Run, Lola, Run's Unique Approach to Gender
WARNING: This article contains spoilers! See the movie first!
It is hard to ignore a film with a narrative driven by such a strikingly motivated, mobile (and arguably potent) female lead. Surely, the simple fact of her presence must mean that the film has something to say about gender. While most critics swing one way or the other—towards the affirmation of patriarchy or the rise of feminism—in analyzing this film, I seek to argue that there exists a middle ground, a truce between the sexes, that is presented as the resolution to the gender conflict both within the diegesis, and also in the nondiegetic world. Globally, this film has spread the message of gender equality through a narrative and aesthetics that are accessible to a wide array of viewers.
The narrative form of Run, Lola, Run is, in essence, a fairytale, but with the gender roles switched. The film is still understandable by many cultures as a love story, but now that the hero is a woman and the damsel in distress is a man, it challenges the dominant gender ideology. In the presentation of its narrative, Run, Lola, Run is careful to appeal to a wide range of viewers, each one of its three major narrative segments (referred to as ‘rounds’), offering a different outcome resulting from a different approach to gender conflict. In the final segment, the ‘happy ending’ is one in which gender conflict is largely avoided altogether. This ending, the idea of peace and equality between the genders, becomes acceptable to the most viewers and therefore spreads the message of gender equality.
A unique feature of Run, Lola, Run is its narrative structure, which is nonlinear but still remarkably intuitive. Each of the three rounds presents the same situation, with variables only slightly tweaked, leading to entirely different outcomes. There are two transition sequences that bridge the gaps between these parts, and perform the vital functions of resolving and explicating each part before moving on to the next. In spite of the distinctiveness of each part, there is a sense of narrative progression. This is due to the evolution of Lola as a character (as she seems to remember details from the previous rounds) and her changing reactions to events. Her evolution parallels that of gender politics in society, the first round representing a modernist view, the second, a postmodern view, and the third a sort of happy medium or synthesis between the two (a dialectical analysis will take place later on).
In the first round we are presented with Lola and her boyfriend Manni and their dilemma: to find 100,000 marks in 20 minutes. Lola decides to ask her father, a banker, for the money. Because she is unable to come up with the money herself, her agency is in question. She can think of nothing else but to rely on the patriarch for the money, which symbolizes power. In this round, the patriarch (literally ‘the father’) holds all the power and Lola is helpless to contest it. The father kicks her out, and she has to run back to Manni empty-handed. When she arrives, Manni does not hear her emphatic cry—her voice is also rendered ineffectual. She has no choice but to help Manni rob the Bolle, following his lead. But, she is doomed as soon as she holds the gun. Her carrying of the phallic symbol marks her as a threat to masculinity, so she is shot and killed by a male police officer. In this round, Lola is victimized at every turn, the embodiment of the idea of woman as weak and without agency. The transitional sequence following the round places Lola in a submissive position, laying on Manni’s arm and asking him questions as he smokes.
At the end of this transitional sequence, Lola decides that she does not want to die, and the narrative sequence begins again. This time, she arrives at her father’s bank slightly later, allowing her father to finish a conversation that was previously interrupted by her arrival. The woman he is having an affair with has just admitted to him that the baby she is pregnant with is not his. This, in combination with the fact that in Round 1 it was revealed that Lola is not his biological daughter, spotlights the father’s impotence and lack (of control). Upon her entry into the scene, Lola is enraged by the knowledge of her father’s affair, and violently throws whatever she can grab at him. This counterpoints the moment in Round 1 when her reaction to not being her father’s child is less angry and more dejected, sad and complacent. Her rage becomes her source of power. She is about to storm out when she is teased by the security guard. She then takes his gun (the phallus) and uses it to rob the bank. From this moment on she is in control, but she is taking advantage of men in order to do it. Before she leaves the building she throws away the gun, hiding her outward symbol of power. The police have surrounded the building, but they humorously mistake her for an innocent, referring to her as ‘girl’ as if that’s all she could possibly be. This scene “betrays a typically infantilizing view of women, one that denies her the same status and legitimacy that would be granted a male subject” (Revesz, 114), but it also shows that femininity can be used as a subversive weapon, even unintentionally, because men are shown to be very capable of underestimating women.
