MOVIE REVIEW: The Robber (Der Rauber)
A muted character study about Austria's most prolific bank robber
Benjamin Heisenberg’s The Robber, a muted character study based on Austria’s most prolific bank robber, resides somewhere on the fringes of the heist genre, both in terms of its abstract themes and coldly restrained style. The film is adapted from Martin Prinz’s novel of the same name about real-life long distance runner and criminal Johann Kastenberger, who tormented police with his daring robberies in the 1980’s. Heist films come in all shapes and sizes, dimensions and demeanors. The great examples, whether it’s the serpentine structure of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing or the epically cool landscape of Michael Mann’s Heat, keep characters on the razor’s edge of perception. It’s not just about the heist, but the devilish details of the individual downfall.
Updated from the original 1980’s setting to the present day, The Robber begins with its lead character trapped in a cage. Professional runner and convicted bank robber Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust) jogs in circles around a prison exercise yard. The other inmates are practically faceless, inconsequential compared to his focused and diligent training. Johann is so in the zone he doesn’t take notice when the other prisoners depart and a guard angrily calls him back inside. The opening sequence establishes both Johann’s constant separation from reality and his almost endless supply of energy. A few scenes later, when he gets released back into society, there are no expressions of joy or relief, just more routine. Johann immediately steals a car, dons a plastic facemask, and robs a bank wielding a pump action shotgun. This guy is a machine.
Much like it’s compulsively driven lead character, The Robber feels like it could run on forever, focusing entirely on the destructive power of one man’s routine and misguided direction. As a result, slight deviations from the normal grind threaten to destroy any possibility for personal happiness and freedom, creating drama out of the small moments within the decision-making process. While Johann continues to rob banks at an increasingly alarming rate, he gains public notoriety as a champion distance runner, winning one marathon after another to national acclaim. The juxtaposition of extreme methods – both criminal and physical – creates a template for the film’s kinetic pacing. As a result, The Robber obsessively watches Johann glide across the frame in poetic fashion, whether he’s passing competing runners or evading the police. One particularly daring robbery culminates in an elaborate foot chase that moves up stairwells, down alleyways, and through suburban parks with seamless ease, the sounds of police sirens and footsteps continuously close behind Johann’s darting figure. The hand-held cinematography bobs and weaves during such exciting moments, mirroring Johann’s sudden movements with amazing accuracy.
When The Robber stays focused on Johann’s physical prowess and ambiguous psychological trajectory, it’s a fascinating crime picture full of nuance and tension. Unfortunately, Heisenberg inserts a tiresome love interest in the form of a social worker who’s supposed to reveal his conflict over leading a criminal existence. None of their scenes together are very convincing, and the melodramatic twists threaten to overwhelm the more interesting elements of the film. Thankfully, a virtuoso final act forces Johann away from the vice of faux emotional connection and into the Austrian wild. Pursued by a legion of police through forests and across mountains in the country’s largest manhunt ever, Johann spends the final moments of the film alone, running toward a primitive void and looking for one final escape route. Here, The Robber reveals it’s sleek, stone cold heart, avoiding that “one final job” cliché most heist films embrace for an isolated denouement full of regret and emptiness. We see a lifelong training regiment slowly come to a halt, revealing the cracks that have been there all along. It turns out, Johann’s carefully modulated routine, his brilliant focus, is no match for fate.