Discuss the Narrative Structure of ‘Run Lola Run’ in the Light of both Vladimir Propp and Tzvetan Todorov
Films are narratives – they tell stories. Even films based on actual events will fictionalize them to produce drama, telescope time, avoid being filled with too many minor characters, or be more entertaining. Films are usually summarised by their plots – in their first ‘treatment’ (or outline of the script idea), in the advance publicity, in reviews, and in conversations.
For instance, films may differ from other kinds of narrative – literary fiction or television drama – in the medium used and representational conventions. They do, however, share with literary fiction and television drama the basic structure and functions of narrative. Much work has been done by researchers in the field known as ‘narratology’ on precisely what constitutes the structures and functions of narrative. It is thought that the world is shown to us in the form of stories.
From childhood, the world is brought to us through stories in books, television, what is read to us and what we hear in conversations. This is not to say that all stories explain the world. Instead, stories provide us with an easy, unconscious, and involving way of constructing the world; narrative can be described as a means of ‘making sense’ of the world around us. Narrative is common to all cultures, but there is evidence that there are several similarities between the tales, stories, and legends produced by different cultures.
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The narrative structure found in the folk-tales of one culture can recur in another, suggesting that there is something universal in the structure and the function of narrative. For example, Vladimir Propp, a folklorist, analyzed a group of Russian folk-tales to see if they shared common properties. He found that, no matter how widely they differed in their surface details (characterization, setting, plot etc.), they shared certain critical structural features.
The most basic of these were the functions of various sets of characters and actions within the tales. First, he reduced the range of different characters into eight character roles. These are not separate characters since one character can play several roles or ‘spheres of action’ as Propp calls them, and several different characters may occupy one role. They are the villain, the donor (provider); the helper; the princess (or sought-for person) and her father; the dispatcher; the hero or victim, and the false hero.
All characters or ‘spheres of action’ which occur in folk-tales are accommodated in that list. This group of characters then participates in the limited set of narrative units or functions which make up the tale. From his analyses, Propp concluded: Functions of characters serve as stable, constant elements in a tale, independent of how and by whom they are fulfilled. They constitute the fundamental components of a tale; the number of functions known to the fairy-tale is limited; the sequence of functions Is always identical; all fairy-tales are of one type regarding their structure.
Propp then set out the narrative into a structure of six sequences. The first is ‘Preparation’ (The start of the plot to the story); ‘Complication’ (The plot thickens); ‘Transference’ (Hero begins a quest to defeat villain); ‘Struggle’ (Fight between hero and villain); ‘Return’ (Hero returns but has one last task to accomplish); finally ‘Recognition’ (The task is completed and the ‘happily ever after’ ending). On the other hand, Tzvetan Todorov claimed that a narrative is a fictional environment that begins with a state of equilibrium (all is as it should be) which then suffers some disruption (disequilibria) before a new equilibrium is produced at the end of the story.
There are five transformations through which an event must pass: A state of equilibrium – all is well; a disruption of the ordered state by an event; a recognition that disruption has taken place; an attempt to repair the damage of the disruption; and finally a return to some equilibrium. The structure can be applied to fictional and non-fictional forms. The problems are that it remains very general and cannot reveal the close detail of a narrative. ‘Run Lola Run’ is a German film directed by Tom Twyker.
It is non-linear, meaning that it has no pattern and does not have a basic beginning, middle, and end narrative. It has one beginning and three endings, with each ending being different while the start, which tells the audience the main plot, remains the same. When we meet Manni, a small-time courier for big-time gangsters, he is working a standard pick-up and drop-off job, and everything is going just fine. When the job is done, all he has to do is wait for his girlfriend, a red-haired girl Lola, to pick him up. But today is unlike any other day. Due to her scooter being stolen while she was buying a pack of cigarettes, Lola is late, and Lola is never late.
