Nurse Sissi

A tender love story underscores Tom Tykwer's cunning thriller The Princess and the Warrior

Jul 25, 2001 at 4:00 am
The German filmmaker Tom Tykwer has a gift for fusing psychological complexity and crackling plot without forsaking the excitements of either. The success of Run Lola Run didn't exactly turn Tykwer into a household name, but it earned him his props as a young lion of the art houses. Moviegoers hungry for new-wave thrills couldn't resist his surly, streetwise heroine's mad dash to save her no-account boyfriend from murderous drug dealers -- especially because the bedeviled Lola got to try it three different ways by way of repeated time frames.

Tykwer's new film, The Princess and the Warrior (Der Krieger und die Kaiserin), doesn't move quite so fast or rely so much on gimmickry, but it's even more cunning -- a captivating thriller containing an intense love story presented for the most part as a clever visual puzzle. Don't be alarmed, though, not even if you like your movies crystal-clear. Tykwer has the skills to set any audience's nerves deliciously on edge, even as he's challenging the eye and the intellect. At 35, he's become one of the world's most original and inventive directors -- as well as one of the most entertaining.

Lola fans will be happy to see the return here of the beguiling actress Franka Potente, fresh from a Hollywood turn as Johnny Depp's hippie girlfriend in Blow. In Princess she is once more Tykwer's centerpiece, this time as Sissi, a shy psychiatric nurse who becomes fixated on a self-destructive punk who saves her life after she's been mowed down by a truck on a city street.

Rest assured, nothing and no one are quite what they first seem. Ostensibly composed and controlled in her starched white nurse's uniform, Sissi is really a soul adrift, looking for signals and signposts. The vivid schizophrenics and manic-depressives she cares for on her ward are obviously troubled and in agony, but we come to see that Sissi has some deep-seated problems of her own. At the moment the tough hoodlum Bodo (Benno Furmann) crawls under the truck and gives her an emergency tracheotomy with his penknife, blood pours from her throat and major life questions well up in her psyche. Why has this stranger materialized to save her? Is it an accident, or fate? Will nothing be the same as it once was? Or (perhaps even more frightening) will everything remain the same?

It comes as no surprise that Bodo is badly damaged goods himself. A horrible domestic tragedy and some poisonous self-hatred have conspired to wall him off from life. Now he plans to pull a bank job with his glowering brother Walter (Joachim Krol), after which they will run away to oblivion in Australia.

But that scheme doesn't take into account Sissi's determination to find him after she's miraculously recovered from her injuries. Or Bodo's tendency toward bad luck. Or the mysterious twists of fate that link the two of them, physically and emotionally. Tykwer revisits and expands themes he explored in Lola -- destiny, the search for self and the unpredictable power of love. In Sissi's obsession with Bodo, we are reminded of Lola's frenzy, but, if anything, the current heroine is even more persistent: Sour, suspicious Bodo slams doors in her face, knocks her down in the rain and otherwise makes known his reluctance, but Sissi's determinist belief that they must be made for each other survives every obstacle. She tracks Bodo down in his hilltop hovel with the help of a blind mental patient given to convulsions. Fate throws her into the middle of the brothers' ill-considered robbery. She finds herself stepping between a robber and a drawn revolver. Afterward, Sissi and Bodo take refuge in a hideaway that turns out to be perfect in several ways -- the mental hospital where she works.

The real miracle in The Princess and the Warrior, whose fairytale title is clearly meant to be only partly ironic, is not that Sissi recovers from her physical wounds, or even that Bodo can eventually face up to the horrors that haunt him, but that Sissi's will is so formidable that no one can resist it. The other miracle is that Tykwer has made a film that's as tender as it is hip. The spectacle of a grieving lunatic unexpectedly coming to ground in a world of other lunatics is weirdly funny and satisfyingly ironic -- a nice twist on the old One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest trope. The notion that these two misfits, the nurse and the punk, may find salvation in each other -- or die trying -- is refreshingly old-fashioned, a nice twist on the old Bonnie and Clyde trope.

Tykwer may make "serious" films about the treacherous ambiguities of adult life, but he knows exactly how and when to grab the heartstrings and yank for all he's worth. Admirers of cinematic art will likely be thrilled anew by the director's dazzling camera tricks -- most notably Sissi's death's-eye view of walls and ceilings as she's wheeled into the emergency room, and the notion that Bodo can quite literally split into two selves -- and by his nimble juggling of weighty ideas. But the cornerstone of this fascinating film is a peculiar but absolutely solid love story. In terms of intellectual and emotional stimulation, who could ask for more?