Being the leader of Jury at the prestigious Berlinale is always an honour, but most definitely a difficult task to accomplish. This year, this great challenge was accepted by a true visionary, a Berlinale-favourite, director-writer-composer Tom Tykwer. Whether he is stretching the conception of time in Lola Rennt and the Cloud Atlas or displays the glamourous and deeply sinful 1930s in Babilon Berlin, his vision never stops expanding. We followed his path of storytelling and reversed time a bit, to see how it all started.

Born and raised in Germany, the young Tom Tykwer had a special connection to cinema from very early on. At the age of 11 he started experimenting with a Super8 camera. After high school, he moved to Berlin to work as a projectionist and later as a programmer of Moviemento Cinema, which let him into the veins of young German filmmakers. In 1990 he made his first 16 mm short film called Because, a tense and complex story of a single night, told from three different perspectives. A young couple is having a heated argument, and as the perspectives change one after another, we learn more and more about their intentions, their emotions and roles in their relationship. His interest in stories of difficult romances, shaking up time and space and different perspectives is easily spotted in his early films, not to mention the visual style: in Because he found his cinematographer, Frank Griebe, who hasn’t left his directing side ever since.

Tom Tykwer

In his second short film Epilogue, Tykwer continues to experiment with the different sides of a single story. In the beginning of the 13 minutes, we “in medias res” stumble into the end of what seems to be a violent argument between a man and his wife – also played by the same actor and actress (Isis Krüger and Thomas Wolff), who were the couple in Because, so in a way, it’s continuing their story. After his wife loudly orders him to leave, the man pulls out a gun and shoots her, and then sits down for a second to think through what has led to this moment. As we reverse their past few minutes, the perception of their relationship changes, which also has an effect on the bloody outcome. The interesting visuals and cyclic storytelling eventually rewarded him with his first shot at the Berlinale too: Epilogue was presented in the Panorama section, in 1992.

After that, it won’t take long for Tykwer to get into the longer format: in 1993 he presents his first feature called Deathly Maria, a suffocating psychological thriller focusing on the strange life of a sad housewife. After a tough childhood, she slowly falls apart next to her lifeless husband, without trying to fight back and get free – her only resistance is writing letters addressed to herself, and spying on the downstairs neighbour, who seems to be as lonely and desperate as her. The dark and twisted atmosphere matches up with her identity-crisis and struggle in her life, tied together with the soundtrack, also written by Tykwer himself (just as for Because, Epilogue and all of his movies later on).

Tom Tykwer: Epilogue

Stepping into the world of features doesn’t mean that he’s entirely giving up on the short film format: later in his career, he is involved in two anthologies, with two short films. In 2004, he makes one called True, as part of Paris, I Love You, starring Natalie Portman and Melchior Derouet, a young couple in the heart of Paris. She is an actress, he is a blind student. One day she calls him to end their relationship, and the boy once again rewinds their entire relationship and get back to the beginning, to find what went wrong. But as we can see in all of Tykwer’s previous shorts, knowing the past can change the whole perspective of the present. In 2009, on the side of directors such as Fatih Akin and Wolfgang Becker, he directed a short segment called Feierlich Reist in the collective film called Germany 09: 13 Short Films About the State of the Nation: an 8 minute short film about an important businessman, flying from one country to another, living his repetitive life, that starts to mess up his mind.

During his career, Tykwer presented at the Berlinale two of his features: Heaven (2002) and The International (2009), which were both opening films of the festival, and the two anthologies he participated in were also selected into the programme. Seeing his first films, it’s clear that the vision and the rave were there from the very beginning: the returning pattern of strong female leads, delving deep into troubled minds, and mixing up time and space as we know it.

Janka Pozsonyi

Read more in the World of Young Cinema – The Berlinale 2018 Issue