Exploring the films of Lola Rennt (Twyker, 1998) and Victoria (Schipper, 2015) as a visual-historical material for study of the city of Berlin.

“Berlin is the newest city I have come across. Even Chicago would appear old and gray in comparison.” (Mark Twain, Chicago Daily Tribune, 1892)

Mark Twain’s description of the city of Berlin continues to be relevant a century later, which may at first seem contradictory, given the quotation. The city of Berlin of the twentieth century proved itself to be one of the most striking places of reinvention, which is seen in the city of Tom Twyker’s iconic Lola rennt (1998) as it is in the city of today, depicted in Sebastian Schipper’s 2015 138 minute-long, one sequence shot, Victoria. Berlin’s presence in film has a long history, which can be seen from as far back as 1927, in Ruttman’s Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt. Like this seminal documentary feature of the 1920s, both Lola rennt and Victoria are experimental in nature and present its audience with the feel of its city, through its ever changing urban landscape, its sound and its fundamental presence, reflected in the structure of both films. Both films follow the stories of two eponymous female protagonists lured into Berlin’s masculine, urban worlds of criminality, as the city of the last two decades finds its feet in the millennium era, breaking away from the events of the 20th century. Straddling the millennium itself, Twyker and Schipper explore the landscape, sound and social politics of the city as they, placed side by side, provide us with visual-historical material for the study of a city synonymous with the liminal.

One of the most striking aspects of both films is clearly their portrayal of the sound of the city. Lola rennt has been triumphed as a “techno culture film”[1] in what little literature on the representation of techno and Electronic Dance Music in film can be found.[2] This lacuna in academic study of the area is surprising when considering the substantial role that electronic music has played in the rebuilding of the city’s identity in the millennium era, which itself has been subject to much academic scrutiny. The music of Lola rennt functions in a much similar way to that of Danny Boyle’s 1996 Trainspotting, and other films of the genre. The music pushes the narrative of the film, and acts as a form of Esperanto, pushing the success of the film past the boundaries of the German language, allowing it to achieve high viewing figures outside of Germany and on an international level, a challenge for much of German-language cinema.[3] The relationship between techno music and its location has always been particularly strong, from its roots in the American mid-west, and its subsequent growth and change through the geographies it passes, and in turn, helps to shape. The names of Ibiza, Detroit and Berlin are synonymous with the subculture. Sean Nye has pointed out that Berlin, in particular, which is traditionally seen in literature and cinema as a city of change and the liminal, as previously sated, has managed to here maintain a constant: techno.[4] In this respect, Berlin has in fact remained the same from decade to decade, as people flock to the capital to make pilgrimages to venues such as the Berghain, its temple of techno. This is shown in the similarity of the techno-trance tracks used in Lola rennt in 1998, through to the 2008 Berlin Calling (Hannes Stöhr), and finally within Victoria, as seen in the example of the city’s “godfather of techno” DJ Koze, and his track “Burn with me” which opens the film, as the energy of its deep bass sound builds and Victoria’s movements slowly become clearer and clearer through the strobe lights of the club scene, which plunge the audience headfirst into the subculture, as the camera is used to viscerally support the music and the action as the lens is blinded and obscured with flare.

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Although we see the club scene itself, and evidence of the drug-culture so closely associated with Electronic Dance Music and the city of Berlin manifest within Schipper’s Victoria, in contrast, Lola rennt offers us very little of the sort. However, the “techno” lifestyles of the youth of the city are instead presented to us with the cold light of day. Lola and Manni’s adventure and deadline in midday breaks into their adolescent pop dreams and musings of love, parties, and video games, as they are suddenly confronted with responsibilities that they are unable to ignore. Sean Nye has reflected on the similarity of Lola’s ceaseless running by day and the unremitting nature of Berlin clubbers’ “48- hour pill-popping party weekends.” However, as he points out, “economic realism interrupts the fun of this world in the way that Twyker does not present us with dancing at midnight, but rather running in midday.”[5] Her deadline at noon is also significant in that it reflects the insecurities of the twenty-something Berlin inhabitants, as they head home from their nights at the Berghain, passing the cities’ workers on their lunchbreaks, slowly refilling the previously underpopulated streets.[6] The wardrobe of the actors and actresses also supports this reading, as Lola is underdressed and confronted with those in suits as she runs into the casino, and is a clear contrast as she is faced with a world very different from her own.

