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AT THE MOVIES

Moral ambiguity and human complexity aren’t qualities usually associated with action films, but for German director Tom Tykwer, they’re essential parts of the mix.

Great thrillers must not only work on a genre level but also contain moral perspectives as well, said Tykwer, who’s best known for his 1998 hyperkinetic international hit “Run Lola Run.” It’s a philosophy that provides the underpinning for his new film “The International,” a cat-and-mouse chase set in motion by the corruption of financial institutions -- an all-too-timely theme given the current economic collapse.

“Filmmaking is about investigating real people and social realities,” Tykwer, 43, continued, speaking recently by phone from Berlin. “You can’t have a meaningful film -- even a romantic comedy -- without that as a subtext.”

The film world took notice of “Lola,” “International” producer Charles Roven (“The Dark Knight”) recalled, impressed by its energy and style.

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“You can tell a Tom Tykwer film,” Roven said. “Tom wasn’t just the man of the moment but someone Hollywood has consistently pursued.”

Roven approached Tykwer to direct “The International,” the story of an Interpol agent (Clive Owen) and a Manhattan D.A. (Naomi Watts) battling a corrupt banking behemoth with political tentacles. The $60-million movie, his big-budget action debut, recently opened the Berlin International Film Festival and will be released in the U.S. on Friday.

The film, based on first-time screenwriter Eric Warren Singer’s script, is also painted in shades of gray.

No one is just one thing, Tykwer maintains. His protagonists often do wrong for the right reasons. Lola (Tykwer’s former girlfriend, Franka Potente) steals 100,000 deutsche marks to save her drug-dealing lover. In “Heaven” (2002), Philippa (Cate Blanchett) detonates a bomb to avenge the drug death of her student. “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” (2007) puts the viewer in the shoes of an isolated outsider, struggling with the rules.

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“The bankers live in nice houses, go to art exhibits, blackening out the moral implications of their daily existence,” Tykwer said. “They didn’t create the system, they say. Because people identify with the failures of others, the audience doesn’t know how to position itself. That’s far more interesting than having Dr. Evil sitting there with a deadly smile on his face.”

Those who work with Tykwer say he thrives on challenges and dives into all aspects of filmmaking.

“Tom is creatively confident enough to say ‘I don’t know,’ ” Blanchett said. “But, unlike many people. he won’t rest until he knows the answer inside out, back to front. He’s the god of detail.”

This time around, Tykwer color-schemed Berlin, Milan, Istanbul and New York, juxtaposing past and present through architecture. The goal: to evoke the feeling of angry flies entangled in a perfectly organized spider web. The final shootout was shot on a re- creation of Manhattan’s spiraling Guggenheim Museum.

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Tykwer also co-composes his films’ scores. It counterbalances the precision needed to make a movie, he explains, tapping into the unexpected and the irrational. Highly collaborative, the director leans on a closely knit team he takes from film to film. At times, however, he pushed so hard Owen feared he’d have a breakdown.

“All directors are workaholics but Tom takes it to another level, sometimes going straight from second-unit night shoots on to the main unit with maybe two hours sleep,” recalled Owen.

Even then, Owen said, he trusted him implicitly: “Directing is all about taste and Tom’s is impeccable.”

Born in Wuppertal, a small industrial town north of Cologne and Dusseldorf, Tykwer is a self-described “film geek”: “I’m quite a one-note character. I feel a bit embarrassed.”

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Immersed in the “fantasy” of movies early on, he shifted gears at the age of 10. It was then that he saw “King Kong,” he recalled, which opened his eyes to the craft of filmmaking. That year, he started making Super-8 movies. At 16, he became the projectionist at a local art house. After midnight he’d have the complex to himself, watching 50 films a week.

“Alien” was his favorite of that period, emblematic of what he tries to achieve -- a spectacular reinvention of the sci-fi/horror genre that was also a complex study of people in distress.

Post-graduation, Tykwer programmed movies at Berlin’s Moviemento Cinema and soon waded into the water himself. After two short films, he wrote and directed “Deadly Maria” (1993), a well-received psychological thriller. In 1994, he and three colleagues formed X Films, a company for which he’s written and produced. Co-owned by the filmmakers, he observes, the model is reminiscent of the original United Artists, created by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith.

An avid student of film history, the director is drawn to the human struggles in the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Francois Truffaut and Akira Kurosawa, as well as to gritty, character-driven American classics such as “Bullitt,” “Taxi Driver,” “The Conversation” and “The French Connection.”

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While Tykwer soaks up what came before, he’s an original, by any measure. In “Lola,” he combined live action, animation, split screens and fast and slow motion, setting them to a techno beat. He substituted colors for scents in “Perfume,” a grisly tale of obsession that elicited raves and pans. Convinced that women are more open and “anarchic,” he often puts them center-stage and engages in role reversals.

Blanchett’s character in “Heaven” found redemption through love, an ongoing theme of Tykwer’s. A short of his starring Natalie Portman was one of 20 that made up “Paris, je t’aime” (2006), which depicted love in Paris.

Though the director “wouldn’t admit it,” Blanchett said, “he’s deeply romantic -- not in the banal chocolate-and-flowers-giving kind of way but in the hopeful, open-to-life kind of way. He feels things deeply.”

Richard Suckle, another producer of “The International,” calls Tykwer a natural leader: Though “everyone wants to go on his journey,” he’s less about ego than “process.”

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He didn’t set out to play in the big leagues with mega-watt stars and budgets, Tykwer insists. Rather than devising a game plan, he simply follows his passions. He and girlfriend Maria Steinman recently spent six weeks in Kenya, where he shot “Soul Boy,” a 17-minute short. It will be distributed by a company they founded that brings art into developing countries.

Tykwer has joined forces with the Wachowski brothers (the “Matrix” trilogy) to adapt David Mitchell’s award-winning “Cloud Atlas,” which intertwines six stories from different eras, the kind of untraditional work that attracts him.

“I belong to a generation of filmmakers who want cinema to be both pleasure and experiment,” the director said. “Mainstream and art can be married. Everyone wants to see something artistically daring -- as long as it’s exciting to watch.”

calendar@latimes.com

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