Ironically now she cannot be late and so must be on time to save Manni. One stroke of bad luck leads to another, and by the time Manni calls Lola, he is at a payphone with a big problem. His unforgiving boss will meet him in twenty minutes, at midnight midday, to pick up 100,000 marks, money that Manni, suddenly, does not have. Lola rushes out of her apartment and down the street, attempting to get to Manni and, somehow, pick up 100,000 marks on the way. She tears through the city in a whirl of bums, nuns, babies and guns. Down sidewalks, into offices, through traffic and back again.
As her feet slap the pavement and the seconds tick down, the tiniest choices become life-altering decisions to herself and those around her, and the fine line between fate and fortune begins to blur. I think that ‘Run Lola Run’ does not fit either Propp’s or Todorov’s idea of narrative exactly, but similarities can be seen in certain areas. Propp’s seven ‘spheres of action’ can be seen in the film. The tramp plays the villain for stealing the money, there is no donor, the helper is Lola, there is not a princess, but the sought-for person could be the money instead of an actual character, there is not a dispatcher either, the hero is Lola, and there is not a false hero.
So it can be seen that certain ‘spheres’ of action are not used, so this particular narrative theory does not fit totally. Todorov’s idea is more successful, with all five transformations covered. The equilibrium at the beginning is when Manni has the money and is ready to deliver it. The disruption is when Manni leaves the money on the train, and a tramp picks it up. A recognition of the disruption is when Manni realizes he has lost the money and phones Lola to see if she can save him. Finally, the attempt(s) to repair the damage is when Lola runs through Berlin trying to get 100,000 Marks.
Finally, a return to equilibrium is at the end of the third ‘ending’ when Manni finds the tramp, takes his money back, and delivers it on time to his boss. Thus leaving Manni and Lola free to carry on their lives. I feel this particular film fits Todorov’s narrative theory better than Propp’s. In light of this, I will discuss further the key concepts and technical codes displayed throughout the film using the narrative structure of Todorov. The film’s start is when there is an equilibrium, in this case, Lola and Manni. This gives the audience a chance to see who or who is being represented in the film.
The equilibrium quickly changes into the disruption of the ordered state. Manni is a courier who is making an essential delivery to his boss. When it goes wrong, and he is on the phone with Lola, he is shown as being desperate and weak, which is unconventional as it is generally seen that the woman is the weaker person of the two. Manni is wearing plain blue, black, and grey clothes not to stand out, and his mentality is shown as being scared and weak. Also, the colours of grey and blue connote pessimism as he is scared of failing and thinks that there is no way out of the situation.
This is emphasized by the camera angles used on him while he is on the phone with Lola. First, the camera is placed above him or higher than high to connote weakness and powerlessness as he is virtually powerless to help himself get the 100,000 Marks. The shot size is generally either a close-up or big close-up to show the emotion going through his face, and selective focus is used to emphasize his facial expressions. Finally, low contrast lighting is used to connote realism to get the audience to believe this is happening, which adds to the dramatic impact and increases the tension felt.
When we see Lola, she is a vibrant red-headed girlfriend of Manni. Her red hair connoting that she is lively, passionate, optimistic and agitated. With her hair connoting optimism as red is a warm colour, ‘she is the light at the end of the tunnel’ for Manni as she is the only one that can help him. When Manni is on the phone with her, the camera angles are low to connote that she has the power to save him and his hopes rest on her shoulders. The shot size is once again close-up to big close-up to see her facial expressions as she reacts to her emotions as the situation is revealed to her by Manni.
Low key and high contrast lighting are used to connote that the situation is serious and wrong and to add dramatic effect so that the audience is built up with tension and drama. The phone she is using is even red to connote the feeling of optimism but also like the telephone used in the ‘Batman’ series, which was red, it is like Manni is calling a hero to come to save him like in ‘Batman’ he would be called at his bat cave on a red telephone if he was needed. This shows Lola as being a hero to Manni. Her apartment is very dark, and cool colours are used. This could connote that she is surrounded by pessimism as the task seems impossible, but she is optimistic amongst it all, with her red hair standing out from the dark background.
The ensuing conversation between Manni and Lola over the phone is the third point in Todorov’s theory that disruption is recognized. This is Manni telling Lola what has happened and going over the story to her. During this, the shot size remains close-up or big close-up to capture the emotions shown through their facial expressions and tone of voice. The camera angles and still high for Manni and low for Lola, and the composition is dynamic to connote disturbance, with the disturbance being the disruption to Todorov’s narrative theory.
