

The elevator pitch is deceptively simple: Lola (Potente) receives a phone call from her boyfriend, Mani (Moritz Bleibtreu): he was supposed to deliver 100,000 stolen deutschmarks to his crime-lord boss, but left the money bag on the subway by mistake, and now Lola has just twenty minutes to come up with a different solution before Mani suffers the consequences. The scenario plays out three different times, each in near-real time, each with a different culmination—the final iteration synthesizing (no spoilers!) the lessons of the preceding two.

Like the soccer ball kicked up in the air in the film’s prologue, a life can be buffeted in any number of different directions; accordingly, Run Lola Run reminds viewers it could have been made in a number of different ways. Tykwer and cinematographer Frank Griebe match their formal approach to the choose-your-own-adventure screenplay, mixing stately widescreen cinematography (including slow motion and Vertigo zooms) with crude Cartoon Sushi–style cel animation, Polaroid printouts, time-lapse photography, and “naturalistic” handheld video that evokes the heyday of Dogme 95.

Run Lola Run is an intriguing example of “hyperlink cinema,” a genre that kicked into high gear when Quentin Tarantino’s supremacy dovetailed with the late-career renaissance of Robert Altman in the 1990s. The turn of the millennium was a boom time for movies with ostensibly unconnected characters, each of whose lives are affected to varying degrees by one another’s decisions or misfortunes—the old cliché of the “butterfly effect” (memorably dramatized in the film of that name in 2004, but also the subject of a different Audrey Tautou picture, released Stateside as Happenstance [2000]). Even if hyperlink filmmakers fancied that they were operating in the tradition of Grand Hotel (1932) and La Ronde (1950), the movies spoke to an early-onset anxiety of the digital age, in which a split-second decision (or the click of a computer mouse) could irrevocably seal one’s fate. At the same time, identity was more malleable than ever. The world was changing, and day-to-day life had to accelerate if one was to keep up. 

Run Lola Run centers (and, when the time comes, re-centers) its eponymous namesake. Rather than connect an ensemble cast by way of coincidence, its characters remain constant while their fates fork off in different directions. Each of the three iterations of its story affords the characters a different scenario, depending on the choices made by Lola or Mani in the heat of the moment. The variety of possible outcomes becomes labyrinthine. Tykwer’s film is a dazzling piece of pop art whose greatest special effect is Potente’s performance as Lola, a jolt of energy matched perfectly by the pulse-pounding techno score composed by the director alongside his regular collaborators Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil. 

I spoke to Tykwer and Potente on the occasion of the rerelease of Lola in a new 4K restoration, initiated last year to commemorate the film’s 25th anniversary. 

Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998).

NOTEBOOK: Are you doing many interviews for this rerelease?

TOM TYKWER: Hundreds.

FRANKA POTENTE: Thousands. [Both laugh.]

NOTEBOOK: Have the questions changed much in the last 25 years? I went back and read some interviews from when the film was first released—much attention paid to the “MTV Generation” and “MTV” style of editing… Music videos, commercials…

TYKWER: Not much about MTV. There’s a lot of comparison questions, now versus then, how we remember it, how we remember the times… There’s a hint of nostalgia, but I’m not a big fan of nostalgia.

POTENTE: Me neither!

NOTEBOOK: I guess I have a tortured relationship to nostalgia. It’s important not to be bent over backwards, idealizing the past, sanitizing history, infantilizing your present life. That said: I need to disclose, this movie was a huge deal for me when I first saw it, when I was fourteen years old… 

TYKWER: The movie obviously has this quality of… We don’t refer to it as “old.” Even though it is. There’s something un-old about it that Franka and I have rediscovered, as well. We still enjoy it in this kind of pure, slightly innocent, way. Not so much like, “Oh my God, these were the days!” But more like, “Wow! I still like this. This is still the stuff I wanna see, the stuff I wanna do.”

POTENTE: I agree.

TYKWER: There’s something about its spirit that has not aged. I’m sure there’s stuff that has aged—especially us—but the impetus was joy. Love for the art form. The potential of change through great art, the energy of great art. It’s still alive. It’s nice. It feels strangely fitting that it’s in theaters again.

NOTEBOOK: How was this depiction of Berlin influenced, for better or for worse, by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War? I know, for instance, Lola’s father, an allegedly respectable banker, belonged to the so-called “Berlin Generation”; I also read contemporaneous references to Berlin as “the biggest construction site in Europe” at that time…

POTENTE: I was living in Munich at the time. I had just gotten out of acting school. It wasn’t my first time in Berlin, but it was the first time I really looked around. I remember, every day on set, being like, Where the hell am I? So much energy and chaos, and we always seemed to be in the middle of it. I loved the whole vibe. I think it’s still similar in some parts of Berlin. I moved there after the movie, and it’s still my strongest connection to Germany. Tom had been there for a longer time.

