I can’t recall another movie scene that is so immediate, moving, and bizarre as the one that jump-starts the romance in The Princess and the Warrior. A young nurse is crossing a not-so-busy small town street when she’s hit by a truck. Bam. In a violent instant, she’s underneath the vehicle, flat on her back, and struggling to get her breath. The space beneath the truck is dark, and though feet scuffle nearby and traffic passes, the sounds dwindle, so that soon, all you hear are her labored gasps and voice-over recollection of the astounding “silence” that overwhelms her. And then a young man appears: he slides under the truck with her, actually on top of her, then cuts her throat open and slips in a tube, performing a rushed and raggedy tracheotomy. All the while, Sissi gazes up at him, with an extraordinary range of emotions racing across her tear-stained face: in an instant, she’s transfixed, horrified, grateful, and afraid.
On its surface, the second collaboration between writer-director Tom Tykwer and Franka Potente couldn’t be more unlike than their first, the wonderful Run, Lola, Run. Where that film was fast and urgent, The Princess and the Warrior is (as the above scene demonstrates) deliberate, almost meditative. Still, the two movies share common, provocative ideas about fate and passion, the nature of time and the rhythms of life.
In the new film, Potente plays the titular “princess,” or more precisely, a psychiatric nurse named Sissi. Her warrior—the guy who slits her throat open—is Bodo (Benno Furmann), an ex-soldier suffering the emotional aftereffects of his young wife’s dreadful accidental death in a gas station explosion. Both Sissi and Bodo live under difficult, extraordinary circumstances, but are simultaneously suffocating inside routines. He lives with his brother, Walter (Joachim Krol), who accommodates Bodo’s depression. He’s inarticulate and sunk inside himself but also hyper (Furmann creates a sustained tension between this self-immersion and Bodo’s surface-edginess). Unable to sleep at night because of bad dreams and flashbacks, Bodo distracts himself during daylight hours with military and martial arts drills.
Sissi has an equally but very differently isolated existence, even though she’s surrounded by people, specifically the mental patients under her care. Gifted but also limited by her incredibly generous and nonjudgmental spirit, Sissi doesn’t object when one man begs her for a hand-job, and another attacks her without warning. She’s been the asylum for so long that such erratic behavior has become commonplace for her.
Both Bodo and Sissi are thus limited by their experiences and expectations of pain. He can’t trust anyone, she can only trust everyone; neither extreme allows for movement or ambition. Where Bodo’s desperation leads him to plot a bank robbery with his brother, he doesn’t quite believe that a wad of cash will change anything. His collision with Sissi will change everything. After spending some weeks in the hospital following the tracheotomy, she sets out in search of her savior, determined to discover who he is and why they came together. While there’s a broad, what’s-the-order-of-the-universe bottom line type of question here, fortunately, the film is less interested in pursuing such causes than in exploring effects. And so it looks most carefully at how Sissi and Bodo respond to one another, in repeated, increasingly weird circumstances.
Sissi tracks him down and is literally grounded by the force of his rage and sadness. She locates him at Walter’s, in the yard practicing a martial arts move, but Bodo’s so into what he’s doing that he doesn’t see her come up behind him, and whomps her in the face as she approaches. Bam (again). She goes down. You might expect that this violence would upset her, but no, Sissi remains implacably nonjudgmental, taking his fist in some kind of stride. This is because she finds it familiar, not comforting or pleasant certainly, but something she knows how to handle, something she can absorb and comprehend. Later encounters with Bodo are also hurtful, as he rejects her again and again: “We can’t go on like this,” he says when she comes to the house once more. “I’m not leaving,” she says. And so, he throws her out the door, into the pouring rain. And she just keeps coming.
For me, Sissi’s capacity to roll with such abuse, to take ignoble—or at least ignorant, miserable, and unsocialized—men as they come to her, is the most disturbing element of The Princess and the Warrior. This isn’t to say that the violence that stems from Bodo and Walter’s attempted bank robbery isn’t troubling, or that the mix of absolute intensity and absolute boredom in the asylum isn’t also distressing. But Sissi occupies a peculiar and yet all too familiar position in relation to violence enacted by men against women. What is most alarming about Sissi’s relentlessly big-hearted response to her cruel and often frightening environment, is that it echoes responses from many women, so used to being abused, that they’re conditioned to expect it, to believe it’s their “fate.”
At the same time, the fact that her absorption of pain is disturbing would appear to be the point. In traditional fairy tales, girls do tend to take the passive role—they wait to be rescued, they suffer patiently while longing for true love to change their lives. What The Princess and the Warrior ends up doing, after laying out this convention, is to turn it upside down, to celebrate Sissi’s openness, survival, and sense of invention: she finds a way out. At times behaving like a prototypical nurse-by-nature, caring for everyone as if he’s a patient, Sissi isn’t simply representative. She’s also inspired and unnervingly inspirational, not in the sense that you would want to follow her example, but in the sense that she is resilient and eventually learns from her experiences. Still, she embodies a certain element of faith and childlike “magic,” and it’s this fairy tale-ish aspect that allows Sissi to, in effect, “save” Bodo, in effect, to reintroduce him to himself.
Tykwer’s lyrical framing and dead-on choice of music make these themes unavoidable—the camera is ever-restless, while the music thrums and pulses, there is movement and a sense of imminent transition everywhere in this film. Bodo and Sissi’s romance is surely bizarre, but also full of grace and tenderness. Perhaps the greatest surprise is just how the film brings you inside these characters, who on their surfaces look so strange. The pace is meticulous and also just slightly “off.” Watching the first hour or so of The Princess and the Warrior is like listening to someone sing just a bit behind the beat, fascinating, and sometimes unsettling too. Bodo and Sissi interact with a series of other characters before they have an actual conversation, and even when they do speak with one another, they appear at first to be crossing wires. They are hardly your usual romantic pairing, and the film never quite does what you think it will. But it’s the very slowness of their development, their steps back and forward as characters and as a couple, that makes them so visually and emotionally riveting.