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Run Lola Run (film essay)

Posted on May 13, 2010 at 12:35 AM

The multi-linear narrative structure of Run Lola Run challenges the idea that a situation can be resolved in only one way. This essay will discuss how relationships between cause and effect contribute to the film’s multi-linear narrative. The term “multi-linear narrative” refers to a story which is capable of branching off into different directions depending on the choices of the viewer or the development of events, dictated by set parameters within the media. This can include the possibility of the story looping back on earlier sections, and is often used to mimic the structure and recall of human memory (Askham). Interactive games generally take the form of multi-linear narratives, which is why Run Lola Run has been compared to a video game. Cause and effect, or causality, is one of the central motifs of the film, and refers to the relationship between two events, wherein the second event is a consequence of the first (Askham).

Run Lola Run is a German thriller that follows a young woman who needs to obtain 100,000 deutschemarks in 20 minutes, to save her boyfriend’s life. The film offers three alternate possibilities as to how Lola tries to resolve the crisis. In each scenario, she encounters the same people along the way. Because her timing varies, however, their futures, and hers, differ dramatically. This essay will examine the resolution of a narrative crisis within the context of a non-linear structure, contrasting themes of causality, trial by error, and free will vs. determinism; as well as comparing the open-world sandbox depicted in Run Lola Run to an interactive video game.


Run Lola Run starts off with a very simple premise. Lola gets off the phone with Manni and sets about trying to find 100,000 marks. We follow her to the supermarket, where she meets Manni, and although she has not been able to get the money from her father, we expect her and Manni to succeed. They manage to rob the supermarket, but then our expectations are flipped completely on their heads when Lola, the lead protagonist, gets gunned down by a police officer. This action does not correspond with the conventions of a traditional narrative, leaving the audience utterly alone, their heroine dead within the first 20 minutes. Although it does fulfill the conventions of narrative closure, because we find out what happens, it “fails to attain a return to normality and equilibrium” (Bizzocchi). Then, the narrative suddenly begins again, with Lola running out of her door for the second time with the same goal as before. This begins the process again, with our expectations perhaps even greater for Lola to succeed. By retelling the same story three times, Tykwer is able to present three contrasting endings, and drastically defy our expectations. He also breaks the narrative conventions by altering the normality we are left with at each ending (Bizzocchi).

As the film progresses, we learn that alternate futures depend upon the choices and the circumstances with which people are confronted. Circumstances alter timing; timing affects choices; and choices result in different consequences. We face different turning points in our lives depending upon circumstances with which we are confronted. Throughout the film, Tykwer identifies a series of rational and irrational factors that contribute to the eventual outcome of people’s futures. Rational factors include “choice”, “decision” and “the will to act”. Irrational factors, or uncontrollable variables, include chance (such as Lola betting at the casino); unexpected obstacles/malevolence (such as the young punk with the dog); disappointments that evoke a strong reaction (such as Lola’s fathers cruelty, provoking her to rob him); and unexpected kindness (such as the casino teller giving Lola the 100 mark chip) (Weinrich). These variables could also be interpreted as Lola’s free will in conflict with the predetermination of the universe.

Throughout the course of the film, Lola bumps into people, talks to them, or simply passes them b. The sound of a camera flash warming up can be heard, and their resulting futures are then conveyed through a series of still frames. The futures are widely divergent from encounter to encounter. In one scenario, a woman whom Lola accidentally bumps into remains poor and kidnaps an unattended baby after her child was taken away by social workers. In another scenario the woman wins the lottery and becomes rich. In the third scenario, the woman experiences a religious conversion (Wedel). Lola’s actions, timed slightly differently, have radically different outcomes for Lola herself, as well as her father and Manni. In one scenario, Lola is killed. In another, Manni dies. In the third, her father is killed. So the film shows that some events, even insignificant ones, can have a profound impact upon people’s lives (Wedel).

That’s one plausible way of interpreting cause and effect throughout the film; that it’s about timing; that “our future and the futures of those we encounter in life are the result of a complex mix of personal choices, circumstances, chance and timing”. Life, then, is essentially unpredictable and we are affected as much by others’ actions as our own (Weinrich).


On several occasions the theme of free will vs. determinism is integrated into the film. The opening narration states the futility of asking questions (“an answer that will give rise to a new question...”;), as one leads to another and we only travel in circles. Lola's interactions with other people are similar in that a small conversation or interaction with people on the streets leads to other interactions. For example, the guy on the bike can become a happy, married man or a homeless drug addict. The concept of free will is also presented because she has three different realities to choose from. This concern with how “seemingly inconsequential incidents affect characters’ lives”, and how such occurrences can “radically alter subsequent events… is effectively used to structure narrative of the film” (Bizzocchi). The film is again arguing that people’s lives are frequently determined by events that occur in the briefest of moments, or by some single decision we have made, or even by chances over which we have no control. The film is, in fact challenging the viewer; asking them how different their life would have been, had it not been for some apparently trivial incident. Tykwer is studying “the exponentially fast divergence of realities from near-identical initial states”. He “thrives in a post-modern, chaotic universe swayed mightily by every flap of a butterfly's wings… held at ransom [by the] influential repercussions of the apparently inconsequential” (Kosta).

