After the breakout success of Run Lola Run (1998) established his international reputation, Tom Tykwer reteamed with his leading lady Franka Potente for a follow-up film entitled, The Princess and the Warrior (2000). He wisely opted not to repeat the frenetic pacing of the thrill-a-minute Lola, instead slowing things down with Princess, which depicts an unconventional romance between two very different people. He tells a touching, sometimes tragic tale that not only demonstrated his versatility as a filmmaker but also that of his cinematic muse Potente who plays a very different character from the one she portrayed in Lola. While Princess wasn’t as big a hit as Lola it was a much richer experience emotionally as we watch two people try to connect with each other amidst the chaos of the world around them.
Sissi (Franka Potente) is a beautiful nurse that works at a psychiatric hospital. Tykwer immediately draws us in with an intimate scene in which she works with a young blind man (Melchior Beslon) on his tactile senses. It’s a scene that gives us some insight into Sissi – she’s kind and understanding. Meanwhile, we meet Bodo (Benno Furmann), an ex-soldier, leaning over an overpass, his arms outstretched as if pretending he can fly. When he’s not getting fired from a job (for crying while digging a grave), he’s a small-time crook helping his brother Walter (Joachim Krol) plot a heist at a bank in which he’s employed.
In a nod to Run Lola Run, the next day Bodo is running away from two men whose gas station he robbed and in the ensuing foot chase he temporarily hitches a ride on a truck, distracting the driver who doesn’t see Sissi crossing the road up ahead until the last second. She is hit and trapped under the vehicle unable to breath. By chance, Bodo comes back and notices her under the truck. He saves her life by performing a makeshift tracheotomy. As he’s helping her, Sissi notices Bodo crying, an involuntary action that happens on occasion. During this moment she thinks of the oddest things, like how his sweat tastes or that her behind itches. They are separated at the hospital and all she has to remember him by is a button off his jacket.
After she’s released from the hospital, Sissi finds herself haunted by this man who saved her life. Working at the psychiatric hospital isn’t the same anymore. She becomes obsessed with finding him. She eventually tracks Bodo down and a tentative relationship begins to develop as she attempts to convey her gratitude for him saving her life while he tries to push her away feeling that he doesn’t deserve her attention.
Franka Potente has had a fascinating career, from mainstream fare like Blow (2001) and The Bourne Identity (2002) to Creep (2004) and Romulus, My Father (2007), but The Princess and the Warrior may feature her most affecting performance to date. She initially portrays Sissi as this beautiful, virginal character – an innocent that doesn’t understand the ways of the world. She is a sweet, empathetic person that puts other people’s needs before her own – it’s the nature of her job and it is what makes her such a good nurse. However, by living and working at the hospital, Sissi has physically locked herself away from the world while Bodo has locked himself away emotionally, which allows him to go out in the world. Together, maybe they can help each other escape from their self-imposed prisons. They need to escape their respective worlds – hers of sterility and routine and his of darkness and pain, heading down a new road together.
Benno Furmann plays Bodo as a person suffering from profound internal pain and the actor conveys it through his expressive, shell-shocked eyes. He carries around guilt and regret that threatens to crush him. He copes by internalizing it and not letting anyone get close. Furmann delivers a wonderfully sensitive performance of a tormented soul and the scenes where Bodo relives past traumas are heartbreaking. The actor has a riveting presence and you cannot take your eyes off him because he is so interesting to watch. Bodo is the polar opposite of Sissi as he has seen too much, knowing only too well how cruel the world can be. Tykwer also shows their contrasts visually with Sissi being soft, pretty with white skin and blonde hair while Bodo has dark hair and is angular and athletic with tanned skin.
Furmann and Potente have fantastic chemistry together and the scenes they share crackle with intensity. It is interesting to note that we learn about Sissi through her actions and her interactions with other characters while with Bodo it is mainly through expositional dialogue that fleshes out his backstory.
The Princess and the Warrior is a sensual film much like the cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski in the way it engages your tactile senses as much as the medium is able. Tykwer does this by inserting close-up shots of Sissi rubbing an ice cube on her skin or in another scene holding a seashell up to her ear. He has created an intimate story about two people but with epic emotions, like the life and death experience they share with the truck accident. This is evident in the moment where she’s being gurneyed away in the hospital after the accident and Sissi tries to hold Bodo’s hand until he finally lets go.
