Depending upon your point of view, the title of Tom Tykwer’s 2000 German film The Princess and the Warrior might be misleading, or it might not. If you are expecting a fantasy film in the most literal sense, or even a revisionist fantasy like The Princess Bride, you’re going to be disappointed. On the other hand, the film is a fine example of Tykwer’s unusual ability to make everyday life seem fantastical.
In the cold light of day, Franke Potente (Run Lola Run, The Bourne Identity) is playing Sissi, a nurse who lives in the mental hospital which employs her. But in Tykwer’s not-quite-reality, the gargantuan hospital could easily be a castle, Sissi the princess, and the patients her devoted subjects. Likewise, Bodo (Benno Furmann) isn’t in the German army anymore, having adopted a career of thievery instead, but it only takes the goriest meet-cute imaginable with Sissi to bring out his more honorable-warrior tendencies.
With this film, as with Run Lola Run and Cloud Atlas*, Tykwer demonstrates his skill as a master stylist if nothing else. There’s nothing particularly unreal in the screenplay – at least as translated into English – so the fairy-tale tone is delivered strictly through visual methods. Ethereal lighting, effective use of various different speeds of slow-motion, spare but shocking violence … all of it is designed to take us out of the everyday world and deposit us into a place that looks just like the everyday world but which seems to have different rules.
Among those rules might be the same phrase used as a tag line for Cloud Atlas: “everything is connected.” As Sissi’s and Bodo’s stories are explained in more and more detail, those details entwine with and circle back upon each other in more and more ways. Their lives are connected in more ways than they could have known prior to meeting, and after they meet they are bound together in more ways than they could be aware of.
However, I’m not sure that all of the connections are actually necessary for the film’s message. The film seems to focus on Bodo, and how he tries to cope with a pair of traumatic losses (one prior to the film and one during the film). Given the lengthy, pseudo-magical-realistic coda with Bodo that concludes the movie, it doesn’t really seem necessary for us to know how Sissi’s mother’s death connects with her current situation. It seems even less important that Bodo was involved in that mother’s funeral, since that connection is not followed up after being established.
In the end this movie works best as the fairy-tale story of a “princess” and a “warrior” who have an unusual
meeting and help each other find meaning in their problematic lives. If you take it any more seriously than you would take a fairy tale, then certain flaws in the film’s logic will grate too much (one key scene turns on an otherwise normal human being not knowing that it’s bad to smoke cigarettes around a gas station). But on the other hand, Potente just has the kind of face that forbids you to laugh at this movie. She demands that you take almost all of her scenes seriously.
As I said above, this will never be confused with The Princess Bride – there are a couple of scenes played for laughs, but for the most part the fairy-tale aspects of this movie are played straight. That’s for the best. With a serious filmmaker like Tom Tykwer behind the camera, it’s better to have serious material. This material isn’t perfect, but it never gets so serious that it becomes boring or grim, which makes it a nice little picture.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Most of the media attention focuses on the reclusive Wachowski siblings, but it’s worth noting that Tykwer is also a co-writer and co-director of Cloud Atlas, and he composed the Cloud Atlas sextet for the film’s soundtrack.