Franka Potente was born on July 22, 1974, in Munster, and raised in the nearby town of Dülmen. Raised with her younger brother Stefan by their schoolteacher father and medical assistant mother, Franka's childhood was a fairly static one: while her father was occasionally relocated to new teaching posts, they were all restricted to the Westphalian region of Germany, involving only moves from one small town to another. She has a brother who is three years younger and was very sick when he was born. She says she always was very jealous on the way he was cosseted and that was why she often behaved like a clown and arranged performances to get more attention.
As a high-school student, Franka was an outgoing girl, she is remembered by her classmates today as the class clown, the one who would always be elected as the class spokesperson. It was perhaps due to this aspect of her character that a 17-year-old Franka made the decision to complete her last year of high school as an exchange student in Houston, Texas. Of her year in the US she says: "I did the whole thing. I had an American boyfriend, went to football games, tennis tournaments and to my American prom. I was so serious about my American boyfriend I brought him back to Germany with me to visit my parents. They were horrified". It was also in America that Franka began to pursue an acting career, one that she had desired since early childhood. Shortly after her arrival home, she enrolled at the Otto Falkenberg School of Performing Arts in Munich, beginning her classes in 1994. Outside of her school hours, Franka sought out acting jobs on the side, and made her first screen appearance in a student film called Aufbruch, in 1995.
That same year, she was discovered by a casting agent in the restroom of a Munich nightclub. She was in the bar when she noticed she was constantly stared at by some woman. She decided to leave, but went to the restroom before. The woman (who turned out to be a casting agent) followed her and again stared at her. Suddenly she asked: How would you describe yourself in one sentence?
Franka got her first taste of professional work in the made-for-TV movie Nach Funf im Urwald. The film, directed by Franka's then boyfriend Hans Christian Schmid, was well-received and soon made its way into theaters. Franka's performance was critically applauded, and she was awarded the 1995 Bavarian Film Prize for Young Talent.
Franka completed her last year of training in the US, taking instruction at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute in New York. She returned to Europe in 1997, where she resumed her professional work in both German and French productions. By 1998, Franka's acting resume boasted appearances in 13 film and television productions, although she had yet to break through onto screens outside of Europe.
The movie that launched Franka into the international market was a small-budget German film whose initial screenings were restricted, for the most part, to art-house theaters. The movie's director, Tom Twyker, met Franka in a Munich cafe in 1997, and it was through this chance meeting that she was cast in the lead for Run Lola Run, a role that he had in fact written for her. This first encounter also led to a relationship between the young director and actress, one that endured until 2002.
Run Lola Run was a huge hit in Europe. Won the 1999 Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and Best Foreign Film at the 2000 Independent Spirit Awards. It was also nominated for Best Film not in the English Language by BAFTA (British Academy of Film & Television Arts). Made its North American premiere at the 1998 Toronto Film Festival before hitting the Sundance Festival in 1999. Dubbed by one critic as "Viagra for the eyes," the fast-paced film was an instant critical hit, and Franka's warm performance in it was particularly well-received. Although the doors to the American film industry had been flung open for Franka, she decided to continue working in four German movies, most notably the horror film Anatomie (2000) and the romantic thriller The Princess and the Warrior (2000).
Franka made her English language debut in 2001, as the narrator in Todd Solondz's Storytelling. That same year Franka reached a larger audience with a part alongside Johnny Depp in Blow. Franka's role was relatively short, but it caught the attention of American audiences, and gave Franka an opportunity to demonstrate her grasp of English. Not long afterwards, she was cast as Matt Damon's love interest in the highly-anticipated spy thriller, The Bourne Identity (2002). Two years later Potente re-teamed with Damon for the sequel, The Bourne Supremacy.