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The Story of a Tykwer

November 10, 2009 | By

This essay is only an attempt to look at Tykwer through the miniature lens of Perfume, interrupted by some thoughts on his co-ordinates as a director, relative to contemporary films and their directors.

The following paragraphs will try to throw light upon Tom Tykwer, the director, from the frame of reference of his 2006 film Perfume: the Story of a Murderer. Comparisons with his earlier films and films by contemporary directors are drawn to elucidate on the artistic significance of the story-script-novel, the sound, the sets and lighting, and also some stylistic inclinations of Tykwer’s choice of character, color, cinematography and editing. This essay is only an attempt to look at Tykwer through the miniature lens of Perfume, interrupted by some thoughts on his co-ordinates as a director, relative to contemporary films and their directors.

The Story of a Tykwer

Perfume (2006)


The story goes like this: he came, he saw and he conquered, much like Grenouille himself in Perfume: the Story of a Murderer (2006). It seems like Tykwer has rightly found a direct correlation of the formula between that of Perfume itself: in its structure of olfactory fabula, and the story component of film narrative itself. In the beginning, Tykwer leaves a first impression of where the story is leading to, much like any scent itself (at least that’s how Tykwer comes to us in the guise of Grenouille with his extraordinary birth); the middle is the hardcore element of the story in the film, like the theme of some elegant aroma; and at last, the trail of thoughts that Tykwer insists you take home with you from the theatre, like the whiff of love-soaked aroma, which Grenouille pours out, making the working class, the downtrodden and the ragged ones happy with love to the last drop and bubble. To elucidate more on this, one can reminisce that the first part of the film (ignoring the very beginning where Grenouille is waiting for death in the prison) gives us an impression of the sorry state of the stinking city with its working class people, introduces us to the character, builds a sympathetic stance for Grenouille, just like the first four bottles of concentrated potions that constitute the first impressions of a perfume when sprayed. This lures one to the next stage, where our stream of growing sympathy for Grenouille is subdued by his crass handling of his subjects (the virgin girls) and the thesis-antithesis of sympathy-apathy for Grenouille reconciles into a strange feeling which is the theme or core of the film, just like the second set of four potions, that are the base of any good perfume. The last stage carries one through the uninterrupted experience of Grenouille’s killings to his conquering everyone with his perfume of love, just like the last set of four potions that are the leaving trail and lasting effects of any good perfume. It is no wonder a structure within the structure.

It’s not just a big smelly film. It is olfactory inspired, true, but also very nakedly speaks of the old factory workers, and how the supreme love perfume is deserved by the proletariat, not particularly so well established and lucid from the beginning in Patrick Suskind’s novel [1], which is only a translated version of Das Parfum, but quite comprehensible in the first part of Tykwer’s script, where Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the protagonist, is born. According to Tykwer,

…My film is something like the counter of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette…I thought it was quite amazing, actually, also in its radical approach to just showing that world and showing how people living in that world were so ignorant to the rest of the life around. It was just this kind of rich, ritualized life. And we are showing actually what was happening in front of the doors. [2]

The Story of a Tykwer

Perfume (2006)


The sound score parallels the script since Tykwer believes in creating them simultaneously. The rhythm of the camera movement follows the score with ease [2]. The opening soundtrack seems to be a variation of the one Tykwer used in Run Lola Run (1998), as far as the chords are concerned, and of course the pace is much lessened than the former, and is rather creepy and mysterious. The mood of the track is very much like the track we hear during the Lady of the woods scenes of Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring (2001), a kind of lament, here for the plague named Grenouille. The music composer in Tykwer believes: ‘I like everything that speaks to me loudly, and that gives me a vision. I don’t care about the genre. It’s the same for all arts, and the same for film and for music’ [5].

The mise-en-scene also had German Expressionist lighting, although that in no way can be drawn similar to any film noir or gangster films as far as the narrative and key elements are concerned. There is no Godfather as such. The man with the best nose and an invincible drive to possess smell is a thoroughly de-iconized character. The story also speaks of the major portion of eighteenth century Paris that lay submerged in abject poverty and unhygienic conditions and this subtext comes out alive very well with the detailed sets of filth and ragged clothes of the mass, and the ‘paint-it-black’ lighting. Literally speaking, just as a painter mixes a variety of colors to come up with black instead of applying a pure black pigment, so does the director in case of lighting and sets. He thoroughly Frenchises the film as the descriptive demands, and he does have an eye for detail, like most great directors should have. His version of the story grabs and mesmerizes even the film critics, draws in more attention to the story than the cinematic techniques. Usual seamless cuts and low-key lighting creates the dominant tone of the film.