The conversation is fast-paced and short speeches from each person this connotes the fact that it is a serious situation, and they want to convey the information they have quickly as time is of the essence considering that time is a central theme of the film. The brief conversation is linked with fast-paced, non-diegetic music in the background to add to the feeling and fast edits between Manni and Lola. When Manni is explaining to Lola how he lost the money, and a clip of the drug deal is shown, it is shown in monochrome (black and white), which connotes realism adding to the affect that this is real and makes the audience believe it more, therefore, getting them involved more profound in the film.
Lola then tries to think of all the people that can help her, and a fast pace montage begins where lots of portrait photos of people she knows may help appear quickly. When the red phone is dropped hard on the receiver, it’s like the actual start to the countdown of how long she has to save Manni. This then signifies the start of the attempt to repair the damage, but she has three attempts in this film instead of the usual one. But instead of them being one after the other, the attempts start from when the phone is dropped. So, for example, when one attempt ends, it does not just carry on; it goes back to realizing the disruption.
This is where it slightly leaves the theory of Todorov, but it returns after the third attempt of repair and ends up as an equilibrium where Manni and Lola are still together and are happy. The setting of ‘Run Lola Run’ is in Berlin in Germany around late morning and midday. I think that Lola has red hair and a punk look as these syntagmatic choices are chosen from a number of possible paradigms because they suit each other and the situation. This links with the setting of Berlin in Germany because punk is very popular there. There are very few main props used throughout the film including guns, bags of money, telephones and cars. They all play key parts in the film’s running, and the outcome they have can be great.
The gun shows the extent of their desperation and that they are actually thinking of using it to harm someone to achieve their goal which makes them no better than the boss they are trying to get the money for as they are then branded criminals for stealing and possibly murdering someone. The bag of money is a significant prop as it is the main objective of the attempt of repairing the situation which is to get the money back or somehow find 100,000 Marks. I think that it is kept in a simple inconspicuous bag to signify that it was a simple informal job, as in some instances a metal, silver briefcase would have been used which is more formal and stereotypical.
The soundtrack to the film links into the theme of pace and race against time as it contains tracks that are fast-paced themselves to emphasize the need for time and so involve the audience more like the sound which is often non-diegetic, matches the images they see of fast edits and camera angle changes. There are a number of themes relevant to this film. The obvious and major one is time. This adds suspense to the film and audience because there is a set time period and deadline to meet. What is good about the film is that the twenty minutes she has to save Manni actually lasts for twenty minutes. This gives the audience an actual real-time period they can relate too and they suffer for the same length of time as Lola was in the film, so as the suspense builds in you, the audience may begin to understand how Lola must feel.
I think that the film is in a crime/drama/action but overall a sub-genre of suspense-thriller. Thriller and suspense films are types of films known to promote intense excitement, suspense, a high level of anticipation, ultra-heightened expectation, uncertainty, anxiety, and nerve-wracking tension. Thriller and suspense films are virtually synonymous and interchangeable categorizations, with similar characteristics and features, and this is linked with the theme of time.
The first attempt to return to equilibrium involves Lola running to her dad as he works in a bank. As she runs through the streets of Berlin there is non-diegetic music in the background which is fast-paced and hectic to match the situation and is known as parallel music because it does not seem out of place. The camera shots used to follow her as she runs are tracking because the camera follows her at the same pace as she is running. The shot size and angles are then cut at a fast pace to emphasize the speed of the situation, all these codes are repeated whenever she is running.
The people she meets whilst she is running have their own thirty-second montage of their lives over the next few months. These change the other two times she meets them in the other attempts at repair. The montage keeps with the emphasis on pace and time. Her way of trying to save Manni this time is to ask her father at the bank for 100,000 marks to help her. But he uses his father’s authority and says for her to come with him thinking perhaps he would help her but at the last minute just chucks her out of the bank. This has wasted lots of time, and so then there is a shot of a clock in the centre of town.
