"The Princess" in German writer-director Tom Tykwer's The Princess and the Warrior leads a desperately mundane existence. A nurse in a psychiatric hospital, Sissi (Tykwer paramour Franka Potente) is a study in self-sacrifice, quietly enduring all manner of abuse from her charges. The patients smack her, swear at her, use her like a well-worn crutch for emotional (and, in one case, sexual) support. Worse still, they take her for granted, and still she sunnily endures.
Sissi's karmic counterpart is Bodo (Benno FÃrmann), an aimless ex-army officer and would-be bank robber, a reclusive soul tortured by a tragedy in his past. In a poetic nod to fairy tales, Bodo is a weeping warrior, overcome by tears at the thought of death. Both characters are vaguely dissatisfied prisoners of circumstance; without realizing it, they're both waiting for some twist of fate to release them from their self-inflicted stupor.
And so are we all, suggests Tykwer, whose name should be familiar to viewers who strapped on their intellectual running shoes to keep up with his convention-busting 1999 indie smash Run Lola Run. Fate and coincidence played a fast-paced game of pingpong in that film, which conjured life as a cosmic video game: Just hit the reset button and replay until the dice roll comes up seven.
Coincidence plays a central role in The Princess and the Warrior as well, but the pace couldn't be more different. It's languid, not breakneck. You might say the film moves at the speed of life, flowing like blood through veins, pulsing and quickening, slowing and thickening.
Sissi and Bodo's fateful intersection occurs by accident. Bodo, on the run from the police, inadvertently causes a truck to slam Sissi to the pavement. As she lies dying, pinned and gurgling for her final breath, Bodo crawls beneath the truck, hoping to hide from his pursuers, and sees her predicament.
What follows is masterful. All sound fades away, save the sound Bodo makes as he moves to save Sissi's life. It's a defining moment for each of them, and Tykwer lets us experience it in all its glory.
The pace picks up again following Sissi's convalescence. She's convinced that there's a capital-R reason why fate brought her and Bodo together, and it's the quiet strength of her conviction ' she's finally found a purpose ' that encourages him to believe it too. Initially, he pushes her away; later, coincidence nudges them together again in the course of a bank heist gone wrong.
Potente, minus the shocking crimson coif she sported in Run Lola Run, is the film's emotional core. "I have always liked silence," Sissi writes of the shock she felt of her near-death experience. Good thing, given that the film gives it star billing. Tykwer stretches scene after scene to the breaking point, slowing them so much that you almost expect to hear the sound of heartbeats as the characters stare at each other, waiting for someone to speak. Instead, a haunting piano plays, or dreamy ambient music, each note gently emphasizing the importance of even the smallest moment. FÃrmann is less adept at putting those moments over ' outside of a couple of isolated breakdowns, his character remains distant and undecipherable for most of the film.
For all his talent, Tykwer has his shortcomings. In the film's final minutes, he can't resist pulling a gratuitous time-space trick out of his filmmaker's bag, nearly spoiling the dramatic effect he's spent the last two hours constructing. It also wouldn't kill him to sharpen his editing blade. Still, Tykwer has a vision that appears to be progressing film by film, and one can't help wondering what truths he'll uncover in his next opus.