(Published in C.G. Jung Library Journal, Vol. 21, No. 3, 2002)
Perhaps, as noted film director Mike Nichols suggests, a film’s artistic success lies in the power of its core metaphor to drive the story. If so, I believe The Princess and The Warrior (written and directed by Tim Tykwer) owes its ability to rivet our attention from beginning to end on an innovative interpretation of the Ouroboros as a symbol of enlivened continuity. Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols defines the Gnostic symbol of a snake biting its own tail as a representation of the continuity of life but focuses on the symbol as a closed, static circle – like a child sucking its thumb. Tykwer, I believe, opens up the symbol into a narrative of a heroine shedding old mores, rippling past a dead-end to a fresh start. It is indeed inspiring to see Sissi Schmidt (Franka Polena) triumph over the paralyzing effects of despair in an heroic story of personal determination.
At first glance,The Princess and The Warrior appears to be a familiar story of a young woman who rebels against convention and follows her heart. But, it should come as no surprise that Tykwer, the visionary filmmaker behind the labyrinthic “Run Lola Run”, is not simply telling a story of romance. The Princess of the title trusts her instincts in order to follow a path of mysteriously synchronized events and, as if embodying the wisdom of the Ouroboros, affirms the promise of infinite possibility when love and trust are mutual between a man and a woman.
One by one, as surely as the opening scenes of Tykwer’s film show a letter making its way through the automated machinery of the postal system, The Princess slips from scene to scene like a still image in a children’s flipbook. No one single image, separated from the others, makes sense. But viewed at a certain speed, each one magically contributes to the emergence of a story. The page turning child, or viewer of any age watching The Princess and The Warrior, receives a special reward——an unasked question answered. One doesn’t consciously ask how the brain creates movement out of still images when pages are flipped nor how vitality is restored after trauma robs the soul. But the surprise of finding meaning where there was none mysteriously sparks a flow of energy and inspires hope for a future that may depend on suspending disbelief.
The Hero Myth, or The Hero’s Journey, wildly popular in our culture as a formula for the deliverance of mature masculine consciousness, (i.e. Star Wars, Platoon) has no path for girls or boys pursuing the secrets of regeneration. Tykwer’s film, as a modern mythic story of origins and a heroine’s journey, fills in many missing clues for those who seek the nature of continuity and evolution. Princess sinks its roots not in the classic Hero’s Journey, then, but into the ancient quests for feminine wisdom found in the mythology of the Sumerian Queen, Inanna as well as in the classic Greek Elusinian Mysteries. Still, the old myths hampered by the patriarchal goal of male dominance give scant detail of the actual trials and triumphs of exploration and accomplishment involved in the hero’s search for identity and wholeness from a female perspective. The Princess and The Warriorportrays an important image for contemporary times: one of a female hero who first looks death in the eye and then takes on the larger problem of human despair and the crippling effect of disillusionment in the modern world. While Tykwer’s heroine borrows depth from alliances with old female heroic tales, it is a fully modern invention to imbue her with the power of regeneration and create out of her own cycle of events a mythic perspective of the relationship between the masculine and the feminine.
From the head of the snake——or its tail——The Princess and The Warriorbegins with a letter from one young woman living alone atop a glistening sea of light to another young woman residing in the darkened rooms of a big city asylum populated by the mentally ill. Sissi Schmidt (Franka Polenta) works as a nurse in the Birkenhoff Psychiatric Hospital in Wuppertal, Germany. The letter asks Sissi to pick up a gift left by her friend’s dead mother in a safe deposit box at a bank. This seemingly simple request sets off a series of events that lead Sissi out of her complacent adaptation as a nurse and draws her into a complicated relationship with a man that changes her life. By the end of the film, the dead mother’s gift takes on a meaning far beyond what either young woman could have imagined. It acts as an invisible hand from the “other world” that guides Sissi along a deeply felt, but not wholly recognized, path of longing for connection —— and a new start.
Tykwer puts the ancient feminine principle of renewal into play in this film by sending Franka Polenta back into action as yet another captivating heroine. She was the larger than life, magical redhead speeding through Run Lola Run, and now she is just as amazing as the slow motion blonde inPrincess. Polenta’s character, Sissi, practically opens Princess surviving a near death experience, when she is mowed down by a huge red truck on her way to the safe deposit box and receives a street tracheotomy from a stranger.