If she does not get there in time, Manni will rob a grocery shop, so a low camera angle looks up at the clock showing that the clock holds all the cards and controls Manni and Lola’s fates. Lola does not make it in time and is late again, just like she is at the start. Before she gets there, she seems to telepathically think to Manni to tell him not to do it. This could show how close the two are to each other, signifying the strength of their relationship. She has let Manni down for the second time in a day, and so he goes to rob the store. Just as he is stealing the money, Lola arrives and decides to help him rob the shop together so that if Manni gets caught, they both get caught, cementing her devotion to her lover and boyfriend.
Once they have the money, they run out onto the street, where police surround them. They are trapped, and there is no way out of the situation, just like they thought there was no way out of the first situation of needing 100,000 Marks. The scene then slows down into slow motion, and non-diegetic, contrapuntal music plays – ‘What a difference a day makes.’ This is contrapuntal because the music, which is soft and happy, does not match the bad situation they are in. Lola then gets shot, and Manni is distraught, then again showing the strength of their relationship. The bag with has the cash in it is thrown into the air.
The bag is red, and as it drops to the floor, it slams down and returns to the phone, hitting the receiver at the end of the realization of the disruption. This edit is fast, and so begins the theme of time and pace once again for the second attempt to repair the disruption. In the second attempt, she meets the same people, but their lives’ montage follows a different story. There is a change in the way she tries to get the money as well. This time, she is thrown out again but steals the security guard’s gun, robs the bank at gunpoint, and gets the money for Manni. As she runs out of the bank, she finds herself surrounded by police, ready to arrest the culprit. The camera then cuts to her face to show the expression of utter disbelief and despair as she realizes her days are numbered, and she cannot save Manni.
But the police do not realize she is the robber and so usher her out of the way to safety and let her go. Her disbelief of failure suddenly changes to how she managed to get out of the situation. Just as she reaches Manni to give the money to the boss, he is hit by a van and is practically dead. This time, Manni is injured and not Lola, and you see how she is troubled and sad. This shows that the feeling between them was mutual and that they both loved each other dearly.
The final, third and successful attempt involves Lola winning the money in a casino, as she gambles on a roulette table but this is not before she tries her father again. It seems that her father is the basis of her hope throughout her three attempts and lets her down all three times. As she gets to the bank she just misses him as he leaves in a car and so she is late again for Manni. She decides to take a chance and gamble in the casino opposite. Although robbing a bank or store has a better chance of being able to get, the police are there outside waiting to arrest you. But in a casino, you are less likely to win but if you do it is legal and so you can keep it.
This is her last chance as she has tried all the other possible ways and so all rests upon this game. This adds suspense to the film and involves the audience even more. Whilst this is happening Manni sees the tramp and chases after him, eventually catching him. He manages to get the money back as the tramp knows it is rightfully Manni’s. But drama is added to this as the tramp wants Manni’s gun to trade the money for. The audience thinks that the tramp will shoot him and take the money back but he does not leave the audience free to concentrate on Lola.
She buys one hundred Mark tokens to play with. She fights off the restraints of convention and upper-class snobs by going to the casino in the punk clothes she is wearing when you had to wear suits and cocktail dresses. She decides to play roulette and gambles her one hundred Marks on the black twenty. The number twenty links with the time she had to save Manni which was twenty minutes, therefore, going back to the theme of time.
She wins and places the money she has just one on the same number again and wins again. She manages to win the 100,000 Marks by a final victory on the same number black twenty. The camera focuses on the roulette table and slowly you see the ball sitting in the black twenty grooves. This adds suspense to the scene as the audience eventually finds out if she has one. The intensity of the situation is shown by Lola screaming a high-pitched noise until the roulette wheel stops.
When it stops there is a non-diegetic lightning strike sound connoting that something dark and evil has happened like the victory was due to black magic or something not real. When she leaves the casino she jumps into the orange van which knocked down Manni in the second ending and gets to Manni in time, but she does not know that Manni has already completed the deal and the ordeal is over. They then walk away together with the money Lola has just won and so the equilibrium is returned to.