Pras on World Films: THE ROBBER (“Der Rauber”, Austria-Germany)

“The Robber,” is an adaptation of a novel by Martin Prinz about the real-life Austrian bandit-marathoner known as “Pump-gun Ronnie” takes a muted, austere, non-psychological approach to the criminal, who is given no personality apart from a compulsion to run and rob banks. based on a novel that was in turn based on the exploits of an actual Austrian bank robber and long-distance runner. We’re introduced to Johann Rettenberger the protagonist of this fine action drama set in Austria, (based on the 1980s stick-up man Johann Kastenberger) as he’s being released from prison and immediately returning to his criminal ways, which involve stealing a car, donning his Reagan mask and knocking over a small branch bank.

Johann Rettenberger has thrust himself onto twin paths of notoriety, as athlete and criminal; he’s a solitary creature in an unnatural habitat. When we first see him, Johann is running laps around a prison courtyard. Almost as soon as he’s out of prison, he embarks on long-distance training, checks in at the job office and, without missing a beat, Rettenberger steals a car and holds up a bank. He does so with ease, choosing smaller banks, mostly in daylight. The robberies proliferate; the cash piles up under his bed like a collection of useless souvenirs. Stylistically, the heist sequences are handled with a low key smoothness: long, effortless tracking shots that stay with him as he goes about his business, watching him exit the building and not picking up with him until he’s back at his shitty little apartment, going over his loot. The movie is mercifully devoid of any mess psychology or sentimentality that would clutter the narrative. He just does what he does and he does it well.

The other thing that he does well, we learn, is run in marathons. Monitoring his heart rate with the latest tech, he studies the digital evidence of an afternoon’s dash from cops in broad daylight. He also accumulates trophies for marathons, beginning with the Vienna competition, where he’s “the unknown runner,” beating the favorites and setting a new record.

Although it’s never made explicitly clear (see the lack of psychology), he engages in these high-endurance races (many times winning them), because it’s the only way he can replicate the raw thrill of robbing banks, on an almost bio-chemical level. It’s an incredibly interesting character trait, and one that the character shared with his real life contemporary.

Johann does make a connection, despite his tightly tuned plans, with a social worker who offers him a room and eventually her bed. Rettenberg takes up residency with his old flame (and soon begins an affair). Affectingly played by Franziska Weisz, Erika is as alone as her boarder, knocking around her deceased family’s cavernous and crumbling Old World apartment. She’s aware of Johann’s criminal past but not his present, and makes her first move by taking him to see a movie whose car chase (heard but not seen) especially delights her. If she’s the noose that will prove to be his undoing, then an unfortunate run-in with his probation officer, pretty much cinches it tight. It’s a startling emotional shift: we want him to get away, even though he’s done some very bad things, and for the first time in the entire movie, there’s a very distinct possibility that he won’t make it through the wide net of the law.

and the movie takes on an element of emotional danger, because we don’t want to see her let down. If she’s the noose that will prove to be his undoing, then an unfortunate run-in with his probation officer, pretty much cinches it tight. The movie’s last act elongates into a protracted chase, and besides a few of his bank robberies having some kinks (there’s a breathless sequence where he sprints through the basements of a small town), it’s the first time we’ve really seen him run for his life. Andreas Lust (who played a devoted cop in the Oscar-nominated thriller “Revanche”) portrays Johann as a precariously calibrated mixture of control and impulse. With the help of a percussive score, director Benjamin Heisenberg orchestrates astounding action sequences of his own — not least a climactic pursuit and standoff across highway and woods — and is equally adept at zeroing in on moments of intimate revelation.

He and co-screenwriter Martin Prinz, working from Prinz’s novel, have based their story on the true exploits of one of Austria’s most-wanted lawbreakers of the 1980s. They use dialogue sparingly, powerfully; a talky detective sounds like a visitor from another planet. The world he has encroached upon is defined by the ability to run and the adrenaline-rush threat of capture. Freedom’s just another word in this gripping existential portrait.

The real visual payoff from this film however, are the races and the chases playing in counterpoint, each with its own beauty and its own type of ecstasy. The film’s centerpiece is a long, inventive escape on foot that shifts perspectives, from close-ups inside a parking garage to sudden medium-distance shots as Rettenberger lopes across parks and backyards.

THE ROBBER        Directed by Benjamin Heisenberg; written by Mr. Heisenberg and Martin Prinz; director of photography, Reinhold Vorschneider; edited by Andrea Wagner and Mr. Heisenberg; music by Lorenz Dangel; production design by Renate Schmaderer; costumes by Stephanie Riess; produced by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Markus Glaser, Michael Kitzberger, Wolfgang Widerhofer and Peter Heilrath; released by Kino International. In German, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Andreas Lust (Johann Rettenberger), Franziska Weisz (Erika), Florian Wotruba (Markus Kreczi), Johann Bednar (Commissioner Lukac), Markus Schleinzer (Probation Officer), Peter Vilnai (Older Man) and Max Edelbacher (Commissioner Seidl).

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