Tykwer's pre-'Lola' pic a tense but aimless psychological roundelay revolving around a car crash
Cashing in on the notoriety of German wunderkind Tom Tykwer's innovative, influential and brilliantly kinetic "Run Lola Run," a small American releasing house called Winstar Cinema has unleashed this week the director's shivery 1997 psychological roundelay entitled "Winter Sleepers."
The film tracks the subconscious domino effect of a terrible car accident on an icy mountain road that leaves a little girl hospitalized and on the verge of death.
Her destitute farmer father (Josef Bierbichler) becomes obsessed with identifying the drunken driver that collided with their car. All he remembers of the man -- who walked away after his auto flew off the road -- is that he had an frightful scar on the back of his head, partially hidden by his hair.
That man with the scar (Ulrich Matthes) -- a frayed, quiet movie theater projectionist with an obsessive photography habit -- has no memory of the accident, although it's almost 90 minutes in the picture before Tykwer reveals why.
Coincidentally (or is it some kind of wicked fate?), he's begun dating a discombobulated young nurse (Marie-Lou Sellem) who takes special interest in the girl left comatose by the crash.
Meanwhile the nurse's beautiful, vulnerable housemate (Floriane Daniel) -- with whom she shares a cluttered, funky mountain cabin -- copes with a frustrating relationship with a moody, difficult, jealous and womanizing ski instructor boyfriend (Heino Ferch), whose stolen car was being driven by the scarred (in more ways than one) projectionist when he caused the accident in the first place.
What does it all mean? I was asking myself that same question for most of the movie. The story's focus meanders all over its ensemble of players, vaguely tying events together with a consistent underlying tension that certainly piques the interest, but Tykwer withholds too much information until late in the film. He leaves enticing characters twisting in the wind and compelling circumstances dangling until they dry out as he attempts to sustain anxiety without providing a reason for it.
The genius that emerged in Tykwer's next picture ("Run Lola Run" was my No. 1 film of 1999) can be seen germinating in "Winter Sleepers." But he can hold his audience rapt with vague promise of revelation for only so long.
Tykwer's innate, distinctive visual and metaphorical style gives the disquieting pic an extremely charged atmosphere with his forever-in-motion cinematography style of deliberate, encroaching tracking shots. He richly depicts the wintry pall that hangs over his characters and the ski lodge hamlet where they live. "Winter Sleepers" is a skilled film that has a way of sucking you in even as you wonder why it's obviously going nowhere.
Tykwer does finally picks a clear direction in the last 40 minutes, and the story subsequently becomes fantastically taut and edgy. But getting to that point is often disappointingly tedious.