Friday, February 6, 2009

The Princess and the Warrior (Der Krieger und die Kaiserin ) -- fate or meaninglessness?

Director: Tom Tykwer, 2000.

The Princess and the Warrior reunites writer-director Tykwer with Franka Potenta, the star of their earlier effort Run Lola Run. But where Run Lola Run was high octane energy throughout, this is a much slower paced and more reflective film.

This is the story of Sissi (Potenta) and Bodo (Benno Fürmann). She is a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, while he is an ex-soldier and drifter planning a crime. Both are emotionally fragile, harboring secret pains related to loss. Neither are looking for love. But their lives intersect in strange and repetitive ways.

Slow to start, The Princess lays groundwork showing Sissi's life. She lives in the hospital in a nurses' wing. She cares deeply for the patients, who all have some form of psychosis. Yet in her selfless giving it seems she is running and hiding from herself and the ghosts of her past and her childhood. She is like Cinderella, not knowing much of the real world, living a cloistered existence with this strange set of companions. Indeed, there is a disturbing scene of a sexual nature between Sissi and one of the patients early on. meet Bodo when he is running from a pair of security guards, having stolen some goods. Outpacing them, he runs in and out of traffic, ducking into and running through stores. It is the same day Sissi has chosen to take one of the patients out on a day trip. When Bodo, oblivious to his surroundings and only focused on escape, jumps on the rear ladder of an 18-wheeler their separate circumstances converge. She walks in front to save her patient as the driver looks back at Bodo. The impact knocks her down, leaves her broken under the truck, unable to breathe. When Bodo finally sees what is going on, he crawls below with a knife and a straw and performs an emergency tracheotomy. His presence of mind saves her life. As she lays there in between life and death, she begins to imagine he is the man of her dreams, the warrior for this princess.

Two months later she is released from the hospital and returns to her work. But she is changed. There is something driving her now. She wants to find her knight in shining armor. She believes fate has brought him into her life and she will pursue fate at any cost. With diligence and determination she finally gets his address. Like Amélie, she is a picture of a wandering waif looking for love.

When she makes it to Bodo's house, they meet and fall in love. Well, that would be the Hollywood version. In the German version he wants nothing to do with her. He is living with his brother Walter (Joachim Krol) struggling to make sense of his loss and believing his life is meaningless. He wants no romantic interruption from a strange woman. Instead, he and Walter are planning to rob a bank so they can go to Australia. Rejected, she cannot understand why fate had brought him into her life.

However, this is not the end of the story. As Sissi goes into the bank to open a bank deposit box for a friend it happens to be the bank they are planning to rob on the day they are to commit the crime at the time they are doing it. When things go wrong in the robbery, Sissi feels magnetically drawn into the midst of the crime, saving Bodo's life. But now she finds herself an accessory to the crime even though she did not intend this to happen. film's final act recounts how Sissi takes the lead to help Bodo escape. Realizing that her life and future is inextricably linked to his now, she leaves with him on a journey far away. But before doing so, he helps her to unravel a misunderstanding about her earlier loss. And on the journey, in a surreal scene with two Bodos and one Sissi, Bodo finds release and redemption.

Robert K. Johnston has provided a masterful and critical analysis of this movie and Tykwer's Run Lola Run in his book, Useless Beauty. He has focused on how these two movies, along with a host of others, interpret and illustrate the book of Ecclesiastes. He has influenced my approach to this movie and so some of his thoughts may emerge here.

The fundamental themes Tykwer plays with are fate and time. He shows how the two conflicting world views of Sissi (fate) and Bodo (meaninglessness) collide and how ultimately Sissi's view wins over. Bodo's view that life is meaningless is echoed in Ecc. 2:22-23. It often appears that there is no meaning to what we do. Things happen with no reason. But Sissi's view of fate is that there is a reason. Fate, or ultimate agency directing a person and decreeing events, leads Sissi to Bodo. Biblically, we would look at this and see the hand of God at work in his sovereign control of all events in history (Dan. 4:25). There is no fate other than the sovereignty of God.

The movie's end parallels its start. At the beginning we see a woman in a cottage by the sea. This house is secluded, high atop a cliff. She is the one sending the letter to Sissi to go to the bank. At the end Sissi and Bodo drive to this cottage. It is the castle for the princess. The movie ends like a fairy tale, with the princess and the prince (or warrior) living happily ever after in this cliff-top castle-cottage. And through this "fate"-ful journey, both Sissi and Bodo have found redemption. They have helped each other to reconcile and understand their losses. They have each saved the other's life. There has been meaning in their lives and the denouement leaves us with the impression that there will be future meaning in their lives also.

Likewise, Solomon, the writer of Ecclesiastes, tells us that there is meaning after all. God has "set eternity in the hearts of men" (Ecc. 3:11) and it is a satisfaction to work hard and enjoy life. We can find meaning, not in fate but in God. If we look for him we will find him in the person of Jesus. And he will bring meaning to the short span of time we call life.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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