Bodo Reimer -a tight combo of machismo vulnerability pulled off by Benno Furmann – is on the run after committing a petty theft when he scoots under the big truck to hide and discovers Sissi lying flat on her back unable to breathe. Daunted for only a moment, he sizes up the situation and promises he’ll return to help her. Returning with a common plastic drinking straw, he performs an emergency cut in Sissi’s throat with the point of a hunting knife, inserts the straw and restores her breathing by sucking blood from her air pipe. Just before Sissi blanks out, we hear her thinking, “someone could find happiness in the outside world if someone like him was around.” Like the age old concept of “love at first sight” explained as a Jungian anima/animus projection, an image from her fantasies has found a match.
Sissi miraculously survives her accident with only minor injuries but when she returns to her job at the psychiatric hospital, she no longer feels like she fits in. Sissi grew up in the hospital, the child of a nurse who died in an odd accident when a psychotic patient deliberately threw a hair dryer into her bath – possibly the same patient who impregnated her with Sissi – leaving Sissi motherless at a very young age.
Sissi has always been every patient’s sweetheart, an innocent girl happily in service of any mad fantasy. Now, for the first time, she feels different. Although on the outside she appears cool and calm, frustration and desire have begun to burn beneath the surface. She realizes she’s not an inmate; the patients no longer feel like friends or family. Her first night back from fifty-three days in the hospital, she tosses and turns, agitated and unable to sleep. She feels driven to action. By her own words, she has to know if Bodo’s miraculous appearance means that “she is supposed to be with him” and sets off on a determined quest to find the man who saved her life or, one might argue, her very life-essence.
Unlike the familiar heroines of myth and fairy tale, Sissi is neither seduced nor abducted by Bodo. Rather, passion rises within her and propels her toward a stranger with no name who left no clue as to his whereabouts but captured her complete attention. For the first time, she wants something for herself.
Her beginning point is a button ripped from his shirt by her clenched hand — she had been desperate to hold on to him as he left her lying under the truck. A young blind ward of the hospital was accompanying her on her errand to the bank at the time of the accident and she now enlists his help. Just before the truck hit her, she had pushed the boy to safety. Devoted to Sissi, the boy is eager to help.
Walked back through the accident scene and, aided by his heightened sense of hearing, he quickly finds the store from which Bodo emerged just before finding her under the truck. The owner sells illegal guns and, though he knows Bodo, refuses to tell Sissi where he lives. Sissi, no longer the passively agreeable child she was before the accident, makes the first of many brash moves in pursuit of her destiny. She whispers in the ear of the blind boy and instigates an outrageous spoof that forces the owner to give her Bodo’s address.
Sissi does indeed find Bodo, but her newfound sense of purpose is again put to the test and she is refused satisfaction. Instead of Bodo recognizing her and being delighted that his quick action paid off in her full recovery, he knocks her down and nearly strangles her. True, she surprises him during a karate practice session with his brother but his split-second, unthinking reaction when she taps him on the shoulder suggests that instinctually he could be as deadly as he had been life-saving when he found her under the truck. Bodo doesn’t apologize. Instead, as if possessed by a demon, he demands she leave the premises.
Sissi does leave but she also returns at a later time and befriends his brother. This time, when Bodo finds her in his house, he pushes her out into a dark rainy night and leaves her stumbling in the mud. For Bodo, Sissi’s attraction is more than irrelevant. He is enraged by the distraction that her interest in him causes to his all-encompassing obsession with death. He is a man living in a private emotional hell and wants no company.
When Sissi talked to Bodo’s brother, she found out that Bodo is crazed with guilt. His wife was killed in a bizarre accident for which he feels responsible. On a trip, he went to the men’s room at a gas station and left his wife distraught after an argument, so that she didn’t notice dropping a lit cigarette into an overflow from the gas pump setting off an explosion that killed her. Bodo’s brother has been awakened more than once to discover Bodo embracing a pot belly stove stoked with hot coals in his sleep, presumably attempting to bring his wife back from her fiery death or join her. But he has not been able to heal Bodo’s obsessive despair. A pot belly stove stoked with coals for the night may also be drawing a frozen man to warmth, an unconscious lure to a woman’s Eros as a source of rejuvenation. Bodo’s brother may indeed be helpless but he schemes to leave Germany — leave the past – and start anew in Australia.