TYKWER: Before the Wall, yes. There are all these subconscious things that make it into a film: why you choose the messy techniques, the aesthetics that you choose… I think it’s all because of the place. The film is a reflection of the times in which it was made. It captures something of those days. But the thing about Berlin is, it’s a city that never stops being in progress, in transition, in chaos. Construction, deconstruction, reconstruction… It’s a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess because you never feel it will really come to a conclusion. You can never count on something still being there, so if you find it beautiful, go. Go now. Don’t say, “Cool, I’ll come back next year!” Because it might all be gone. There’s something quick and, you might say, “superficial,” about it, but instead of that word, I would say it’s alive. The film reflects that: I could be like this, but then again I could also be like this… But then, I could also be like this! Then you tell the story of the city, but it also gives the film an unpredictable energy. 

Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998).

NOTEBOOK: The other unignorable part of my nostalgia trip is the Run Lola Run soundtrack, which is credited to you, Tom, plus your regular collaborators Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil. I read an vintage interview where you talked about using Underworld as temp tracks for the edit, because their songs were 120 BPM. Was clubbing a part of the filmmaking process? How did that music influence the construction of the film? 

TYKWER: It’s so funny because at the time, that was the most obvious music to pick. Only later did I realize there hadn’t been a real movie that took pure, exclusively electronic, techno, house-y dance music as its score. It wasn’t, “we need this techno track” as a deliberate piece of the film’s construction; that was just the right music, the music I liked at that time in my life. For layouts, in the editing, we looked for similar tracks, but I don’t really like that—I prefer working with our own music right from the start. Johnny, Reinhold, and I usually compose our music in advance, so we never have temp music in the edit. Because if you use temp music, you get distracted, you get too used to it, and then you can’t use it—it’s absurd. This was the only time we had to use other tracks, but we made sure we knew our track would have a certain vibe we wanted to pursue. We were really influenced by the clubbing scene, and the fact Berlin was, at that time, a true club city. None of the clubs had been open for longer than a year, maybe less… So it felt like styles were being born every season. 

POTENTE: In the time of Run Lola Run I wasn’t really going to raves, weirdly. But I recently went to a secret warehouse rave in downtown LA, and I remember saying to my friend, “This is so late-’90s Berlin.” [Laughs.] My friend said, “This is very Run Lola Run.” And it was. I was shocked. It was very alive. The whole thing felt very European…

NOTEBOOK: Trainspotting [1996] is another club movie from that time, and if I’m not mistaken, your film premiered—world premiered?—at a midnight screening, at a festival in Munich, directly after Trainspotting.

POTENTE: Do you remember this, Tom? It was a huge, 800-seat theater, and we were a “secret screening.” It wasn’t the first time we had seen the finished film, but it was definitely before the official premiere, the official anything… We were in the theater, it was late, people had just seen a different film. And then Lola played and people were just… cheering. Like it was a party. I had never felt that way before—so overwhelmed. My nervous system was shutting down, I was crying…

TYKWER: I remember it, totally. You were on my left, Morritz was on my right. Morritz was also a little… “Whoa. What did we do?” It was a beautiful thing, feeling, in this space full of people, like it looks like this movie is going to do something. In those days, remember, MTV was hugely important, super influential, much discussed. It was at its peak. And they chose our main song, from the score, before the movie was released, to be put into heavy rotation.

POTENTE: Heavy rotation! [Laughs.]

TYKWER: What does “heavy rotation” actually mean? It means they show the video like every hour, something like that. This is what they offered to Madonna, or Michael Jackson. Our target audience was watching MTV every day, so it was the biggest advertisement you could get, for free, in the whole universe. Suddenly the movie was so present that it was sort of inevitable for people to see it when it opened.

Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998).

NOTEBOOK: What was the status of your confidence in the film before that screening? Or before MTV took an interest in the video?

TYKWER: It was innocent, completely. It’s not only having to do with age. I just made a movie called The Light [2024], which is very similar to Lola, so it’s been on my mind. You need to let go, give in everything you have, create an atmosphere which everybody loves. And you also tell one another it’s meant to be joyful. It’s not just about work, or the supposed importance of some hard work that hopefully gets you some good out of it. Ideally, the joy of the process is what’s relevant, and you aren’t thinking so much about the result. I believe this ten times more today, of course. This is the time of life that we can spend. Everything else is immaterial. I don’t care how great my movie might be when I’m shooting, in the six months I’m editing, the two years that I’m spending with the movie. I’d rather have a fantastic two years, and even if the movie is a failure, it should at least show this. If it shows this, I’m fine with it being a failure. It rarely happens that it’s a total failure, so it’s not so dangerous, but it’s a philosophy we were following all the way. The joy of making free art.

POTENTE: I also think people overestimate. People think the filmmaker has so much power over the success of the end result; I really think you don’t. [Laughs.] Eighty percent of what we’re seeing in movie theaters today is algorithm- based, and I think people are like, “Well, if we combine X person with Y element, then we will push out this many units, on this many screens…” We’ve seen this principle fail so many times, you know?

TYKWER: With art, success is random.

