Der Krieger und die Kaiserin (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

(aka The Princess and The Warrior)

I wonder if Tom Tykwer, a native of the town of Wuppertal, was always aware of its fairy-tale potential. Viewed from the space-cam, the entire town looks like it was assembled out of miniatures. It has an overhead suspension railway with pastel colors and an amusement park appearance. The town is very long and very narrow - the perfect setting for a long, encompassing helicopter shot.

Whether Tykwer has planned it from his childhood, I don't know, but he made it the setting for this modern day fairy tale about two very sad, lonely people who are destined to be pushed together by fate.

Sissi is a beloved nurse in a psychiatric hospital and, we are told, she was born there, the daughter of two patients. She doesn't seem to get away much, but if she is unhappy, she is unaware of it. She is not really capable of happiness of unhappiness. She's sleepwalking through life, willing to do almost anything to ease the suffering of her patients, but seeming to be in a trance as she does it. She even masturbates a patient to sleep, remaining dutiful but uninvolved. On a rare visit to town, escorting a blind patient, Sissi is run over by a truck, and suddenly finds herself under the vehicle, gasping for breath. Her accident was caused by a petty crime committed by a man named Bodo, who also comes to her rescue, and performs an emergency tracheotomy on her.

Chance is operating here on all cylinders. It was chance that Bodo caused the truck to take actions that would run Sissi over. It was a completely separate circumstance that placed him under the truck later. He was hiding from authorities, only to spot a dying woman there, unaware that she was dying because of him.

Up to that point, the film operates in a grim world which mirrors our reality. Although it sometimes looks like they live in a fairy tale setting, Sissi and Bodo never smile. The streets are congested and noisy, Sissi's patients are depressing and often hyperactive, Bodo's life seems almost completely hopeless (he's fired from his job as a gravedigger - for crying on the job), his flight from the pursuers seems desperate and frantic. The tracheotomy itself is one of the most intense screen experiences you will ever see, and (as her narration reveals) it is also a vicarious sexual experience for Sissi. And an awakening.

After that moment, the movie changes. The frantic tone disappears and it takes on a magical, mystical, languorous dream-like quality.

Sissi could breathe again, literally and figuratively. Her doctors said that her survival from such an accident was a miracle itself, but her complete recovery was magic. But she couldn't return to her old life. She had to find the fairy-tale warrior who gave her back her life, and who woke her from her lifelong sleep. She sensed that he was her healer, for her psychological pain as well as her injuries.

A fully-recovered Sissi later returned to the spot where she was run over, accompanied by the same blind man. Although it is the same spot and appears to be the same time of day as before, the city is deserted. There are no pedestrians. There are no moving cars. The blind man is no longer a disturbed blind man, but now has gained some kind of supernatural powers, and is able to pinpoint the exact storefront from which Sissi's savior had emerged so long ago, on the day of the accident. Sissi herself has acquired supernatural powers and is subsequently able to help her warrior escape from a bank robbery by simply walking up the police officer and taking his gun away willingly. By the way, minutes after the bank alarm went off, that one police officer was down in the vault with a little handgun, and no back-up emerged. For all he knew, there could have been fifty guys down there, all armed with AK-47's, but he just walked down the stars with his pea shooter. The entire bank vault area, narrow and white, had an unearthly quality.

You probably see what I was thinking here. I expected the old Vanilla Sky, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Jacob's Ladder thing. It seemed that Sissi had really died, or was dying, had not been rescued by her warrior, but had merely seen him under the truck with her, and was imagining the rest of the movie. But the director had other things in mind. The old "it's all in her mind" trick is a way to explain why surreal and symbolist actions have occurred on screen. Tykwer had a different, and much bolder answer: there is no explanation. They occurred because you are watching symbols and a surreal world. Stop whining and enjoy it.

NUDITY REPORT

There is no nudity in the regular cut of the movie, but Christa Fast males a body-painted frontal nude appearance in the deleted scenes.

There is plenty more in the way of offbeat development.

  • Sissi repeats again and again that her mother is dead, this implying that her father is still alive, and probably still a patient at the mental ward. Which patient is he? Does Sissi know this? How will it affect the story?
  • Bodo wears his mantle of sadness because his wife died in a gas station explosion while he was sitting on the toilet. His brother keeps telling him that someday he'll have to get off that toilet. How will he do it?

I don't know what the hell the last twenty minutes were all about. I knew that Bodo had to get back symbolically to the gas station where his wife died, and when he left, the man who would leave that station had to be the man that walked in, years ago, before his wife died. But the way they carried this out was ripped straight out of The Twilight Zone, and I still don't know what was supposed to be real and what wasn't. And if it wasn't real, I don't know whose mind it was in. As I mentioned, some of it was pure symbolism, presented side-by-side with reality. Strange stuff.

I have to confess that I really liked this movie, although I didn't know what the hell was going on half the time, but for you to like it you'll have to understand that

  1. it is deliberately vague, opaque, sad, and mysterious, and the musical score supports that continuously melancholy, spooky mood.
  2. it doesn't follow the natural laws of the universe
  3. it offers supernatural, magic, and symbols matter-of-factly, without explanation, intertwined with reality
  4. almost everyone whispers and mumbles almost all the time, as if sharing a secret, even characters whom we would expect to be loudmouths. It's as if every part were played, with typical breathlessness, by Nastassja Kinski.
  5. the film is 130 minutes long and seems longer, because much of it is wordless, and the pace is meant to be deliberate and dreamlike in the second half

DVD info from Amazon.

Two commentary tracks, by director and cast
Making of featurette
Deleted scenes with introduction by the director
Music video
Widescreen anamorphic format, 2.35:1

Is it a good movie? Yes, I think it is very good. If you liked Abre Los Ojos, or Magnolia, you will probably find this appealing. All three films are very bold, very symbolic, very operatic. All three directors are very young guys who are just fearless, are willing to reach for the stars, and who really don't care about following any rules. I like that. I like a guy with some cojones. Maybe all three films have great flaws, maybe they descend to soap opera elements at times, but as ol' Aristotle used to remind us, the bigger the man, the bigger the flaws. These three guys aren't afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves, and we should admire that kind of guts in an otherwise boring and formulaic world.

Does Germany have more directors like Tykwer lying in wait, waiting to spring into the international market? If so, it might turn out to be a helluva decade for German cinema.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 4/4, filmcritic.com 2/5. Berardinelli picked it in his top 10 films for the year.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDB readers say 7.4/10.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+ by our definition. Brilliant movie, but very opaque magic realism, in German, 130 minutes long. You decide if you want to grapple with it. I thought it was worth it, but it's not mainstream cinema.

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