Finding quiet moments between robbery, revenge

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / May 1, 2009
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Amid the stillness in Götz Spielman's "Revanche," there is surprise. Not so much the narrative kind - although this intimately drawn crime-melodrama has that - but physical. The camera moves in on a face at some point, and it's breathtaking, since, until that point, it hadn't moved much at all. Spielman builds his film from a flow of steady, deliberate action.

"Revanche" begins in Vienna, where a woman arrives at a man's apartment. They share a shower (sensual), then a pizza (less so), and discuss how broke she is (least). We eventually learn that he is Alex (Johannes Krisch) and she is Tamara (Irina Potapenko), and that they really care for each other. She makes a phone call (in Russian) and does some cocaine. They put on their clothes and proceed to their respective jobs at the same brothel. She turns tricks. He turns down beds and does some bouncing. Their boss tells Tamara he wants to upgrade her out of the brothel into a private room that would essentially make her his. The boss doesn't know Alex and Tamara are lovers.

If the slicked back hair, ratty mustache, and generally coarse demeanor didn't give Alex away, we'd know he has a past. Indeed, he was in jail for thievery. And in trying to get Tamara some independence from her boss, he winds up imperiling them both. They hit the road, and, against her wishes, he robs a bank in a sleepy Austrian town. The robbery goes wrong, and soon Alex has fled, without Tamara, to his grandfather's country farm, where the movie's tenor changes. Alex's too. He's now taciturn, spiteful, guilty-looking, desperate to get revenge against whoever foiled his getaway. He's short with his widowed grandfather (Hannes Thanheiser), a gangly, patient old man who feeds his cows and plays the accordion.

Spielman remains vague about what's next, but he keeps us curious, and the less explained the better. Suffice it to say that the grandfather's yuppie neighbor, Susi (Ursula Strauss), continues to check in on him, neglecting to burden him with her own marital woes. Her husband, Robert (Andreas Lust), was the lone officer at the scene of the robbery and he hasn't been right since. And her mother wants to know when she can expect a grandchild. But Susi's niceness remains. When Alex tells her rather abruptly never to come back to his grandfather's, she looks hurt but makes an unexpected counteroffer.

The movie's element of surprise emanates from how these characters behave, how they ache, and how their ache is tied to matters of conscience and acts of regret. It doesn't ruin much to say that Alex holds Robert responsible for botching his clean getaway that afternoon and wants to make him pay. Robert, of course, is wracked with his own post-traumatic stress.

All the stillness, particularly in the country, where Alex chops wood with erotic abandon, implies a kind of anticipation. You're lured in by seemingly placid shotmaking then knocked out by what transpires within the frame. The strangers we meet in the first hour have become far more fascinating to us by the second, mostly without the film divulging much. We have to wait for Spielman to unspool his story and guide us to where it's headed. He's too smart a storyteller to tell us everything. The screenplay overreaches to connect characters, but his offbeat visual touch legitimizes the contrivances.

"Revanche" was a foreign-language Oscar nominee this year, and it's a better movie than most of the films in the main race. The word "revanche" means "revenge" in German, but "waiting" would have been just as good. The passing days begin to both dispel and enrich Alex's thirst for revenge. "Revanche" presents a world in which one man's wrenched fury can be another's rationalizing balm.

There's a moral beauty in the movie's consideration of violence and vengeance. A man can accept a moment of true clarity even if it's from someone who doesn't know you've planned to kill him.


Written and directed by: Götz Spielman

Starring: Johannes Krisch, Ursula Strauss, Irina Potapenko, Andreas Lust, and Hannes Thanheiser

At: Coolidge Corner

Running time: 121 minutes

In German, with subtitles