An innocent heroine, informed by the mythology found in Beauty and the Beast, would sustain Bodo’s brutality from an attitude of self-sacrifice and good heartedness, but Sissi is not an innocent. From birth, she’s been exposed to and trained to deal with insanity. She responds to abusive behavior by taking control of the situation. She can lock a man down if she has to. She has no father to rescue by catering to a beast. She is not preserving a traditional image of femininity. To the contrary, pursuing the man she loves breaks her away from a system of self-sacrificing convictions that put a roof over her head as an orphan. She pursues Bodo at the risk of losing her home and her job but with the hope of gaining a true feeling of connection. She sustains herself with a mystical sense of purpose, an imaginative spirit and a belief that she is bringing two worlds together. From Sissi’s point of view, saving Bodo’s tortured soul from a sentence of isolation in hell is part of saving herself from a life caught inside a cage.
Sissi demonstrates an uncanny ability to see a person’s goodness lying beneath impulsive actions and to act directly with compassion. She takes careful note of Bodo’s tears flowing down his cheeks as readily as when he flails out in anger. He cried while he assisted her under the truck, and he cries as they arrive at the gas station where his wife’s fatal accident occurred. But the extreme oscillations between grief and rage haven’t changed him. He’s stuck in another world, shut off in the “men’s room” when an explosion of fire changed life as he knew it. But is it immutable and forever? Sissi believes Bodo reached out, at least momentarily, when he pierced her throat and freed her spirit. He opened a door, created a pathway between worlds that, for her own sense of self, she needs to travel again.
Her interactions with Bodo are not so much romantic as sorely real, a part of her desperate effort to leave behind a childhood distorted by the mad fantasies of others and escape a role of servitude to adult dependencies. Even when Bodo pushes Sissi away, he fails to discourage her. She finds other ways to stay close to him, certain that pursuing him will take her to a new life. Her empathy for his entrapment energizes her and makes her stronger, not more passive or vulnerable. She gathers strength as she goes. When Bodo throws her out of his house and leaves her soaking in the mud, Sissi picks herself up and, instead of slinking home to the asylum, seeks comfort on a grassy knoll overlooking the city. Suddenly, the rain stops and the vast black sky above twinkles with starlight, merging stars with city skyline, and making heaven indivisible from earth.
Night becomes day and Sissi resumes her task of retrieving the dead mother’s gift from its safe deposit box. In her head, she begins a letter to her friend explaining the delay. By chance or divine plan, Bodo’s brother works in the same bank where Sissi’s friend’s mother rented a box. The brother has moved ahead with his scheme to get money to go to Australia by robbing the bank and, on the very day and at the very moment that Sissi is opening the safe deposit box downstairs in the bank, he and Bodo are botching a robbery of safe deposit boxes upstairs. Bodo’s brother is shot and, perhaps guided by that dead mother’s hand, Sissi’s curiosity takes her straight into the chaotic center of their attempt to escape. Together, Sissi and Bodo manage to escape with the wounded brother in a getaway car and drop him at an emergency room.
Once again, Sissi’s path intersects Bodo’s in an accident — as unlikely and life threatening as the first one. This time the tables are turned and Sissi steps into the critical life-saving role. Sissi, fully in command, ferrets Bodo away from a police blockade and hides him as a patient in Birkenhoff. But when TV news announces his brother’s death, Bodo flips out, tosses the television set against a wall and must be drugged. Sissi, with a hand as steady as the one Bodo used to perform her “trache”, reaches into the fiery core of his insanity and soothes him with loving kindness and spiritual encouragement. She lies down next to him in his hospital bed, fully clothed but closer than if she was naked and assures him that everything will be all right. “What planet do you come from?” he murmurs, staring at her, unable to imagine any human being caring about him. In his mind, he is death: responsible for his wife and his brother being dead.
But Sissi starts a full-blown plan for Bodo’s rescue and their escape. She borrows a car and dreams of a brighter tomorrow. In Bodo’s darkest moment of despair, as he is lying alone in a padded cell, Sissi slips in to tell him she’s dreamed that he’s to come with her. Her voice coaxes him back from the abyss: “You wonder why we two? We are together — brother and sister, mother and father, wife and husband – all in you, all in me. Both of us were both in my dream. I thought it was happiness. You’ve had too much bad luck.” The camera circles around them simulating the Ouroboros, no beginning and no end, creating a mysterious continuity between two human beings where there was none and making each whole first onto themselves, then together.
