Katja von Garnier's Bandits is technically a French film, made with French money. But in every other sense, it's a German film -- in German, with a German director and cast, all taking place in Germany. It's important to establish this point, because, together with Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run, with which it has much in common, it may represent some kind of breakthrough for German movies. Like Lola, it's a hyperkinetic romp with a rock video sensibility.
Unlike Lola, it's explicitly about rock and roll. More specifically, it's about four women in a rock and roll band who break out of prison and become public heroines while trying to elude the cops. It makes literal the concept of outlaw rock: A Hard Day's Prison BreakThelma & Louise and George and RingoBand on the Run.
When we first meet the women, they're kicking out a tough version of "All Along the Watchtower," at the end of which a nun comes up and offers some criticism. These hard-edged cons find the notion of rock and roll criticism from a nun about as amusing as the audience does, but the truth is that they're in need of a new drummer. And the need is urgent: A politician (Barbara Ahren) has booked them as the entertainment at the annual policemen's ball as shining proof of the effectiveness of her rehabilitation policies.
Luckily, Emma (Katja Riemann), a new inmate, happens to be a former jazz musician and a first-rate drummer. Despite some initial tensions, Emma agrees to team up with the other three: guitarist/lead singer/armed robber Luna (Jasmin Tabatabai), petty thief/bassist Angel (Nicolette Krebitz) and gentle, middle-aged keyboardist/poisoner Marie (Jutta Hoffmann). Emma's contribution clearly helps catalyze something within the group, causing some consternation for the previously unchallenged leader, Luna. They name the new configuration Bandits, a pun on band-tits.
Of course, on the night of the ball, there's a security slipup and the women escape, joyously heading nowhere in a police van. When the gravity of their situation hits them, they make arrangements to leave the country. But while they try to scare up some money for the trip, an enterprising record industry sleazeball intent on cashing in on their notoriety digs their demo tape out of the trash and releases it.
Too juiced by their pop status to completely lay low, the women gladly slip into a number of public situations where both their identity and music rock the crowd. It's not just their fame that seduces them into such foolish behavior; it's the thrill of finally connecting with an audience. But in each case their indiscretion narrows the gap between them and their personal Inspector Javert, an obsessed CID man named Schwartz (Hannes Jaenicke), who swears that he'll apprehend them before he finishes his current packs of cigarillos.
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Von Garnier made her fictional-film debut in the mid-nineties with the hourlong comedy Makin' Up!, a student film that became a surprise hit in Germany. It was a pleasant, unmemorable trifle; Bandits, her first full-length fictional feature, is far more impressive. So what if much of the story, as well as some details of the execution, is derivative, primarily of Thelma & Louise. The movie, like its model, conveys a genuine sense of the liberating power of taking things to their limit, no matter how ultimately futile and self-destructive such a commitment may be.
To that, it adds a genuine sense of the liberating power of rock and roll: These four women are never so much their true selves as when they're playing. It's not a trivial detail that the actresses wrote most of the songs and do their own playing and singing. It adds a note of conviction and involvement; the band Bandits is not the first-season Monkees. To that it must be added that the soundtrack is terrific. The women manage an admirable amalgam of rock energy and pop hooks.
Von Garnier frequently slides into MTV-video segments that can be confusing at first. Their content doesn't always jibe realistically with the story. Once you realize, however, that these sequences are as much externalized fantasies as expository montages, their flashy style manages to goose up the energy level without totally destroying the dramatic continuity. And this tricky combination of narrative reality and stylized fantasy is a crucial setup for the suspense of the climactic Ultimate Mosh Pit sequence.
It could be argued that von Garnier attenuates her plot to one act too many; the film is perhaps overly packed with incidents, many of them familiar and predictable. If so, it's a small price to pay for the movie's pleasures. There are scenes that convey an exuberance that recalls some of the best moments in A Hard Day's Night, and without the benefit of the pre-established recognition and goodwill that audiences brought to that Beatles film.