Sep 30, 2010

NYFF: The Robber

This Austrian film by German director Benjamin Heisenberg is probably the most stylish, existential, and elegant cops and robbers film you will ever see. It is based on the true story of an Austrian guy, who in the eighties robbed banks, and trained for, ran and won marathons in Austria and who ended up unleashing the biggest manhunt in the history of that country since they stopped searching for Jews in the 1940s. Of all the movies I have seen in this festival, this is the one that could scream "remake", although perhaps there is no need, as almost every American movie is a dumb chase movie anyway.
Well, this is a smart chase movie. Johann, played with extraordinary steeliness by Andreas Lust, is a loner and a taciturn man. He has no friends, he barely smiles, he doesn't talk, except to communicate the minimum he needs, or when he is barking orders to people as he stares at them down the barrel of his gun. But he runs. He uses his bank robbing escapades to monitor his heart, to train for his races. It seems like if he doesn't run or rob banks, he cannot live. The movie never bothers explaining why he is that way. No discoveries of child abuse or neglect, no bespectacled shrink explaining his personality. He seems like a sociopath to me, albeit a relatively benign one. He just wants the money (which he doesn't use) and the spike in his heart pumping. He is not out for revenge on society and is not, at first, a violent criminal. After the film, Heisenberg explained that the real guy used to wear a Ronald Reagan mask and, in the middle of the 80s recession, he was some sort of folk hero in Austria. But the film has been transposed to today and so the mask he wears is just really creepy. The character is barely expressive as it is, when he wears the mask, which also has no affect, he looks very frightening.
I was marveling at how challenging this role was and how well Lust was communicating his emotional repression without being totally unsympathetic, and the director explained that he saw Johannes like an animal (the actor trained with one of the writers, who is a marathon runner, for 4 months. He is totally believable). And indeed, Johannes operates in a streamlined, instinctual plane of existence, almost like an animal. His robberies seem to be more spur of the moment than results of careful planning. He doesn't case joints, he just walks in. His lack of motivation, and his extreme aloofness are disconcerting for us benighted American audiences, but it is surprising how you end up rooting for the guy as his options become dire and he is chased by the entire Austrian police force. In the end, this is not a movie about justice or the long arm of the law. It is about one remarkable (read: crazy) man's existence. There is great cunning to his survival instincts, but he is not a moral or intellectual hero, he has no beef with society. He just needs to run until he needs to stop running.
What will make your heart stop is the unbelievable camera work. Instead of the usual choppy, effect-ridden mess that action movies have become, where you can't really see the action because it is a chaotic blur of cuts and mayhem, the camera here floats and glides over the robberies and the chases so majestically that it is almost like a presence in the movie. There is a wonderful scene where he goes to the movies with his love interest (there is one), and the camera hovers next to the characters as they watch the film, yet never shows what they are watching. But we can hear metal crunching and tires screeching and sirens roaring, a delightful nod to the audience that signifies that action movies can be smarter and better. Like they used to be not too long ago. Heisenberg said that even Rambo is less of a mess, and has more classic camera footwork than what we see today, when they even take frames out of the film to speed things up. (I hate when they do that). He shows that it is not only possible, but highly desirable to convey speed and energy without tearing the action to incomprehensible shreds. You almost feel that adrenaline rush as you watch this man pounce on his victims and run like a panther, you see what he sees, there is time to see the obedience and calm fear of his victims.
There is a steadicam scene that is very reminiscent of the entrance through the kitchen scene in Goodfellas, and there is a gorgeous, extended traveling shot as the guy runs after one of his robberies from the forest in the outskirts of Vienna through a park, and back into the center, which reminded me of Kurosawa. I also thought of Kubrick and his icy detachment, his menacing gliding camera. Perhaps these are deliberate homages to masters who know how to stage action well.
I actually wanted to shout three cheers for the cinematographer and the camera operator. They deserve a standing ovation.

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