Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I watched another film from Tom Tykwer last night: Der Krieger und die Kaiserin or The Princess and the Warrior, as it was released in the US. Tykwer is probably best known as the director of Run, Lola, Run, one of the few European films that has played to a financial success in the US market, and I'm sure the distribution companies were hoping to score again with The Princess and the Warrior. If you read the description at Netflix, they bill it as a "heist" film. It's a heist film in the way that the Old Man and the Sea is a book about deep sea sport fishing. Promoting the film in this way is just one of the reasons that so many European films flop at the US box office.

I enjoyed the film and especially the sets. A lot of the action takes place in a psychiatric hospital where the main character, Sissi, played by Franka Potente, works as a nurse. The exterior shots of the hospital are fabulous and the interior made me want to develop a minor psychosis so I could spend some time there. Initially, I was very impressed with the level of psychiatric care in Germany, but then discovered that the set was built for the film. I guess that doesn't mean that German psychiatric care is lousy, but it took the edge off my desire to experience it first hand.

But the best set was the city of Wuppertal itself. Tom Tykwer grew up in Wuppertal, and I've visited it a number of times. It had its heyday at the opening of the nineteenth century as an industrial center, primarily producing textiles. The geography of the region, a long, narrow and steep river valley, hampered continued development and eventually the industry moved north to the Ruhrgebiet. But it left in its wake some beautiful old houses and a linear city, built along the banks of the Wupper and the Schwebebahn line that was constructed over the river. Tykwer uses the Schwebebahn and the steep hills the city grew up on to create some beautiful imagery and distinctive locations throughout the film.

Schwebebahn means something like "suspended pathway" and it's the name for the monorail train that Wuppertal built during its golden age, presumably to give up as little valuable land as possible for public transit. Many Americans are familiar with it because of its most famous image: Tuffi the elephant falling out of a car into the Wupper River in 1950. The Wuppertal zoo director at the time thought it would be a good publicity stunt to take the elephant, a three year old female, for a ride on the famous Schwebebahn. As you (or anyone who gave it more than five seconds thought) would imagine, Tuffi didn't take well to riding in a car that travels suspended from a monorail over a river valley. She ran through the car, smashing windows and injuring passengers. Eventually, she fell out of the car and was captured on film in an image that I can only describe as skuril. I think a good translation for that might be "bizarre" or "fantastic," but neither really seems to do the photo justice.

The Princess and the Warrior has a more or less "happy" ending for the two misfits the title refers to and I'm happy to report that Tuffi's story also comes out OK in the end. The zoo director was sacked as well as the blockhead transit official who approved the ride. Tuffi landed in the water and swan to shore, uninjured but for some minor cuts and scrapes. The accident location is still remembered with a painted image of Tuffi on a neighboring building and city ordinances forbid the transit of elephants on the Schwebebahn today.


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Em said...

OH! poor Tuffi! I'm so glad she performed a water landing. What an extraordinary event. And if the Princess & the Warrior promises to at least end well, I may ask the librarian to rummage in the obscure films section for me.