Foreign Objects: The Robber (Austria)

By  · Published on April 29th, 2011

The personalities of runners always seem to run the gamut. On the one hand, regular exercise and fitness is a sign of stability, a display of having chosen the “right” priorities to care for one’s own body. On the other hand, running can become an obsession and a compulsion for a variety of reasons, and can become the vice of somebody with the personality of an addict. The strange relationship between compulsive personalities and physical fitness is at the heart of Benjamin Heisenberg’s Austrian thriller The Robber, an engrossing and complex yet economically straightforward character-driven thriller about a marathon runner who has an addiction to robbing banks.

We first meet Johann Rettenberger (Andreus Lust) jogging in a tight square around a small yard, and quickly realize that he’s in prison. As soon as he’s called back inside and is directed to his cell, he continues running on the small treadmill right next to his bed. It’s one of those simple openings that says so much through doing so little, and this characterizes much of The Robber, a film with a deceiving simplicity that makes it all the more compelling.

Rettenberger is released from jail for good behavior and a promise that he will switch his life to the straight and narrow, but he inevitably returns back to his old habits. His incredible running ability gives him a particular skill at the craft of bank robbing. His riches are typically rather miniscule, and he never seems to desire wealth or excessive spending, so the reward for him is clearly the thrill of it all. It’s a thrill that we experience firsthand. Heisenberg lets the action play out in real time, without any added action movie bells and whistles of intrusive nondiegetic music or changes in film speed, and Rettenberger’s clear “fitness” for the role (so to speak) make the bank robbing sequences credible and convincing – and, thus, all the more thrilling – despite how incredible they are (it’s worth noting here that the film is based on a novel by Martin Prinz, which was based on the true story of Austrian runner/robber Johann Kastenberger).

Rettenberger starts a relationship with a social worker, Erika (Franziska Weisz), and she ignites a spark in him that finds fulfillment outside of his compulsion. Of course, a movie like this can only really go in one direction from there, but that conventionality doesn’t make it any less thrilling. The entire third act of the film is devoted to one incredible extended chase sequence in which barely a single word is spoken. The events are spectacular, but Heisenberg keeps them believable.

Lust plays Rettenberger as almost entirely removed. A quiet, simple man, he matches the overall tone of the film. We aren’t afforded any psychological explanation of his compulsion, but this unnecessary justification would have cheapened an interesting character. Also, compulsions have no rationale, so we as audiences shouldn’t need explanation either. All this makes for some interesting ambiguity, but an ambiguity that never interferes with the film’s straightforward storytelling style. As such, it’s unclear whether or not Rettenberger is obsessed with both running and robbing banks, or that he’s simply preoccupied with running so that he can better feed his strange addiction. Either way, you’ve never seen a bank robber like this before.

Perhaps my one caveat with The Robber is that the exceptional but realistic robberies stand in start contrast to other unrealistic elements of the film’s plot. Is unclear as to why the forces of law and order aren’t instructed to prepare for the release of a skilled bank robber at the film’s beginning, and why – between Rettenberger’s parole and the pattern of robberies that take place – he isn’t implicated immediately. However, in the bigger picture, The Robber makes for a thrilling character study in which character and action are one in the same. Between the astute but restrained direction and Rettenberger’s quiet performance of a simple individual with a complex problem, The Robber is a feat and an accomplishment on many levels.

The Good Side: A taught thriller with incredible bank robbing and escape sequences helmed by a skilled director with a nuanced performance at its center.

The Bad Side: Some narrative challenges to suspended disbelief.

On the Side: The film has already been optioned for a Hollywood remake starring Andrew Garfield. See this version.

Check out the trailer for The Robber, which opens this weekend in limited release, below:

Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week looking for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent!