Perhaps even the hour of death
Will dispatch to us fresh and new,
Life’s call to us will never end…
Well then, my heart, be and fare well!
(Excerpt from Stufen by Herman Hesse)
In Tom Tykwer’s Three (2010), a character, Simon, describes this poem as a “stale old lampoon for carrying on without repentance, a poem which all Germans can agree on.” Simon’s cynicism is the result of the state of stagnation he finds himself in. He and his girlfriend Hanna are approaching their twentieth anniversary and have reached a plateau in their relationship. They expect their future to follow a hopeless trajectory: mundanity, apathy, adultery, regret, escape, failure, therapy, aging, and eventually death. Their sex life is dwindling, their surroundings too familiar, and their prospects regarding children dim. Furthermore, they also feel too old to keep up with the diversions of younger generations or start fresh–they are in their forties. Hanna and Simon seem to have limited options: separate, cheat, or languish. However, Three’s director, Tykwer, has never been interested in narratives of despair. Rather, his filmography charts a history of radical solutions for his disconsolate protagonists. In Run, Lola, Run (1998), a broke woman must come up with 100,000 DM within twenty minutes; in Perfume (2006), a perfumer tries to recreate the smell of a woman’s skin. Three, although grappling with less flashy subject matter, feels no less daunting a challenge for its protagonists.
Out of the options at hand–separate, cheat, languish–Hanna chooses the moderate: cheat. While attending a conference about stem cell research and its implementation in Germany, Hanna eyes the speaker: Adam–with whom she eventually sleeps. At the conference, however, she finds her mind wandering; she daydreams about Jeff Koons and gets distracted by a noisy neighbor. Her voice-over reveals her internal conflict of wanting to listen, think, and dream simultaneously, yet Hanna remains stuck to a binary: she is either listening or not. Hanna’s reluctance to multi-modal thinking and observing is indicative of the way she believes things ought “to be done.” There are clear rights and wrongs, and innovation must be grounded in former reasoning. However, her immediate situation requires her to adapt to conditions she believes to be inconvenient, or even impossible to detangle. Adam’s speech on stem cell research is no less confounding for her. He details how the “blank slate” nature of stem cells allows for their transformation and growth; Hanna later states she still hasn’t wrapped her mind around it. Thanks to her new relationship with Adam, her staunch attitude towards norms and biology is about to be challenged.
The same can be said for the viewer’s experience of these early scenes. Tykwer cuts many scenes together using multi-screen editing techniques complete with overlapping frames, dialogues, numbers, still images, and animation in the mix. It’s a lot of information to take in, yet we’re never lost. Our eyes and ears may jump around, but we never miss a beat. Tykwer implicates the viewer in Hanna’s experience of having to adopt new perspectives. Unlike many video installations, cinema sets the expectation of monomodal–or single-channel– communication. But just as Hanna adapts to new ways of thinking, Tykwer proves that his experimental technique is completely manageable for the viewer. The unconventional need not be incompatible.
A similar revelation is experienced by Hanna’s boyfriend, Simon. But whereas Hanna has pursued “cheat,” Simon has opted for “languish.” He limps through the days, is preoccupied with his work, and is eventually diagnosed with testicular cancer. He undergoes immediate surgery while Hanna is distracted by a date with Adam. Although Hanna and Simon share a post-op reunion in the hospital, Simon feels isolated by this experience. He resorts to “cheat,” as well. At an indoor swimming facility, Simon meets Adam; neither of the men knowledgeable of their respective connections to Hanna. They share a sexual encounter in the dressing rooms. However, for Simon, this is more than just a sexual encounter. When Simon and Adam go out for a drink after swimming, Simon declares he is straight. Adam chuckles but understands Simon’s need to first come to terms with his sexuality. Soon enough, they begin a long-standing affair requiring Adam to adjust in understanding his bisexuality.
Thus we have our central conflict. A dissatisfied couple cheats on each other with the same man. To make matters more complicated, Hanna is now pregnant with twins and is unsure of the father. In a world where this constellation is considered “a problem,” we may expect the reveal and eventual separation. However, as mentioned, Tykwer is rarely interested in declaring impossibility for the sake of underscoring a societal norm. He provides us with the satisfaction of the reveal and even the cliche of the separation. Yet, the film does not conclude there. Hanna, Simon, and Adam have cast off their previous identity and have become “stem cells”– blank slates. A solution reveals itself; one that surely would have seemed preposterous to our characters earlier. They consider a polyamorous relationship. They assume their new identity and grow together. In the final shot of the film, the trio caresses in bed as the camera zooms out to an expansive white space revealing them to be cells on a petri dish.
The rules and trajectories that were set out for the three characters by heteronormative standards–one that considers the nuclear family to be an ideal model–inhibited novel ways of approaching their unmet desires. All three belonged to a generation to which these new forms of love and living were obfuscated by societal norms. For Tykwer’s protagonists–all in their forties–the liberations exercised by Millenials and Gen Z seem too far-fetched; in fact, they don’t register them. The rhetoric of middle-age being “too late” for a radical change runs deep. Tykwer recognizes the hesitancy and obliviousness of his characters and how they also reflect that of many of the same, and other, generations–especially in “rule-loving” Germany. He uses the metaphor of stem cell research being readily employed in England, but reluctantly received in Germany; or, that of an artist drilling for and finding oil in the middle of Berlin when he is told there is none. Both of these cases are recognized as “problems” due to skepticism. But, it is also skepticism that allows reconsideration and, possibly, transfiguration. Tykwer invites viewers to begin doubting.
Three is available on Kanopy and Amazon Prime (Strand Releasing Channel).