This hyperreal modern romantic tale ends where it begins, a construct of ‘accidents’ brought about by the psychic necessity of a man and woman who need each other to save themselves.
The Princess—Simone ‘Sissi’ Schmidt (Franka Potente)—is an enchanted princess in a strange land: a nurse in a closed ward of a modern psychiatric hospital where she has lived her whole life. Her mother, a nurse in the same institution, died when a hairdryer fell into her bathtub; her father is one of the current inmates.
The Warrior—Bodo Riemer (Benno Fürmann)—is a former soldier who lives in a shack with his older brother Walter (Joachim Król), a bank security officer and also a former soldier. Bodo is ‘spellbound’ by severe post-traumatic stress caused by the accidental sudden death of his wife, consumed in a ball of fire at the gas pump of a highway service station while he was in the restroom.
An accident that Bodo unknowingly causes while fleeing pursuers—he momentarily distracts the driver of a tractor-trailer, whose truck hits Sissi in a marked pedestrian crosswalk while she is crossing a city street—also brings him to Sissi’s rescue.
Bodo shoots down a side street and does not see the accident. Still trying to evade his pursuers, he circles back to the scene and finds Sissi injured beneath the truck. He makes a quick assessment and performs a field tracheotomy on her worthy of a trained combat medic that saves her life.
However, more than just saving her life, Sissi is convinced with a single-minded certainty that through his intervention, this stranger is revealed to her as the agent of her transformation. After recovering from the accident, she finds and then pursues him.
Bodo, though ‘training to fly’ from the film’s start, repeatedly rejects Sissi’s steadfast pursuit. He possibly is battling within himself over the redemption he can sense in her, but feels that he does not deserve; presumably he feels responsible for his wife’s death. But he stays with Sissi after she coincidentally turns up and helps him flee a bank robbery in which he and his brother were involved that goes wrong.
Together in Sissi’s ‘enchanted realm’, Bodo’s presence and Sissi’s special concern about him provokes an incident that gives Sissi insight into her mother’s ‘accident’. Bodo accedes to Sissi’s vision, introducing the possibility for each of them to overcome his individual trauma.
One of the most striking things about this story is that is a throwback to the early nineteenth century German Romantics, particularly the writer and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist and his use of the novella. In essence, this form comprises an unusual but not improbable central event, a surprise reversal, and a recurring theme.
The narration is pared down to clean plot lines and decisive action, which make the form ideal for movie-making. What writer and director Tykwer has done here is to combine simultaneously a pair of his own such ‘novellen’:
Two intrinsically good people with solid cores are alienated from conventional life, each adrift as though enchanted due to a traumatic life experience: the accidental deaths of one’s mother and the other’s wife. Each participates in what becomes the other’s surprise reversal: a traffic accident and a foiled bank robbery. No detail or action is random. The recurring theme is flight. In the end, Sissi and Bodo together discover the ‘wings’ to fly free of their enchantments and break the spells under which they live.
But this account does not include the lovely camerawork, music in which Tykwer also had a hand, and many small moments and contributing roles that make this two-hour film a compelling story to watch. Click here for the theatrical trailer.
The inmates in Sissi’s enchanted realm are similar to those of Milos Forman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), each carefully rendered and intense, closely tethered to the peg of his illness, but within the context of story background. It is clear that the patients are inside for their own and society’s safety. The well cast medical staff on which Sissi serves is liberal and tolerant.
Sissi’s ‘reversal’—Bodo’s well choreographed flight through Wuppertal that leads to her accident—is a kinetic, heart-racing scene captured in a fleet montage of roughly 35 shots in slightly more than a minute.
Otto (Melchior Beslon), a blind patient, is with Sissi when her accident occurs—she pushes him out of the way at the last minute, saving him from being hit by the truck. He later uses his aural memory to help her reconstruct the accident scene so she can find the man who saved her life.
At the crucial moment, Sissi takes Bodo’s hand for a poetic leap of conviction portrayed as an expressive flight of fancy both into reality and beyond its bounds.
The story closes as it opened, wordlessly at an early nineteenth century villa on Bronte-esque treeless promontory above the wild French Atlantic coast (actually Cornwall, England). A letter written and posted from this house set the action in motion, put Sissi in the bank, and then wraps up the story when it brings the action back home.
Kleist has been popular among French filmmakers. Erich Rohmer learned German to write and direct a classic German version of Kleist’s novella Die Marquise von O. Arnaud des Pallières currently is shooting the latest version of Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaus.
Robert E. Helbling’s Heinrich von Kleist; Novellen und Ästhetische Schriften, Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1967, was consulted in preparing this review.