POTENTE: Because it depends on so much at the time: the zeitgeist, the audience… It takes a year and a half or so to finish a film, so that time gap is essential. Look at all the things that can happen in a year and a half.

NOTEBOOK: I understand the budget of Run Lola Run was about three million deutschmarks, which was about two million US dollars at that time. I presume it was a tight schedule and tons of problems had to be figured out, constantly—but, logistics aside, what was the most difficult creative challenge you faced making the film?

POTENTE: Well, keep in mind, I was at the beginning of my career. I was a baby. I started right out of acting school with a small German film, a little bit of a “festival hit,” not like Lola but still… I was very positive, very young, and living in Munich at first, so when I came to Berlin I was completely, entirely swallowed by this part, by Tom, by everything. Run Lola Run was my life. I would not leave the set. I would just hang out, fully committed, giving myself over, because it made me feel so good. I didn’t want it to stop. 

Weirdly, there were no obstacles—of course there were, but we didn’t approach them as such. It was more like, “Oh, another challenge—yay!” I would go home at night and the measure of my excitement was “How many hurdles did we take today?” It was never “How many problems did we solve?” or “Oh god, we didn’t get that shot…” I know this sounds a little corny, but I felt I had grown more as a person at the end of every day. Even if I didn’t feel like I understood the film intellectually, because I was a little dumb and a little young, that feeling is what I took home. And it was much stronger. “Oh my god, I did that! We did that!” There was a very strong sense of community, and I think we’re yearning for that today. It’s very rare. I didn’t understand it, but I felt it. I think it has shaped me as an artist, but it also helped when I directed my own film. Everything was a shortcut to experiences in my career like Lola, and there were so few that had that same quality of being in the moment creatively, but as a team. “Why are we here?” 

Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998).

NOTEBOOK: Tom? Maybe it felt a bit different for the filmmaker?

TYKWER: Well, one big challenge was, she had to run a lot. [Laughs.] Like, a lot. Today, you would be so stressed out about the whole idea because it’s demanding technically as well. There was always a vehicle next to her, we needed to block whole streets. A young person running is a really fast thing! It takes a lot of technology to make it look easy. And she’s running endless amounts of meters. It took a while to figure all that out. Well, I met Franka, and that was it, she was the one, but much later, working with other actors, I’d realize, “Oh. They look kind of strange when they run. They don’t look great.” Not because they looked bad, but there’s just an energy to running, you need to commit your body, in a way, and many people don’t enjoy running, don’t see running as an expression. And you can see that. After I met Franka, we made a test to see how she looked, running, just for technical reasons… First time I saw it, I thought, “It looks great. I knew it!” But how did I know? I never saw you running before.

POTENTE: And if you saw me today… [Laughs.]

TYKWER: The running is the movie’s primary code, the image from the depth of our DNA, that we’re going to connect to. You see the sweat, the movement, the despair. It’s why we watch Eadweard Muybridge’s images again and again and again. There’s something so basic about it. You just relate to it instantly. There’s something about it beyond all the interpretations, the philosophy of the film. We want to follow her, see what she does. It’s obviously a very simple trick, in a way. But it had not occurred to me at all when I was writing Run Lola Run.

POTENTE: It’s also different to run with a purpose, though. Like, what’s going through the mind of the character? I was not a runner, or a trained athlete. If you had casually asked me to run and filmed me, it would have looked different. And I was actorly enough to know I had a bunch of cameras pointed at me, et cetera.

NOTEBOOK: Did Hollywood threaten a Run Lola Run remake? Was there a post-Lola depression? Your follow-up collaboration, The Princess and the Warrior [2000], carries some of the energy from Lola but also from Tom’s prior film, Winter Sleepers [1997]—it’s a whole different beast.

TYKWER: I think making that film was the best antidepressant possible. There were all kinds of absurd offers that came around, but we decided to make another, even nerdier, more German type of movie, shot in Wuppertal, the village I was born in. I think we’ve both tried to stay down to earth, to avoid being pushed in weird directions. “Climb this staircase! This is where everybody should go!” If you don’t want to climb that staircase, you shouldn’t. If you want to slow down, you should. You will stumble regardless, once in a while, but I want to feel like I tried to choose things I really wanted and cared for. If you do that, the chances are better that you won’t go mad. We’ve all seen what happens when that happens. We were healthy, no, Franka?

POTENTE: Yeah. Lola was with us for so long. There was always another festival, another award. We talked about Lola well into shooting The Princess and the Warrior. Always another thing to say. 

TYKWER: We were shooting in Wuppertal when Run Lola Run opened in the US. We always got the faxes—remember faxes?—with box-office numbers at like six in the morning. We had no time to get nervous and ask, “What does this mean for us now?”, et cetera. Just “The Americans love it, so we’re in good shape, so let’s go shooting!” One time we were about to fall asleep, and the phone call comes in the middle of the night. It’s Dustin Hoffman: “I’ll do anything to be in your next film. Anything! I’ll do anything you want! No discussion!” [Laughs.]

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