This round, however, does not end well. The woman doesn’t triumph, as she probably would if this were a straightforward feminist film, but she fails—this time her failure comes in the form of Manni’s death. When he hears her call (her voice has been granted strength) he steps out into the road, and is hit by an ambulance. Just as Lola (woman) has obtained power, Manni (man) has lost it, and assumed her previous, submissive position. This point is made quite directly in the transition following, which has the roles of Manni and Lola reversed—he lies on her arm and asks her questions while she smokes. This problem of the imbalance of power between the sexes can only be solved in one way: both the man and the woman must succeed in their goals, without bringing the other down. The ending gives this to us exactly, with Lola winning the money in a Casino and Manni finding the bum who picked up the original money on the train. Manni even gives the bum his gun, turning over his phallus in favor of an equitable relationship between him and Lola. All of this information points to an ending that suggests an equalizing of the two genders, but some (male) critics have still read the film as supporting masculine ideals.
Ingeborg Majer O’Sickey, in his article “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets (Or Does She?): Time and Desire in Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run,” argues that by the end of the film, Lola becomes a “deflated heroine” and that “the film’s hyper kinetic energy that the viewer has come to associate with Lola, is drained from her and transferred to Manni” (131, 130). This much may be true, and it still fits within the idea of a power balance, for Lola may have to be brought down a bit by the end to be level with Manni, but he also adds that “Lola has lost her power” (130). O’Sickey’s article seems intent on the conceit that somehow Lola has diminished into nothing by the end of the film. He even closes his argument by citing the final song:
“The last lines of the lyrics in the soundtrack of the film begin with a male vocalist singing four repetitions of “I don’t need you any more than you need me,” ending in “I don’t need you”” (131).
This aspect of his argument is flawed, in that it fails to account for the female vocalist singing along in the background, and also for the fact that the final lyric is actually “I don’t need you more.” If neither one needs the other more, then it follows that they need each other equally. Manni’s displays of bravado at the very end of the film, even supported by the mise-en-scene as O’Sickey argues they are, are not enough to elevate him to a status higher than that which Lola has held throughout its majority. In fact, Manni’s comments and the scene more generally can be seen as ironically “reflecting a classically insensitive male response to female suffering” (Schlipphacke, 120). The attentive (and probably female) viewer may even laugh at Manni’s confidence, for he feels he has won and proved himself to be strong(er than Lola, enough for Lola), but he has yet to discover that Lola has won the money as well and is thusly equally strong. Even Lola herself shows a bit of a smile at Manni’s masculine brand of naïveté. (Make sure to watch the widescreen version.)
Another author, Vadim Rudnev, chocks Lola’s entire being up to Manni’s own ‘psychic reality’. In his words, “Lola is the hero’s anima, and when he tells her to run, he runs himself. Her run is the embodiment of the driven emotions of a man on the verge of despair” (390). His argument is frustrating because it clings to the classical definition of the fairytale, never questioning whether the film is actually aiming to subvert that clichéd formula with regards to gender. There are many moments in the film that run contrary to the idea of Lola being the embodied form of Manni’s emotions, the most obvious of which is the ending of Round 2, in which Manni dies by responding to Lola’s call. If Lola were only a manifestation of Manni’s emotions, then why would she call him to his death? Does he have some kind of suicidal impulse? Rudnev’s explanation of Lola’s character may fit for Round 1, in which Lola has little agency, but it certainly doesn’t fit in a general sense, as Lola’s role and the gender dynamics of the film change throughout the rounds.