However, Sissi’s attraction to Bodo stirs up an anxiety-ridden jealousy and panicky fear of abandonment in two of her favored male patients. The blind boy, in an obvious suicide attempt, eats glass from a florescent light fixture. The other, a lecherous older psychotic who fancies himself to be Sissi’s lover, has guessed Bodo’s identity as the missing bank robber and called the police. Then, failing to kill Bodo in a telltale act that identifies him as the man who both impregnated and killed Sissi’s mother, he climbs to the roof of the asylum and threatens to jump. Sissi, the first one the scene – with the police and hospital attendants as well as Bodo close behind — approaches the sniveling snitch as he hovers on the edge of the roof. Knowing him for the coward he is, she whispers that people like him never kill themselves.
And then Sissi turns to Bodo, making a highly ambiguous invitation – “Come on”, she says. It’s clear Sissi intends to jump off the roof. But whether she offers life or death, no one can be sure. Then Bodo takes her hand and off they go. Leaping far out over the gutters of the roof, Sissi and Bodo float hand-in-hand, slowly downward as if changing time zones, moving past the walls of the hospital while forming a charismatic vision of freedom reminiscent of Brancusi’s abstract birds of flight. A young man and woman free falling through space to a future with no definition, only possibility.
They plummet safely into a river that only Sissi knows is there and rise buoyantly to the surface amidst millions of beautiful bubbles. But, even after they’ve defied death together — one more time – Bodo’s fear paralyzes him and keeps Sissi’s dream of happiness in limbo. It’s not sexual love but expertise that Sissi offers as a remedy. She heard his brother’s dying words to Bodo, “Get off the toilet.” Drawing upon her mastery of emotional repair, she insists they revisit the scene of Bodo’s trauma. If Bodo’s damning judgment of himself began there, perhaps an ending can start there as well. She waits in the car while he goes to the men’s room.
When Bodo comes back, he can (and so can we, cinematically speaking) see his negative, depressed self taking a ride with him in the back of the car. Bodo takes the driver’s seat next to Sissi but he keeps staring at his look-alike in the mirror. Something amazing has happened. Who he is and who he sees himself as being have been split apart. Bodo is no longer so completely identified with his dark side that he can’t see that it is his own damning, deadening judgment of himself that has kept him from returning to ordinary life.
Although Sissi does not singularly eject the shadow from Bodo’s life, she is no less tall in stature for being a participating rather than a rescuing hero. No mistake about it. She is the instrument of Bodo’s return from hell. The moments of physical contact between these two have been few but profound. When Bodo lays his hand on Sissi’s in the car, feelings of redemption as well as romance swell in their touch. They continue on and take the dead mother’s gift to Sissi’s friend returning to where the fateful letter of request originated.
If a stone house sitting alone on a peninsula jutting out into a glittering sea isn’t a symbol of immortality, what is? The snake bites its tail, waves lap a rocky beach, clouds darken a light blue sky or vice versa, despair mingles with joy or vice versa, waiting is pregnant with activity and vice versa, etceteras, etceteras, and etceteras. Sissi and Bodo open a path between worlds. Ending or beginning, the coming together of opposites sparks hope.
And just to make a point about the power of his hero to dissolve despair totally clear, Tykwer details his ending with Sissi and Bodo feeling the love for one another that they’ve been missing in their lives. A woman’s passion to be with the man who awakens her is oft missed and oft misinterpreted as a desire to give up and give over her own identity. Or she is construed as ambitious, driving more to be a partner than a lover. In many stories, a woman’s destiny is to get one or the other —— success and independence or love and relationship. Sissi succeeds in getting both; her persistence saves Bodo and frees her. But she also gets her man, not a Disney-fied beast transformed by a beautiful woman’s self-sacrificing love, but a flesh and blood man who visited a secret room of clanking skeletons in the basement of his own psyche and, upon feeling loved, opened his heart.
Sissi succeeds in deed and romance. For a woman to be the beloved as well as the one who fulfills her quest for identity and wholeness is a story not told often enough.