Narrative Structure in Tom Tykwer’s Winterschl ä fer, Lola Rennt, and Der Krieger und die Kaiserin
A household name in Germany and an internationally recognised director, Tom Tykwer has made significant progress since his first short film Because (1990. Co-founder of the production company X-Filme and with over half a dozen commercially successful feature films behind him, Tykwer is well-respected in his field. But what exactly constitutes his particular niche within the film canon? In the context of post-wall German cinema he could be a true auteur with his own ideals and postmodern slant, or his works may in fact be too similar to the modern Hollywood Blockbuster. His style is distinctive but in order to understand what makes Tykwer’s contribution to German Cinema unique, it is useful to examine how this style develops throughout his cinematic career. His status as an auteur and a postmodernist are both most evident in his synthesis of narrative structures, postmodernism being “characterised by a superabundance of disconnecting images and styles” (Baldick: 2008, p.266). The contrasting and complementing narrative structures found in three of Tykwer’s more influential films – Winterschl ä fer (1997) , Lola Rennt (1998) , and Der Krieger und die Kaiserin (2000) - each selected from a different stage of his career, could represent the foundation of Tykwer’s originality and provide a comprehensive answer to the aforementioned questions of auteurism and postmodernism.
Clarke (2006a, p.5) comments that: “The division between auteurist film (Autorenfilm) and commercial cinema is further eroded by a director like Tom Tykwer.” Such a statement may in fact render the question irrelevant; if the division between auteurist films and commercial cinema ceases to exist, the search for auteurist elements would prove futile. When one considers, however, that the two are not mutually exclusive, then Tykwer could retain the Hollywood elements of his filmmaking and remain an auteur. The Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory (Buchanan: 2010, p.32) defines auteur theory in the following way: “A theory of film which [...] ascribes the director with an authorial-like control over the final look of the film”. Tykwer is known to be heavily involved in all aspects of the filmmaking process: he wrote the screenplay for his first feature film, Die Tödliche Maria (1993), and co-wrote Winterschläfer with director Wolfgang Becker. Along with Becker, director Daniel Levy and producer Stefan Arndt, Tykwer co-founded the production company X Filme Creative Pool. The idea behind the creation of X Filme was that the group would be stronger through a combination of resources but also that they could create a platform for diverse ideas (X-Filme: 2015). Clarke (2006a, p.5) elaborates on this, stating that the aims of X Filme are to: “improve the control of artists over the finished film product” and that they “seek to bridge the gap between popular cinema and original filmmaking.” In this way, it seems obvious that Tykwer is an auteur, seeking both a platform for his original ideas and a way to popularize them for the general viewing public.
With reference to the above, the narrative structures employed shape these original ideas into films. Narratology, the study of the function and structure of narratives, focuses on, as Ian Buchanan (2010, p.332) explains, the distinction between the events of a plot and the way in which they are conveyed. The mathematical theory of chaos, when applied to the filmic world of Tom Tykwer, in particular with regards to Lola Rennt, provides an interesting contrast to the more traditional narrative devices Greek tragedy and the fairytale genre. As the three main structures in the three films to be examined, it is also useful to consider the elements of these films which recall traditional Hollywood cinema, Art cinema and even video/computer games, in addition to the ways in which comparison and contrast of such genres may influence the overall analysis. Tykwer’s fascination with fusing otherwise distinctive styles has clearly shaped his films, but how?
A film at the earlier end of Tykwer’s chronology demonstrates how this fascination. Winterschl ä fer is a film comprising many intersecting layers, involving the lives of five main protagonists and the ways in which their fates overlap. The establishing shot filmed from a helicopter pans over endless snow-covered mountains, recalling Cooke’s (2013, p.241) claim that it is a “reworking of the mountain film [...] It is both the ideas and the iconography of the Heimatfilm tradition which continue to be explored”. The iconography is indeed reminiscent of a Heimat film but, on closer analysis, the plot devices, character development and overall narrative structure are more interesting when the classic model of a Greek tragedy is applied. Clarke (2006b, p.11) considers that in this shot “the camera becomes entirely separated from the narrative” but it seems misguided to suggest that any stylistic choices are ever unrelated to the narrative. The mountains are not unimportant; rather than merely serving as a backdrop to a story about rural life in the Alps, the setting could be seen as an additional character, arguably an antagonist. “Tykwer’s films frequently have a distinct sense of place that comments on and participates in the narrative rather than just providing a backdrop for the unfolding plot.” (Haase: 2007, p.170) It will become clear that the mountain setting has several direct effects on the narrative and so the lengthy establishing shot emphasises, or even foreshadows, the importance.
Despite this initial homage to the Heimatfilm, it appears that Tykwer has stuck closely to the three central structures of a Greek tragic narrative, though his postmodernist approach would suggest that conscious application of the structure is unlikely. Nevertheless it is worth examining and later comparing with various other narrative forms.
The three main elements present in a tragedy are all recognisable in the film’s climatic scene: the farmer Theo mistakenly concludes that Marco was responsible for Theo’s daughter’s death, due to the fact that René stole Marco’s car and was in fact the one involved in the crash. Sandra Schuppach highlights the “dramatischen Wichtigkeit” (2004, p.47) of the girl’s death because all events and characters seem to revolve around it. Thus, the confrontation on the mountain top is a clear depiction of Greek tragedy.
