Princess and the Warrior, The (Der Krieger und die Kaiserin, Germany 2000) ** 3/4
Written and directed by Tom Tykwer. Photography, Frank Griebe. Editing, Mathilde Bonnefoy. Sets, Uli Hanisch. Music, Tom Tykwer, Johnny Kilmek, Reinhold Heil. Producers, Stefan Arndt, Maria Köpf. Cast: Cast: Franka Potente, Benno Furmann, Joachim Król, Marita Breuer, Lars Rudolph, Melchior Beslon, Jürgen Tarrach, et al. Widescreen. A Sony Classics release. In German with subtitles. 130 minutes. Rated R (sex, violence, language).
Writer-director Tom Tykwer, born (1965) and raised in Wuppertal, a beautifully located city in Northwest Germany (pop. ca 400,000.) His 1998 feature "Run Lola Run" made him a celebrity at home and abroad. The two films that preceded it, "Deadly Maria" and "Winter Sleepers," were not, I believe, commercially distributed in the U.S.A, at least not widely. But they were screened in festivals, special venues, series, and such. "The Princess and the Warrior" on the other hand has had solid exposure in this country.
In the earlier opus Lola was played by Franka Potente, the director's lady-love. That movie was sassy, super-kinetic, fast, entertaining, humorous and definitely original both in plot and techniques. The latter used a bag of stylistic games and tricks ranging from mixing film genres, live action, animation, absurdism, trendy pop music and beyond.
After his "Lola" hit, maverick Tykwer must have veered to "And Now Something Completely Different." This declaration was made famous by TV's "Monty Python." which did exactly that as it experimented wildly with mixed-media techniques and farcical arbitrariness.
But "The Princess" is not a bit funny. It is a looney bin without the Looney Tunes. The author permeates it with those Teutonic elements and attitudes that have reigned in German cinema (in fact in many of its best films)from its early days to the Young German Cinema which came in the footsteps of the French New Wave. The key words include "destiny," "sturm und drang," "fate," "solemnity," "seriousness," "the mysteries of life and love," and so on.
In "The Princess..." Franka Potente resurfaces as Sissi, the central character. She is a nurse in a rather peculiar psychiatric hospital in Wuppertal. The setup here as in many other sections of the film --including the opening scenes -- is murky. For instance, it this a separate clinic or a wing of a larger entity? That's a minor question...and there are several other minor questions that distract in the unfolding of the story.
Sissi is a rather shy, self-effacing woman. She is beloved by the inmates. whom she treats with patience and kindness. Sissi even goes as far as relieving one man's sexual frustration in a way that the old Hollywood Code (and probably today's self-policing) would not tolerate. Tobacco addicts make a note in case you're hospitalized in Germany: the ward fully allows smoking all over, perhaps as a soother of nerves.
Then there's the other half of the equation, the somber widower Bodo (Benno Furman.) He is a vague, listless character, a former member of the Bundeswehr ( German Armed Forces), a petty thief, and shiftless. His last job was as a grave-digger. He was fired because he cried at the burial of a woman unknown to him. Therefore, Bodo is a toughie yet a softie. His older brother Walter works in a local bank and is planning a brotherly heist.
By one of those Truly Amazing Coincidences, during a confusing street chase after Bodo (he's robbed a bank) Sissi is on her way to another bank. In later reels it turns out to be the one that employs Walter. Caught in the hubbub Sissi stupidly crosses the street smack into the path of a huge truck. (It almost looks like a suicide attempt, but is not). The vehicle --in good German tradition splendidly clean and shiny - hits her. She finds herself under it, horribly hurt, unable to breathe. Bodo, to hide from the cops, crawls under the truck, finds the girl, presumably feels that he caused the accident unwillingly. He performs a most vividly shown tracheotomy. (Think of it. He doesn't even have a Swiss Army knife.) Then he vanishes.
Hospitalized and treated, Sissi is alive and well within a few unlikely weeks. She becomes obsessed with locating her savior --and eventually does. Her search is not only motivated by gratefulness but also by a vague feeling that she and her savior are somehow united or connected. The psychology/metaphysics of her state of mind (and heart?) is not explored or explained, but it is there nonetheless.
I've given you a lot of plot, but there's far more to tell, which I will not. Matters are complicated, and move slowly. This is not "Run, Sissi, run." I will only disclose that later on Walter and Bodo will perform a major heist of Walter's bank. The heretofore sluggish tempo becomes breathless action and suspense. But there are still unclarities, unlikelihoods or gaps.
The heist proper is the most stupid I have ever seen in a movie --and I've been watching movie bank-robbers since the day I got my first weekly allowance. Then there's the Other Truly Amazing Coincidence of Sissi -- who, so far as I know, is not in cahoots with the brothers. During the armed robbery she is inside the bank in order to open the very account she was going to establish on the day of her accident.
Following this bungled job Sissi and Bodo enter into true love, police hunts, etc. etc. and more etc. In another Amazing Coincidence, inside Sissi's room, Bodo spots a picture of Sissi's defunct mother (grandmother?) and says "I knew her. I buried her." (See above. Does he have X-ray vision that sees through coffins? Well, no, but he had assisted in her burial, where there was an open casket.) Then there's a happy ending which includes that venerable German element of the "doppelganger," the double.
The way to see this movie is like that in "Connections," that excellent British TV series of some years ago, in which one scientific step leads to another, seemingly irrelevant, and a chain of things, events, unexpected relationships leads to major technical developments. If only the movie had been more explicit or less arbitrary. But warts and all, this strange, drawn-out picture does have the virtue of being a creation outside the tiresome mainstream of cinema. It is "different" and "interesting," adjectives that are sadly inapplicable to the indifferent, poor or even unbearable films that make up the huge majority of movies.
Note that the German title puts the Warrior first, the Princess second. Why the change in the exported prints? Note too that "Kaiserin," means "Empress," and that Sissi was the affectionate name given to Elizabeth Von Wittelsbach who married Emperor Franz-Joseph. She died when a young Italian anarchist stabbed her. The film's allusions/connections via names and titles baffle me.
I watched this movie on a preview video. The images were fine and often impressively photographed, but the subtitles were awful : tiny, unclear, often unreadable or merging with the background. I know enough German to follow what's on the screen, but even so, the miserable subtitles were a major distraction. Most probably I missed a number of details and perhaps misinterpreted certain passages. I hope that when a commercial video becomes available its subtitles will be redone from scratch. In any case, Caveat Emptor.