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Benjamin Heisenberg's The Robber (Der Räuber) is already being prepared for re-filming in English, a practice that makes certain foreign film productions seem like auditions for more expensive, more marketable "mainstream" versions. The 2010 film is a docudrama study of Johann Kastenberger, aka "Shotgun Ronnie", an actual Austrian criminal who served seven years for a 1977 bank robbery but re-commenced his life of crime as soon as he emerged from prison. When the police tracked him down late in 1988, the manhunt was conducted on an enormous scale.
One fascinating angle makes Kastenberger an ideal subject for screen immortality: the thief was also a champion marathon runner. He trained in prison by running in a small compound, and upon his release won several major races. Some of these victories carried substantial cash prizes. Kastenberger had a girlfriend, his dignity and enough money to get by ... why did he rob banks?
The Robber doesn't attempt to answer these questions directly and instead opts to present this criminal for the intriguing puzzle that he was. Major details have been retained, although Kastenberger's name is now Johann Rettenberger. He wears a hoodie and a plastic mask during his robberies, but not the original thief's Ronald Reagan mask.. Johan (Andreas Lust, of Revanche) betrays no overt mental disturbance or anger at society, yet is clearly a confirmed sociopath. He steals a getaway car on his second day out of prison and holds up a bank wearing his mask and brandishing a shotgun. Johann relies on raw speed to make his getaways -- he dashes through the sidewalks to his car so quickly that nobody has a chance to react.
Johann's robberies increase in number and audacity. On one afternoon he robs one bank and then immediately dashes into another. While the police are rushing to the first alarm, he's sprinting to safety from the second. On his off days Johann competes in some of the biggest marathon races of the region, including one mountain course that earns him publicity as the racer known only as a name and an entry number. The self-contained Johann scrupulously avoids inessential human contact.
Soon after his release from prison, the runner-thief moves in with his old girlfriend Erika (Franziska Weisz). The movie depicts the alarmingly alienated Johann as an all-but uncommunicative zombie, and their lovemaking sessions as the meeting of two silent, passionate strangers. In the movie Johann keeps all of his loot in trash bags under his bed. It's clear that his robberies are not about money, but are committed to satisfy some secret personal compulsion.
Later details of Johann's crime spree deviate from the facts of the real criminal. For some reason writer-director Heisenberg omits most of the robber's violence. In the film he kills his probation officer (or the Austrian equivalent) when the man hounds him to abide by the rules of his prison release. The slaying is certainly an outrage, but it is pictured as an emotional overreaction, not a purposeful murder. The real-life Kastenberger's one confirmed killing was committed with a gun, and he was suspected of several more ambush shootings. The film's Rettenberger seems to bear no specific grudge against anyone.
What we get instead is the spectacle of a superb athlete using his specialized talent to elude the police. While being processed in the middle of a large police compound, Rettenberger simply leaps through a window and races for the exits. An immediate alarm closes a number of automatic doors, but Johann is so fast that he slips through and makes good his escape. His girlfriend is told that the manhunt won't be pretty, as Johann killed a law enforcement man (the probation officer). Johann literally runs cross-country, out-pacing his pursuers and stealing more cars. High on a wooded hill, the exhausted man discovers that hundreds of officers are sweeping toward him from two directions. He's like a rabbit on the run.
The film properly leaves its main character a big question mark. Johann doesn't retaliate against an old man inflicts a wound serious enough to ruin his escape. He also refrains from taking a hostage when one is readily at hand. When all seems lost, Johann uses a stolen cell phone to call Erika one more time. This narrative invention seems intended to maintain sympathy for an extremely dangerous sociopath. I think the basic facts (assuming they are accurate) in the Kastenberger wiki article bear out this interpretation. The filmmakers know that a compulsive anti-hero is more commercial than a misanthropic mad dog.
Benjamin Heisenberg films The Robber in a reserved, almost clinical manner. We scan Johann's face for clues as to what he's thinking, and find no conclusive answers. The man doesn't even seem exhilarated after his capers. He's addicted to the danger for reasons known only to himself. As a side note, actor Andreas Lust was at least 42 years old when The Robber was filmed but is in superb shape. He convinces as a marathon runner and seems virtually inexhaustible when sprinting through traffic or bounding across uneven ground through the hills of Austria. 1
The Blu-ray of The Robber is another flawless new release from Kino Lorber. The HD encoding preserves Reinhold Vorschneider's naturalistic lighting. American viewers will take a look at the Austrian city streets, country roads and rural hillsides and marvel at how clean and trash-free it all looks. So much for the evils of socialism.
Trailers are included for this film and several other Kino Lorber releases. The only other feature is a gallery of scene stills.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Robber Blu-ray rates:
1. The Robber ultimately appeals to viewers' Robin Hood fantasies of outrunning the cops. Although the Los Angeles TV news seems to interrupt programming less frequently now for those interminable but highly watchable live-broadcast police pursuits, the appeal is unchanged. Our conclusion after watching these strange rites is that, at least in Los Angeles, escape is hopeless. The police know every trick about cornering somebody in a car. One's only chance is to ditch early before the helicopters arrive, run a few blocks into some neighborhood, search for some bushes in which to hide, and hope that the police dogs are down with the flu that day. Johann Rettenberger's dash for freedom is a darker replay of the The Great Escape. I don't anticipate having a practical occasion to employ my theory but my advice is free to prospective Dillingers.
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T'was Ever Thus.