The first element, named the ‘reversal’, which is referred to as a “complete swing in the direction of the action” (Halliwell: 1987, p.39): Marco is looking for his lover, Nina, worried that she was hurt while they were skiing. Instead he happens upon Theo, who recognises him from the licence documents he found in the car, which he discovered and believes to have caused the death of his daughter. Next comes ‘recognition’, defined as a “change from ignorance to knowledge” (p.43), though this element is subverted here; the characters make incorrect assumptions with eventual tragic consequences, not unlike Shakespeare’s Othello, in which the subverted recognition scene leads the titular character to murder his own wife. This subtle intertexuality is apparent in many of Tykwer’s films, the significance of which will be clarified later.
In Winterschläfer Theo mistakenly assumes that Marco caused the accident while Marco incorrectly believes that Nina is dead and that he caused her death. This confusion is produced through a dramatic technique where characters talk at ‘cross-purposes’ and exchange information which leads to false conclusions. It also produces dramatic irony, a term which refers to a situation in which the audience is aware of something which the characters are not. Such a technique usually has a comic result rather than tragic - another subversion. Schuppach (2004, p.49) examines this idea: “In ihrer kurzen Konversation beziehen sich die Figuren jeweils auf verschiedene Ereignisse, scheinen sich aber zu «verstehen»“. The “short conversation” leads to the film’s second tragic event: Marco’s fall and death. The third tragic element, suffering, is described as involving “a destructive or painful action, such as visible deaths, torments, woundings” (Halliwell: 1987p.43). While Marco’s death isn’t strictly visible due to Tykwer’s decision to combine the endless fall with the fading of that scene into the next, there is, however, enough suffering to evoke the Greek narrative pattern.
The scene in question demonstrates the fact that Winterschl ä fer “reaffirmed many of [Tykwer’s] directional characteristics, including his interest in destiny and contingency and in investigations of love, pain, and human relationships, visualised through [...] carefully constructed images, creative camera work, and evocative editing.” (Haase: 2007, p.167) The slow-motion shot of Marco falling is interspersed with scenes of Laura’s baby being born, converting light into dark as the scene fades out and back in, and death into rebirth (Koch:2007, p.231) which embodies some of Tykwer’s common tendencies. According to Lutz Koepnick, the sequence is a moment of “both temporal and spatial standstill” (2007, p.7); similar moments can be seen in both Lola and Krieger. Another perennial theme of Tykwer’s is destiny versus chance, which recalls an additional narrative structure common to all three films: chaos theory.
Originally a mathematical theory of the laws which govern miniscule, unpredictable variables and the chaotic results produced, chaos theory is commonly used in literary contexts to express the idea that fate does not exist, that everything in our world is down to chance, and that small variables created by free will and choice have impacts that we cannot begin to predict or understand. Williams (1997, p.9) explains that chaos theory “means that output isn’t directly proportional to input, or that a change in one variable doesn’t produce a proportional change or reaction in the related variables.” Literary theorists often confuse fate and chance but fate, or destiny, is a predetermined sequence of events that cannot be changed. Clarke (2006b, p.15) refers to the climatic mountain scene when he speculates: “The (false) identification of Marco as the culprit seems to come about by chance, through the presence of his documents in the car that was stolen from him”. There are many examples of chance in Winterschl ä fer: Theo’s daughter sneaking into the horse carriage; Marco’s car being stolen by René when he leaves it open; Laura working at the hospital where Theo’s daughter is being treated; René, the actual driver of the car during the collision, beginning a relationship with Laura. Clarke continues by holding fate accountable for the outcome of the narrative: “fate turns against Marco, a man who fails to commit.” (p.15). Fate as punisher is not an uncommon concept but if one takes Tykwer’s postmodern tendencies and the patterns that evolve throughout his filmography into account then Winterschl ä fer is more likely to be an exploration of chance and choice in the lives of the characters.
A chaotic representation of events is closely related to the camerawork: a close-up of a certain object, a change in point-of-view or a head shot to show a particular character’s facial expression can all direct the audience’s focus and emphasise an event or entire scene. Waldrop (1995, p.8) says of the chaotic: “The slightest change in one place causes tremors everywhere else.” As mentioned above, the events of the film may revolve around the farmer’s daughter and the clues are in the camerawork: “Die von Tykwer gewählte Perspektive, der Blick aus dem Himmel hinab, macht das Kind zu einer besonderen, auserwählten Figur. Die Kamera umkreist sie, dreht sich um sie, so wie sich das Welt dreht; es wird deutlich, dass eine Entscheidung fallen wird.“ (Schuppach: 2004, p.46) Here the motion of the camera panning around the young girl is almost filmic foreshadowing; something significant is about to take place, but who decides the tragic outcome of the next sequence or is it merely down to chance? This is largely open to audience interpretation but one cannot ignore the film’s composition when considering the intent behind the plot. Reuben Brower (1965, p.160) refers to what he calls the ‘heresy of plot’ and discusses that the plot should not be analysed alone as a sequence of events but that the language and form and narrative structure are interwoven to create an artistic project and that the elements cannot be satisfactorily separated and broken down when one examines the text as a whole. This also applies to film: the type of shots used, the mise-en-scène, the tones, colours and music of a film are all irrevocably linked to the narrative.