Like Run Lola Run, the inspiration for The Princess and the Warrior came from a single image that filmmaker Tom Tykwer thought of: “The moment of a woman – which I knew immediately was Franka – waking up from unconsciousness and realizing she’s under a car. She doesn’t really understand what it means, but realizes she must have been hit by that car and then she understands that she is actually dying.” After thinking up the initial idea, he developed it after spending four weeks vacationing on a remote island off the coast of West Africa with then-girlfriend and actress Franka Potente. Tykwer has said that the film was influenced greatly by dreams: “This film is constantly walking through this dream and reality and this fairytale feeling and a hell-like reality.”
Potente worked with him on developing her character. She first imagined Sissi with big shoes because they kept her “feet on the ground.” Then, she saw Sissi wearing baggy nurse’s outfits because she was unaware of her sexuality. Potente changed her hair color to light blond and wore white clothing to convey Sissi’s angel-like sense. The actress figured out Sissi’s body language: “We were sure that she was a character that hadn’t really experienced her sexuality and doesn’t know anything really about her body as a woman.” The actress worked on how Sissi walked and the way she talked – “very quiet, not so self-confident, searching, but forward and curious.” For research, she worked in a psychiatric ward for a week but it didn’t work out well. “I didn’t know what to do. All your communication patterns, anything you know doesn’t work there. These people don’t match any patterns.” Tykwer also spent time in a ward and felt that “few films represent the normality of that. People live there and use rituals, like any family has its rituals … There’s a low-key high tension, and you have no idea what’s going to happen next.” Sissi ended up being one of Potente’s most difficult roles to perform because it was the farthest away from herself.
The Princess and the Warrior received mostly positive reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Tykwer uses the elements of genre in his film, but evades generic simplicities. He is using the conventions of a bank heist movie, not to make a bank heist movie, but to lay down a narrative map so that we can clearly see how the characters wander off of it—lose their way in the tangle of their lives and emotions.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Ms. Potente and Mr. Furmann make a sullenly attractive couple. When the camera isn’t scouring their faces as if searching for an entry into their souls, it is circling around them voyeuristically.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Ponderous when indulging in the mysteries of chance and destiny, the movie is also arresting when absorbed in the details of Sissi’s unorthodox living and working environment among unstable patients.”
In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote, “This film demands much more acting than sprinting from Potente than Run Lola Run did, and she is more than up to the challenge, creating a compelling portrait of a young woman who beneath a demure surface is as coolly daring as a comic book heroine.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “And it’s engaging to sit through a movie that deconstructs action elements – in this case, a bank robbery – and casts them in an entirely different light. Unlike Hollywood’s heavy-hitting movies of the summer, you don’t have any idea what’s going to happen next.” However, the USA Today’s Mark Clark gave it two-and-a-half stars and wrote, “At 133 minutes, however, the movie keeps putting a paceless point on what would seem to be an obvious homily. Crawl, Lola, crawl.”
Tykwer’s film explores different kinds of love and provokes questions about the nature of it. There’s love between friends, love between brothers, love between caregiver and patient, romantic love and even subtextually with love between director and leading lady. There is a tradition in cinema of directors being involved with their leading ladies – James Cameron and Linda Hamilton, Sam Mendes and Kate Winslet and at the time they made this film, Tykwer and Potente. Does the director have to be in love with his leading lady to capture her inner beauty and her external luminescence on camera? If so, he succeeded with both Lola and Princess. Interestingly, they never did another film together after this one and broke up a few years later. He has also never managed to equal the brilliance of Princess since.
The Princess and the Warrior reminds us to notice the world around us, the lushness of life and to enjoy the textures of things. This film is full of little moments that have meaning and contribute to the textured world Tykwer has created. Princess is all about the unpredictable directions life takes and how one chance encounter can change everything. It sounds like a cliché, but Tykwer’s approach is anything but that. He has crafted what feels like a very personal film about two very different people that find each other and in doing so provide what the other needs. For her it is to break free from a world she’s only known and for him it is dealing with a past trauma. This is a powerful film that takes you on a journey with these characters and by the end they have changed significantly from when we first me them. It addresses weighty themes like life, death and morality in a thoughtful way.
Axmaker, Sean. “Tykwer Slows Down After Lola.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer. July 2, 2001.
Blackwelder, Rob. “Life Beyond Lola.” SPLICEDwire. April 20, 2001.
Fuchs, Cynthia. “Interview with Tom Tykwer and Franka Potente.” PopMatters. 2001.