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If you can imagine a neo-noir story infused not with nihilism and hopelessness but instead a growing feeling of inner peace, then Götz Spielmann's Revanche is for you. The 2008 Austrian film is one of the best and most original dramas I've seen in the last few years. It has some rude and nasty rough edges, yet builds to a genuinely inspirational finale.
Writer-director Spielmann, we're informed, gives an accurate picture of rural life in Austria, where the farmers come from hardy peasant stock and stick to the old ways, including their own dialect of German. These values clash with life in the underworld of Vienna. Old farmer Hausner (Hannes Thanheiser) says that "people who go to the city either become arrogant or scoundrels". And he's not mistaken. Hausner's thuggish grandson Alex (Johnannes Krisch) does odd jobs for Viennese gangster Konecny (Hanno Pöschl), the owner of a string of brothels. Alex loves one of prostitutes, Tamara (Irina Potapenko), an immigrant from the Ukraine. Both are desperate to escape Konecny's grasp, as Tamara has run up a huge debt to her boss. A merciless human trafficker, Konecy houses his girls in his own hotel and has them watched so they cannot leave. When the gangster pressures Tamara to move into an apartment and become a special call girl, she knows its time to flee. And Alex has the way out, which involves robbing a little bank back in his grandfather's home town.
Desperate, compromised lovers trying to escape the mob is certainly a familiar noir theme, but Revanche soon turns in an entirely original direction. The robbery goes very wrong, and Alex moves back onto his father's farm and tries to work out his anguish by cutting a huge pile of firewood. Old Hausner is doing poorly, which is another reason to stay close. But Alex also meets grocery store owner Susanne (Ursula Strauss) and her husband Robert (Andreas Lust), the local policeman who happened to be on the scene when Alex robbed the bank. Alex is determined to have his revenge (revanche) on Robert, and simmers as he channels his hatred into his wood-chopping. But "revanche" in German also means "rematch", or "second chance". Susanne connects with Alex for personal reasons of her own.
All of these characters undero changes. In a couple of cases, the changes suggest spiritual experiences: small miracles of happenstance. Hausner blooms when Suzanne encourages him to take up the accordion once again. Anguished by his experience during the robbery, Robert has an anxiety attack and must take a leave of absence from the force. Suzanne, who by all appearances is a conventional hausfrau, advances an invitation to the surly, bitter Alex that becomes the story's biggest surprise. Nobody can dictate for certain what will happen in their lives; the film's U.S. tagline is "Whose fault is it if life doesn't go your way?"
There are ten ways to spoil what happens in Revanche so we won't get into further plot detail. What's remarkable about the film is what doesn't happen. The introduction of something dangerous -- a gun, Hausner's electric saw -- almost always indicates that it will be used later on. Revanche ignores that principle with people as well. It's almost axiomatic that a venal underworld gangster ditched by the heroes in Act 1, will show up "unexpectedly" in Act 3 to ruin everything. And when a storyline develops a horrible secret, conventional dramatics insists that said horrible secret eventually be revealed to all.
Some movies break from those clichés only to discover why they became rules in the first place -- most thrillers are thin constructions in need of a solid plot framework to hold them up. Director Götz Spielmann does things his way and transcends the thriller aspect altogether. Disc essay contributor Armand White compares Spielmann's approach to that of the great Carl Dreyer, who makes the power of Faith governing principle of his masterpiece Ordet. By facing crises of loss, responsibility and guilt, each of Spielmann's characters works his way toward a "second chance". To give one example, Alex finally finds common emotional ground with his grandfather, who has lost the love of his life yet anticipates a reunion in heaven. If Revanche is still a noir story, it's a cousin to a film like Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground. Mature people don't always solve their problems, but they can learn to live with their mistakes.
Revanche is a very hard "R" picture, with a great deal of nudity and ugly situations in the brothel. At one point Konecny arranges for a customer to abuse Tamara, to pressure her into accepting his deal to become a top call girl, i.e., sex worker slave. Some viewers potentially receptive to the spiritual epiphanies of the movie's second half are not likely to make it that far. That's a shame, because Spielmann's vision of hell in Vienna (which is definitely not the sweetly corrupt fairyland of The Third Man) is balanced by a moving portrait of life dedicated to better values.
Johannes Krisch is at first difficult to warm to as Alex, but our sympathy for his situation grows. Irina Potapenko's Tamara is a lost soul who accepts her awful life as a tolerable normality. Andreus Lust's policeman Robert is a good man brought low by shame and self-doubt: he tries so hard yet falls victim to pure bad luck. Ursula Strauss plays the film's most interesting character, one who never doubts that God will forgive her her sins. Susanne knows what's good for herself and her marriage and won't let convention stand in her way. These are remarkable, rich characterizations.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Revanche is a beautiful transfer of Götz Spielmann's very handsome show. Filmed in Super 16mm, the final HD transfer reveals no compromise in quality, and indeed includes views in the woods around Hausner's farm as beautiful as anything on film.
In his thoughtful interview, soft-spoken director Götz Spielmann insists that he's not an intellectual film director, yet he describes his instinctual approach in terms as brilliant as any I've heard. A 30-minute making-of featurette leans more toward real behind-the-scenes revelations than promotional fluff. The trailer gives away too many crucial images, so don't see it before viewing the feature proper. Criterion disc producer Kate Elmore has also secured Fremdland, Spielmann's 45-minute student film from 1985. It's another rumination on rural isolation, in this case an Austrian high-pasture farm accessible only by a light freight tramway.
Critic Armond White contributes a text essay to a light insert pamphlet. Along with its older classics, Criterion does indeed offer some of the best new productions that receive small theatrical distribution. I'll certainly be looking for more features by Götz Spielmann.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Revanche Blu-ray rates:
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