This is also reflected seventeen years later in Victoria, as we begin the film in the dead of night as Victoria meets her new gang in the club, and follows them on her one-shot adventure as night turns into the small hours of the morning. The structure of the film and its seamless 138-minute trajectory somehow manages to appropriately match “the secret, magical places” of the rave and dance scenes of Berlin, “devoted to the intensity”. Victoria has managed to capture “the energy and movement of a nightclub for an (arguably) passive cinema”,[7] by taking the audience outside of the nightclub and into the night. As the natural light of day creeps into the shot, the severity of the adventures of the naïve, fun-seeking Victoria transform and intensify, as the free movements of her body we see presented in the techno club scene slowly change throughout the film into her frozen frame as she breaks away from Sonne’s body in one of the final scenes at the hotel, accompanied by the melancholic chords of Nils Frahm’s “Nobody Knows Who You Are”. Victoria strides off into the day, away from the deaths of the three men she left behind, and away from the camera which has followed her on her entire journey. The accompanying music is powerful, with an overwhelming sadness and poignancy, at a great distance from the energetic techno-trance sound of the opening, in a subversion of the cinematic trope of walking off into the sunset, Victoria walks off into the Berlin sunrise, as the events of the night and the city have had an irrevocable change upon this young, “non-Berliner”. This is also shown in the use of light in the film, as the halogen fluorescent orange street lights, which augment the feeling of the danger present with the “gang”, is replaced by the cool blue of the morning, typical of thriller films such as Micheal Mann’s Heat (1995) and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). In both films therefore, it appears that the carefree, parties of the city’s youth and music scene, are not as permanent and stable as the twenty-year dominance of the “techno” culture would suggest, and in fact themselves represent spaces in which the impermanence and instability of youth can manifest, a microcosm of the city of Berlin itself, perceived as “new” throughout its continual regeneration within the last century.

It is also important to note the significance of gender within both films, as the two protagonists are are women who are pushed into masculine worlds, by males, from the characters to their directors.[8] Caryl Flinn points out the importance of the name Lola as a female cinematic protagonist, from Sternberg’s 1930 Die blaue Engel through to Fassbinder’s 1982 Lola. “These female characters (along with others similarly named, including Ophul’s Lola Montes) are known for changing the economic and sexual course of individual men’s lives.”[9] However, as Flinn states, Twyker reworks this and in this case, Lola changes this course for the better, unlike the other films. Flinn claims that “the film restages its own “Economic Miracle” by having Lola save Manni from Ronni, the hip U.S.-style gangster, enabling the two of them, like the film, to walk off with double the money they thought they would receive.”[10]

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In Victoria, too, there are very few other females to appear in the film, and from the outset it is obvious that the portrayal of Berlin within the film is an almost exclusively masculine one. From the opening scene in the club, Victoria is shown at the party by herself, and for a lone, foreign, female to disappear into the night with a gang of criminal males, shocking and dangerous even for a twenty-first century audience. The reaction of those around her augments this, for example, the male bartender is particularly flippant towards her, and refuses to share a drink, or even give her the one she chooses (she orders Schanpps, and receives Vodka), before he retreats to smoke and speak to a group of males. However, the music and nature of the long shot captures the energy of adventure, and we are quickly pulled along with the plot. Like Lola, Victoria is essential to the course of the plot and the economic chase of the characters, and in this case, as previously mentioned, Victoria is the only one to escape physically unscathed and significantly richer. This seems to counteract the masculine beginnings of the film, with its introductory masculine techno music and the connotations of the genre, thanks to music videos such as Eric Prydz’s 2004 “Call On Me” or Benny Benassi’s 2003 “Satisfaction” in which women’s bodies appear heavily objectified and as little more than decoration to the accompanying techno track. In Victoria, and Lola rennt, the directors have shown that Berlin is a growing space of diversity, for people of different genders and different nationalities to act and have agency, despite the masculine connotations of the musical subculture within which the city has grown with and around.

One particularly striking feature of the cities of both films is in their lack of iconography. For example, Lola runs along the streets of Berlin, and seems to make some considerably ground in traversing the city, yet there is little evidence of any Berlin’s famous landmarks; the famous TV tower, the Brandenburg gate, or the Mauer, for example. In fact, the scenery appears almost non-descript.[11] This is also the case in Victoria, as we see few examples of the landmarks of tourism of the city, and instead we are given a reflection of the real Berlin of “Berliners”, as Sonne repeatedly shouts at Victoria. In this way, we see the utopian ideal of post-reunification Berlin: the arrival of the millennium era and the true freedom of movement. Lola’s ceaseless running is the embodiment of this, and we can see a further exploration of this within the characters and nationalities of those Victoria’s gang comes across, including Victoria herself. Victoria won many awards at various international film festivals, and was shortlisted by Germany to be one of their submissions for the 88th Academy Awards. However, it was then disqualified by the Academy due to its high percentage of English language usage. It is this use of language that is so striking within the film, as we see various examples of code-switching, and the use of “Denglisch”[12], which has such a strong presence within post-reunification Berlin, as a transnational hub. In this way, the depiction of Berlin as a “liminal space”, so common in literature and film, as previously mentioned, does in fact remain this way within both films. Furthermore, smaller examples of liminal spaces reoccur as important motifs within both films, from the stairs where Lola makes her plan of action and the stairs where Victoria meets the gang, to the lift that provides the space in which Victoria claims that she feels accepted for the first time in the city. To refer to the previous point, it seems clear that liminal spaces provide an area of change in which women and minorities are able to achieve emancipation, due to the nature and symbolism of the spaces: spaces of in-between, and spaces of change. Within both Victoria and Lola rennt it is almost as if Berlin has transcended the need for borders at all, whether linguistic or geographical.