Through a mostly linear narrative (although the plot begins from Grenouille waiting for the gallows followed by a flashback, which is the actual beginning of the story that proceeds in a linear fashion), Tykwer has tried to achieve an olfactory dimension together with a binary emotion of sympathy-apathy for the main character. While Soviet collision montage uses discontinuous shots to imply a greater third idea, Tykwer uses images and sound to create the sense of smell. When the girl cuts the yellow plums and we hear the background sound with it, the sound acts as a supplementary tag to the memory of the image, which in turn searches our brain and stimulates a particular olfactory memory to give us a virtual fruity, citric smell. Each girl Grenouille murders has some distinct imagery features consisting different colors and textures, which we interpret as some kind of approximate smell we have already experienced in life before. Also, the sound helps us to specify a certain kind of feeling associated with the image, color and texture and both sound and colored image together implicate the sense of smell. If only the image was shown of the dirt-driven fish market, the impact wouldn’t have been as much as that we get along with the particular kind of voice-over, which helps us smell eighteenth century Paris right out of the screen. Tykwer murders us with his craftsmanship yet again: the use of subtle yet effective dynamization of sight and sound within the cocoon of inconspicuous cuts, giving the viewers a sense of smell, leaving the critics sniffing about instead of performing a post-mortem on Perfume the film.

The Story of a Tykwer

Run Lola Run (1998)

Tykwer seems to critique the novel in places with certain added details in the script, apart from the adaptations made for filmmaking, which are only natural. As he happily acknowledges the presence of the mad author, Andrew Birkin, as co-scriptwriter, who knew all about perfumes and their formula [3], as did Baldini in the story, Tykwer is highly adaptive just like Grenouille. In his conversation with Tim Burton, he reveals: ‘The decision to make a film is often connected to personal experience’[3]. He also shot the scenes with Baldini and Grenouille in the order it appears in the film, so the actors make more room for perfection.[2]

There’s surely one thing Suskind and Tykwer have in common: love for red-haired girls. With Tykwer, it’s been almost like a leitmotif in his films such as Epilogue (1992), Run Lola Run (1998), The Princess and The Warrior (2002), and of course in Perfume (2006). Shots of dead girls lying on the ground with eyes open, expressionless but warm, are also common in his films.

Apart from red-haired women, one can’t help but notice the presence of the color red in the mise-en-scene, sometimes it’s a van which is red, or a bag, or the lighting itself. In Perfume, we see a lot of earthy colors that smell of antiquity.

While Kieslowski too works with sound and colors a lot, his editing remains poised and slow, gently but surely hitting the viewer’s emotions- it is as if one feels as one rests; but Tykwer works with an added dimension of vigour and passion that are portrayed so very well through fast cuts and stylized images (e.g. animations in Run Lola Run). In Perfume, the flowing, distinctive impact of the voice-over carries the film forward simultaneously with regular cuts and an appropriately cadenced soundtrack. It is as if one feels to his/her teeth and hair as one gasps in a rush. The story of Perfume truly gushes out from the gutters of eighteenth century miseries right on to the screen.

Tykwer’s use of a 360 degrees pan shot keeping a character at the center can be thought of as his signature in his films. In his Epilogue, Run Lola Run and also in Perfume, the camera does move around 360 degrees around the lady with the gun, around Lola/Manni and around Baldini respectively. The shots of Grenouille’s sense of smell travelling miles to find the direction Laure is being taken away on a horseback almost reminds one of the shots of the sense of desire of the thoroughly paralyzed protagonist, who wants to emancipate his soul from his paralyzed body and fly across the fields and hills and into the sea in Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside (2004).

After Francis Ford Coppola, David Lynch, Tim Burton the like and the unlike, it’s Tykwer who is catching the ‘big fishes’ or so it seems. In his book Catching the Big Fish, David Lynch speaks of meditation, consciousness and intuition as vital assets to a filmmaker and Tykwer (whose love for filmmaking had much to do with his love for fantasy from a young age [4]), who definitely feels it to make it, is no exception.


  1. Suskind, P. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Hamish Hamilton, 1986.
  2. Murray, R. Exclusive interview with Filmmaker Tom Tykwer on movie “Perfume”. Accessed August 2, 2009.
  3. T.T. in conversation with Tim Burton. Accessed August 2, 2009. Web:
  4. Biography. Accessed August 2, 2009.
  5. Music. Accessed August 2, 2009.

 Also See

Interview with Tom Tykwer. Accessed August 2, 2009.

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Ananya Das was a student of Mass Communication & Videography in St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. A Bangladeshi national, Ananya had directed two short films Alaap and Pun Intended and writes extensively on cinema.
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