How can the city play a role as a protagonist in a film? In Run Lola Run (1998), every second counts as director Tom Tykwer explores topics of fate, free will, chance and determinism, where the city of Berlin is given a central role in orienting viewers to shifts of time and movement within the film.
The plot of Run Lola Run is simple but its themes are complex: the main protagonist, Lola, attempts to save the life of her boyfriend, Manni, who will be killed if he does not collect 100,000 marks in twenty minutes to pay his boss. Her attempt to save Manni is played out in three different scenarios, each of which begins with Lola taking a phone call from Manni in her apartment. However, in each scenario, slight variations in Lola’s actions, the actions of others, and the conditions of her environment, either delay or propel her progress by mere seconds — seconds in which major, and in some instances fatal, consequences are determined for Lola, Manni, and other characters within the film.
Thus, the film’s primary thematic inquiries arise in the difference a single moment makes from one scenario to the next. And this difference in time is made explicit through the position of the camera relative to Lola, the position of the camera relative to the city, and Lola’s position relative to the city when she moves through the same space in each scenario. This study uses traditional methods of architectural representation (plan and section) to investigate the positioning of these three elements — Lola, the camera, and the city — as she moves through four key spaces in Berlin in each scenario, to better understand the role of the city as a protagonist in the film.
At this location, the position of the elevated train is a signifier for Lola’s pace in each of the three runs. In both Run 1 and Run 2, Lola is positioned below the train. However, because she is delayed at the beginning of Run 2, the train is located a few seconds (three seconds, to be exact) ahead of the position it had held at the beginning of Run 1 when Lola finally arrives on scene. This delay between Run 1 and Run 2 is emphasized by the starting location of the camera: a bird’s eye view in Run 1 introduces the setting, while a close-up view of Lola to begin Run 2 demonstrates an urgency of lost time. In Run 3, Lola is elevated to the same level as the train. This difference in Lola’s positioning suggests that, in Run 3, Lola will have a heightened understanding of her actions, and thus greater control in the outcome of the scenario. Meanwhile, other factors in each scene remain constant to underscore the positioning of Lola relative to the camera and the train. For example, all three scenes are exactly eleven seconds long, and each concludes with both Lola and the camera in the same location.
As she crosses this street in Berlin three times, Lola’s movement is consistent in all three sequences to emphasize the position of the camera relative to the position of the city. The pace of each run is indicated by the starting position of the camera in each scenario. Analyzing the scene in elevation, we see that in her delayed run, Run 2, the camera begins in the bottom left, behind Lola, and pans to the middle right. In Run 1, which is the “control” run of the experiment, the camera begins slightly above center and pans to the bottom right. Finally, in Run 3, the quickest run, the camera begins at its highest elevation in the top right, and ends in the same position as the camera of Run 1. So if we read the position of the camera from left to right and top to bottom, we can understand that both “left” and “bottom” are signifiers of slowness and delay. The speed of each run is demonstrated in the actual time of each scene, where Run 3 is the shortest scene at fifteen seconds, compared to sixteen seconds for Run 2 and seventeen seconds for Run 1.
The gridded pavers of Gendarmenmarkt is key to understanding the concept behind three scenes filmed at this location. Both Run 1 and Run 2 are filmed from a static, orthogonal plan view. In Run 1, the camera is orthogonal to the grid of Gendarmenmarkt, and Lola runs at a forty-five degree angle across the frame. In Run 2, the camera is set at a forty-five degree angle to the plaza, and Lola moves parallel to the paving grid. Here, the positioning of Lola, the grid, and the camera re-states the delay of Run 2, where Lola must cross seven visible squares of the paving grid compared to only four squares in Run 1. And since the delay between Run 2 and Run 1 is three seconds, the three additional visible squares in Run 2 represent each second by which Lola has been delayed. Similar to Run 2 of Location 1, Run 3 across Gendarmenmarkt is filmed at ground level from a perspective that moves parallel to Lola, who is moving diagonally across the paving grid. Here, the actual time is inverted, with Run 3 taking eleven seconds, Run 1 taking five seconds, and Run 2 being the shortest scene at three seconds.
The fourth and final location — the intersection of Lola, the ambulance and the sheet of glass — is the most complex sequence of the film. This scene is entirely about disruption: the disruption of the city by the ambulance, the disruption of the ambulance by Lola and the glass, and the disruption of the glass by the ambulance, and ultimately, the disruption of the film’s overarching plotline when Manni is hit by the ambulance at the conclusion of Run 2. Thus, although the camera is positioned at the same location to begin all three scenarios, Run 1, Run 2, and Run 3 are shot from eight, ten, and three camera angles respectively. That is to say, unlike the scenes for each of the three previous locations, which were each filmed in a continuous shot, the sequences of Location 4 are disrupted with multiple camera cuts. This is particularly true for Run 1 and Run 2, as both sequences are constructed around the anticipation of the ambulance colliding with the glass. Then, because the glass shatters in Run 2, suspense is not present in Run 3, the least disrupted sequence. Rather than a cllimactic disruption, Run 3 offers a new disruption — complexity interrupted by quietude — when Lola and the patient in the ambulance bring a calmness to the scene in the back of the ambulance. which foreshadows a positive outcome for Lola and Manni in the third and final scenario.
Adam Longenbach is an architectural designer and educator practicing in New York City. If you would like to submit an architectural project that looks at film, please email us at contact@INTJournal.com.