When German writer/director Tom Tykwer burst onto the American movie scene in 1999 with his kinetic and wildly popular Run Lola Run, he seemed to be yanking cinema into new visual and narrative territory. His story's characters sometimes devolved into cartoons, and his plot was forever starting over at the beginning to twist its details toward a different conclusion. The picture played like a series of drafts, as if the filmmaker was tinkering with the very idea of whether characters are any more the mere pawns of fate than are sentient human beings. With that radical act of filmmaking as his primary calling card, who would have expected Tykwer would next produce a fairy tale. Granted, The Princess and the Warrior is hardly Disney fare, but it is nonetheless clearly informed by the conventions of romantic fable.
The Princess and the Warrior is an account of two very different people who get thrown together, literally, by accident. Sissi (Franka Potente), the story's heroine, is a pyschiatric nurse at a mental hospital. On her way to the post office one day, in the company of Otto (Melchior Beslom), a depressed blind patient, Sissi is run over by an 18-wheel truck. The driver and bystanders seem immobilized and decide they should wait for ambulance attendants to arrive. Under the truck's carriage, meanwhile, Sissi lies dying, a blow to her neck having disabled her ability to breathe. That's when a horribly distraught former soldier named Bodo (Benno Furmann) takes decisive action. He crawls under the truck, diagnoses Sissi's peril, commandeers a soda straw, opens a pocket knife and performs the emergency tracheotomy that saves Sissi's life.
Prince Charming has arrived to wake Sleeping Beauty so they can live happily ever after. Well, not so fast. A fairy tale, yes, but an entirely modern one. A world of irony surrounds both the circumstances of Sissi's resurrection and the action that follows. In the first place, Bodo is hardly charming. And in the second place, though he may never realize it and Sissi apparently never discovers the fact, Bodo causes the accident that results in Sissi's injury. Moreover, rather than establishing Sissi as a storybook princess, Tykwer willfully toys with our perceptions of his heroine from the outset. When we first see her, Sissi is rubbing Otto's arms and face with a cube of ice, and inevitably, thinking 9 1/2 Weeks, we presume she's engaged in sex play rather than some sort of tactile therapy. In shades of Jenny Fields, when Sissi subsequently surrenders to the insistent whining of a patient named Steini (Lars Rudolph) and slips her hand under his bedsheet to masturbate him, we presume at the very least that she's a woman of loose morals and poor judgment.
Fundamentally, we eventually discover, Sissi and Bodo are both damaged goods. Neither constitutes a particularly strong candidate for romantic entanglement. Despite the sexual contact we witness early on, Sissi is a naif. She has grown up in the hospital where she works. Her mother preceded Sissi as a psychiatric nurse. And Sissi's father has long been one of the patients. Sissy knows lots about human dysfunction, but she knows almost nothing of love.
Bodo, meanwhile, has consciously turned his back on love. Not long ago, his wife dropped a cigarette on a trail of gasoline while putting fuel in their car and blew herself up. Bodo has been grieving ever since. His sense of loss is so great, the idea of another relationship is abhorrent to him. He saves Sissi's life almost as an act of pure instinct, akin to Sissi's own when she pushes Otto out of the truck's path an instant before being run down herself. Bodo's heroism is performed as a kind of hiccup, and he wants nothing more to do with Sissi. He finds her endeavors to connect with him at first puzzling and ultimately infuriating.
Tykwer takes these generative psychological ingredients, stirs in the surprising seasoning of a crime-caper thriller and produces a cinematic confection both riveting and deeply satisfying. The picture is forever going somewhere we don't expect, revealing something new that demands we reassess the presumptions we've formed and already revised. And in service of his compelling script Tykwer elicits able assistance from cinematographer Frank Griebe, who always seems to find an arresting camera angle without ever disrupting narrative flow to do so.
Tykwer also gets great performances from his cast. Furmann displays the kind of complicated charisma that has made Russell Crowe an international star. And Potente proves she's not just a sprinter but an actress in the race for the long haul. Sissi doesn't actually have a lot of dialogue, so Potente has to reveal Sissi's nature through a masterful control of body and face. The desperate distress Potente conveys when Bodo first sends her away is brilliantly heartbreaking. German actresses seldom land one of Hollywood's Oscar nominations, but Potente will land on my year-end honor roll.