Run Lola Run offers three alternative narratives, each comprising the same story, but told in contrasting ways. Tykwer shows that it is possible to “retell a story numerous times, and make each rendering… compelling by just making subtle changes”. Each section of the film alters quite considerably from one another, as Lola gets closer and closer to attaining her goal. If we examine the first section and then compare it to the last we can see a number of “details [that] reveal how Lola’s character changes, and as a consequence so does the eventual outcome. Lola’s “determination to succeed”, as well as “her confidence in her own ability”, seem to be far greater in the final part of the film (Kosta). This is shown in the way she evades the dog on the stairs and then growls back at him, whereas in the first part of the film she has to take evasive action and seems to be wary of the dog. Another important difference, is the way she manages to miss the woman as she runs around the corner. In the first section she runs into the woman, whose future we then see as being tragic, with her children being taken away from her. Just as “Lola’s destiny alters in the third part, so does the woman’s… whose future [becomes] one of salvation and living for God” (Wedel).


Run Lola Run is an example of formalist narrative. Tykwer makes it very clear to audiences that we are watching a made-up story, which the he can play with in any way he likes. Formalism tends to use narrative structure to “highlight themes [the director] feels are important by stylizing, exaggerating, or distorting particular elements in ways that convey the articiality” of the lm experience (Pacific Cinémathèque). Besides the chaotic, colourful, fast-paced nature of the film, Lola herself is portrayed as something of a superhero. She is able to sprint for long distances across the city of Berlin; shatter glass and manipulate objects with her ear-splitting scream; and even heal dying men with a touch of her hand. Moreover, the films narrative structure has been compared to that of a video game; a “Lara Croft made flesh” (Ebert). The fundamental structural difference between video games and film is that games offer “the promise of an active, immersive sandbox experience of infinite possible variation”, whereas movies are “more passive ‘on rails’ spectacles”. In Run Lola Run, Tykwer has created “an on-rails experience that somehow manages to capture the energy, liberation and spontaneity of a sandbox environment through a stream of ceaseless cinematic invention, structural design flair” (Chicago Sun-Times).

The basis of the film is the fact that Lola has the opportunity to redo her mistakes from previous threads of narrative, resulting in “multiple outcomes that coexist easily within the film's overall structure” (Bizzocchi). The ability to “replay” a sequence is one of the most characteristic aspects of computer-based gaming, and is usually accomplished by saving the game state at regular intervals (usually before and after each major decision point in the games “script”;). The miraculous regression back to Lola’s apartment is the same as a video game player reloading from a save point, after defeat. Lola also seems to be able to carry over knowledge from previous runs into the current one (e.g. flicking off the safety switch on the gun), which is what a person playing a video game would also be able to do. All of these elements are there to give the viewer the impression that he or she is continually replaying the same level, until they get it right; perhaps even a sense of interaction with the film itself (Wedel).

Run Lola Run also utilizes mise-en-scene to give it a video game feel. The insertion of animated sequences prevents the audience from getting too involved with the narrative, and makes them aware of the fact that they do in fact exist outside the frame of action. The animation reinforces the fact that it is indeed a video game movie, as video games predominantly employ rendered graphics, rather than live action footage. Early on in the film, when Lola is wracking her brain for “a way to obtain a large amount of money in a short amount of time”, the circling camera invokes the idea of an avatar selection screen. Interestingly, at the conclusion of first sequence, the character of “Papa” shakes his head in order to “signify that the chosen narrative path is doomed to failure”. Also, the way that the camera is constantly following Lola from gives the audience a strong sense of identification with her. We feel personally invested in her fate. In games, only the main characters are important. Everyone else is expendable; hence the unusually high quota of death and destruction during the third sequence (Pacific Cinémathèque).

This can be seen as a commentary on modern society, “where people's destinies are arbitrary and based on everyday incidents and accidents” (i.e. someone could stay poor, or win the lottery, depending on the particular momment she buys the lotto ticket, etc). Even Lola's live is arbitrary. One single moment can mess up her chances, or make her succeed. Lola as a character, however, “does not want to believe in the random nature of life, and thus shouts ‘Stop!’ when she is dying, as if she has a choice even in the moment of her death”. This, and her actions throughout the movie—constantly running to save the boyfriend; the refusal to give up in times of uncertainty—is a struggle between the ideas of determinism and free will; the human ability to change courses of events versus everything being predetermined (with her attempts possibly being factored in; see: the Predestination paradox) (Weinrich).


Run Lola Run is one of several films from the 1990s to use narrative, temporal and causal structures, derived from video games. Sometimes termed “Nintendo narratives,” these films are marked by repetitions, multiple timelines, and episodic structures. The central themes of the film are the concept of free-will, the “causal consequences of our most trivial decisions”, and “the radical differences of outcome that can result from the tiniest variations of deterministic factors” (Chacago Sun-Times). Tykwer illustrates this philosophical conundrum by replaying Lola’s 20-minute challenge three times, each time with small modifications of choice which lead to staggeringly different outcomes.

Categories: ESSAYS, Cinema

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