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In conclusion, it seems clear that both films have provided the twenty-first century audience with important visual-historical material for study of the city of Berlin. The twenty-first century, for Berlin, was a chance of reincarnation after the changes within the decade following the Wende settled down and became routine. It is under the Berlin sky that both of our Berlin “party girls” are faced with capitalist, economic and masculine realism, and it is into a Berlin crossroads (another liminal space) that we see them both walk, clasping a bag of cash, with the knowledge that their lives have changed irrevocably, much like the inhabitants of the city itself. However, Lola and Manni’s walk into the crossroad is accompanied by a building beat of excitement, reflecting the increasing optimism approaching alongside the Millennium. The single, melancholic drawn-out chord which follows Victoria as she walks off seems to suggest that 17 years later, post credit-crunch and Eurozone crisis, the optimism of the Millennium has faded somewhat.

 

[1] Nye, Sean. “Review Essay: Run Lola Run and Berlin Calling | Nye …” Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture. Accessed May 30, 2016. https://dj.dancecult.net/index.php/dancecult/article/view/296/282.

[2] Nye, Sean. “Review Essay: Run Lola Run and Berlin Calling | Nye …” Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture. Accessed May 30, 2016. https://dj.dancecult.net/index.php/dancecult/article/view/296/282.

[3] Flinn, Caryl, Nora M. Alter and Lutz Koepnick. “The Music That Lola Ran To.” In Sound Matters: Essays on The Acoustics of German Culture, edited by Nora M. Alter, p198. New York: Berghahn Books, 2005

[4] For more information see “Paris/Berlin – 20 years of underground techno” Amélie Ravalec

[5] Nye, Sean. “Review Essay: Run Lola Run and Berlin Calling | Nye …” Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture. Accessed May 30, 2016. https://dj.dancecult.net/index.php/dancecult/article/view/296/282.

[6] Nye, Sean. “Review Essay: Run Lola Run and Berlin Calling | Nye …” Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture. Accessed May 30, 2016. https://dj.dancecult.net/index.php/dancecult/article/view/296/282.

[7] Morrison, Simon Andrew. ““Clubs Aren’t like That”: Discos, Deviance and Diegetics in Club Culture Cinema.” Dancecult DC 4, no. 2 (2012): p49. doi:10.12801/1947- 5403.2012.04.02.03.

[8] Incidentally, Sebastian Schipper, director of Victoria, appears in Lola rennt as Mike the bike thief, who tries to gaud the young Lola into buying it

[9] Flinn, Caryl. “The Music That Lola Ran To.” In Sound Matters: Essays on The Acoustics of German Culture, edited by Nora M. Alter and Lutz Koepnick, p206. New York: Berghahn Books, 2005.

[10] Flinn, Caryl, “The Music That Lola Ran To.” In Sound Matters: Essays on The Acoustics of German Culture, edited by Nora M. Alter and Lutz Koepnick, p207. New York: Berghahn Books, 2005.

[11] The only monument that is glanced upon is the former GDR Palast der Republik, which is currently being replaced by the Stadtschloss, which many have criticised for its attempt to remove the city’s anti-capitalist past from the face of its centre. This in itself is significant in terms of Twyker’s criticism of the economic realities of capitalism, and the potential breakdowns that result in the chase for money.

[12] “Denglisch.” Wikipedia. Accessed May 30, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denglisch

Filmography

Primary sources

Lola rennt (Tom Twyker; 1998)

Victoria (Sebastian Schipper; 2015)

Secondary sources

Berlin Calling (Hannes Stöhr, 2008)

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grossstadt (Walter Ruttman, 1927)

Die blaue Engel (Josef von Sternverg, 1930)

Heat (Micheal Mann, 1995)

Lola (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1981)

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)

Paris/Berlin – 20 Years Of Underground Techno (Amélie Ravalec, 2012)

 

 

Imogen Reid, 30 April 2016

 

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