One male critic, Tom Whalen, seems to have a better grasp on the gender relationships presented by Run, Lola, Run. He structures his review of the film in sections, each one for a separate thematic, stylistic, or narrative trend that occurs in the film. When he gets to the section titled “Love Story,” he is careful to note that “it is Lola, we must remember, who is the driving force here; Lola runs, whereas Manni is more often than not stationary… Still, these two are a pair, emotionally and visually” (38). Lola may be the focus, the dominant heroine of the narrative, but she is nothing without Manni; she needs him as much as he needs her. Otherwise, she would not be willing to go to such lengths as to bend time in order to help him. Although Manni’s brand of love may at first come off as needy and ineffectual when compared to Lola’s passionate motivation, Manni proves himself to be equally capable of moving and achieving in Round 3.
The key point in Whalen’s article is his discussion of “The Dialectic” (36-38). Visually represented by the motif of the spiral (on their pillowcases, outside the Spirale bar, the spiral staircase, etc.) and by various clashing within and between images, the dialectic is a prevalent theme in this film. Most interestingly, Whalen uses the concept of the dialectic to theorize the tripartite narrative structure of the film, claiming the Round 1 is the thesis, Round 2 is the antithesis, and Round 3 is the synthesis (36). It is unclear in his article, though, what precisely in each of the first two rounds is conflicting, and what springs forth from that conflict in Round 3. As discussed earlier, the first round encapsulates themes of patriarchal domination, and the second portrays a feminist revolt against that patriarchy. Thesis, antithesis. The synthesis then, must be the idea of gender equality, because the genders have had their opportunity to clash, and each time one is empowered versus the other, the situation ends in a failure. The traditional definition of the dialectic assumes that through the juxtaposition of two seemingly opposed ideas, a new idea arises. The new idea or synthesis of this film occurs in Round 3, when both patriarchal and feminist ideologies are pushed to the wayside in favor of the ideology of equality.
The repetitive nature of time in Run, Lola, Run is not necessarily completely repetitive, but dialectical as well. Whalen writes, “Time for Lola (and for us) is not circular, but (dialectically) spiral” (36). This method of dealing with time is also a method of dealing with history, and how gender ideologies have changed and conflicted over its span. Our modern conception of gender relations begins (chronologically speaking) with patriarchy, and therefore so does the film. Then, feminism rises as a reaction to that. Temporally it comes afterwards. The third round brings us to a time that is more representative of the present, in which a compromise between the ideologies of the first two rounds has become acceptable (if not completely demanded).
Possibly the most striking aspect of Run, Lola, Run is that it allows for so many different readings, not just with regards to gender, but to a wide range of topics impossible to fit within the scope of this essay. All of the critics cited in this essay have their own, unique viewpoints. Perhaps this is the appeal that made Run, Lola, Run such a global hit—after watching it, one can draw almost any conclusion. The presentation of three possible narratives with three possible gender ideologies, gives us the option of choosing to accept one in particular, and read that one’s ideology into the rest. However, it still holds that the only piece with a ‘happy ending’—the only narrative strain that doesn’t end in failure and death—is the final round, in which Manni and Lola have both proven themselves as representatives of a capable sex without subverting the other. Only in this harmonious balance can they hold hands and walk off into the distance, having reached a level of equality befitting their supernatural fairytale romance.
O'Sickey, Ingeborg Majer. "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets (Or Does She?): Time and Desire in Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run." Quarterly Review of Film and Video 19.2 (2002): 123-131.
Revesz, Eva. "Undine geht and Lola rennt: Symbolic Female Flights in the Work of Ingeborg Bachmann and Tom Tykwer." Germanic Review 83.2 (Spring 2008): 107-138.
Rudnev, Vadim. "Run, Matrix, Run." Third Text 17.4 (Dec. 2003): 389-394.
Schlipphacke, Heidi. "Melodrama's Other: Entrapment and Escape in the Films of Tom Tykwer." Camera Obscura 21.62 (May 2006): 108-143.
Whalen, Tom. "Run Lola Run." Film Quarterly 53.3 (2000): 33-40.