Jamie Reviews Benjamin Heisenberg’s The Robber [PIFF 2011 Review]

The new film from Benjamin Heisenberg (Sleeper) is based on a novel by Martin Prinz, which in turn was taken from a true story. Revanche‘s Andreas Lust stars as Johann Rettenberger, a serial bank robber who has spent a prison bid working his body and training to be a long-distance runner. When he is released back into the world, he begins balancing both pursuits. His sudden dominance on the marathon circuit gets him quite a bit of notice, as does his masked daylight heists. He approaches each with a methodical rigor, excelling at his chosen hobbies.

So, too, does Heisenberg tackle this material, staging the dramatic narrative with a quiet resolve dictated by his main character. Johann is a man of few words, more used to the lonely silence of a prison cell than he is to regular conversation. His tight-lipped daily runs provide the perfect place for the crook to be himself, to live out whatever interior existence he is cultivating. Unless we presume too much in assigning him anything more than a predatory impulse–like a shark, he must keep moving or die. There is certainly a rejection of base human emotion in his two fields of expertise. In Johann’s regular life, he reconnects with a girl he once knew. Erika (Franziska Weisz) is a woman now, actually; it’s intimated that when Erika was young, he dated her mother. Ironically, she is a social worker that Johann runs into at a job center. The relationship distracts from Johann’s regimen. At one point, Erika catches him being jealous, and he seems baffled by his own feeling. ‘That’s new,’ he says.

Andreas Lust plays Johann with a stoic physicality. Much of the performance depends on posture, which at times takes the place of gesture. How Johann stands and his gait indicate mood. When he loses control, his steps become hurried, his breathing labored; when he’s on point, everything is contained. Eventually, the running and the thieving intersect, including some daring on-foot escapes. Heisenberg shoots much of one particularly long run through the city from the middle-distance, emphasizing the miles traveled. He only moves in when Johann is forced into cramped spaces. The final half hour of the film turns into one marathon flight from justice. Its breathless stratagems and gritty consequences make the comparable third act breakout of Paul Haggis’ recent The Next Three Days seem like an implausible fairy tale by comparison.

The Robber ends up being one of those movies where you find yourself rooting for the lead character in spite of your better wisdom. Johann is an unknowable entity, more a force of energy than he is anything that could be categorized as either hero or anti-hero. Yet, there is something Sisyphean in his relentless drive forward, something metaphorically identifiable–thus making it all the more tragic when he is brought down by his own stupid oversight. This is not just the maddening message of ‘crime doesn’t pay,’ but the general frustration that we all fear is around the next corner as we carry on with our day-to-day.

The Robber plays the Portland International Film Festival on 2/15, 2/16, and 2/18.

Jamie S. Rich

Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joëlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy seriesSpell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. In addition to all this, Jamie reviews movies for and his own blogs, Confessions of a Pop Fan and Criterion Confessions.. He is also a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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