When I first heard about Götz Spielmann's Revanche, I thought it sounded like a simple movie. Not in a bad way, mind you; I already knew it was being released as part of the Criterion Collection, and I trust their judgment, but sometimes a film doesn't need to subvert the simplicity of its scenario in order to be great. Then again, it's also not surprising that Revanche deftly weaves away from all of the expected angles presented by its plot, and then weaves equally away from all the easy outcomes its new direction has opened up.
For one thing, it's not a heist movie. The conflicts in the film may spring from a bank heist, which Alex (Johannes Krisch) hopes will make him rich enough to flee the country with his prostitute girlfriend Tamara (Irina Potapenko), but this is just the catalyst for other events. Most "heist movies" are either concerned with the joyous thrill of pulling a fast one on a slimy nemesis, or the unstoppable flood of loose ends piling up at the perpetrators' feet, but Revanche is not really concerned with the crime, the money, or the threat of capture. In essence, Alex gets away clean, but not before he has a fateful encounter with a local cop named Robert (Andreas Lust) which sends both men's lives spiraling out of control.
"Revanche" means "revenge" in German, but Spielmann is not making a revenge picture, either. Revanche is a surprisingly bloodless movie. Alex and Robert are haunted by their encounter, agonizing over each step of their own seemingly minute decisions, clearly wanting to give anything to turn back the clock. Using these two characters, Spielmann carefully executes Revanche as a film with two opposing protagonists and no real antagonist. The audience is in a unique position to see how both of them are suffering, and how these two people might actually forge an understanding if only they would talk to one another, but as cop and criminal, communication is practically impossible.
Robert has a wife, Susanne (Ursula Strauss), who, by coincidence, is friends with Alex's father Hauser (Hannes Thanheiser). After the robbery, Alex moves in with Hauser in the country, where he becomes acquainted (if not friendly) with Susanne on the days when she drops by to take Hauser to church or to listen to him play the accordion. Upon learning that she is Robert's wife, Alex starts to spy on the couple from their bushes at night, as well as hanging around the lakeside bench where Robert often goes jogging. This review is already plenty secretive, but without getting too detailed, Susanne reaches out to Alex for her own complicated reasons, and the results create some shockingly dark plot twists. Other films would be unable to resist exploiting these revelations, but Revanche doesn't even mention them, leaving them for the audience to consider.
The four key performances are all excellent, although Krisch's work is mostly reactionary. Strauss's character is interesting, because Susanne is at once on the inside and outside of the movie's central conflict, and her scenes with Krisch are positively electrifying. Potapenko, meanwhile, is almost passive, speaking in a broken German accent and symbolizing the bright future Krisch is missing while stranded at his father's farm. Last but not least, Lust makes up for having the least screen time in an emotionally crushing scene where he enters an office party and has to step out, as well as one of the most understated and powerful in the whole picture, on the bench near the lakefront, where he and Krisch have a short conversation that ends on a stinging, raw note of revelation.
Spielmann's film moves at a deliberate pace, but it will only be boring to those expecting some sort of dramatic pyrotechnics, literal or otherwise. I do think the movie meanders a bit as it nears the third act, but Revanche is a film to observe and consider rather than rush through, and the result -- a messy, stunning web of secrets and pain that may or may not ever come to light -- is quietly astonishing.
Criterion offers Revanche in one of their traditional stylish DVD presentations, which includes a transparent 2-disc DVD case with the discs overlapping on one side instead of a tray. The art is very nice on both the inside and outside, showing empty settings from the film, a motif which continues onto the DVD booklet, which contains a wordy essay from controversial film critic Armond White about the film, and its connection to nature. Both discs actually feature an image of one of the characters.
The Video and Audio
The DVD booklet notes that Revanche was shot on Super 16 rather than 35mm, so it's not a huge surprise that Criterion's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation looks a bit soft. Spielmann often frames his subjects from a distance, which accentuates this issue by not giving the audience anything in the foreground to focus on. Other than that nitpick (one inherent to the film's production and not the DVD), the presentation is excellent. Colors are quite natural and lifelike, with deep black shadows, there is a fine film grain visible in the night scenes, and I did not spot any other issues or defects.
The sound design is also naturalistic, so much so that the film has no score. All Spielmann offers us is the wide open spaces of the city and the forest, which are recreated on the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 German-language track with perfect stillness and tension that suits the movie's arid, nervous tone. English subtitles are also provided (note: Tamara's Ukranian dialogue is not subtitled, which may throw people off at the beginning, and as mentioned in the body of the review, her broken German is intentional).
Three extras make up Disc 2. The first is an interview with writer/director Götz Spielmann (35:31), filmed for this release. He talks at length about the themes in his film, and his work overall, and some of his insight is particularly interesting (I particularly enjoyed his insight on dialogue and the way actors learn it). It's a tad on the dry side, but the information Spielmann has will be more than enough to justify the sit for most viewers. It's also a bit like a truncated commentary track, so anyone disappointed that the disc doesn't include a feature-length chat should watch this extra first.
Next, there is "The Making of Revanche" (36:08), which, like Spielmann's interview, is a bit on the dry side when it comes to discussing the film, but it definitely shows more of the day-to-day production than most featurettes would, so for that material, it's definitely worth a look.
Last, but not least, Spielmann's award-winning student film Foreign Land (aka Fremdland, 44:46) is presented, along with a video introduction by Spielmann (3:30), where he reminisces about making it and talks about seeing it again after 25 years. Fremdland occurs over a day or two on a farm in the mountains, in which a young boy and the farmhand are left alone while the farmer is down in the city. It's even more enjoyable than Revanche in a way, with some amusing observational humor, and a spirited performance by Wernfried Natter, although it just sort of ends without a real conclusion. It's a tad surprising that Spielmann never considered fleshing it out to feature length.
The only extra on Disc 1 is the film's U.S. theatrical trailer. Having seen the film, I watch the trailer and think it shows too much of the film, although when I watched it myself on the Criterion website about a month and a half before I saw the film, I didn't pick up on the very things that bother me now, so maybe I'm crazy. Like the film itself, all of the extras are presented in German with English subtitles.
Revanche takes patience, but given the nature of the Criterion Collection label, I'm sure anyone who's considering picking it up is willing to devote the necessary time. Aside from the short, the bonus features are a bit dry, so the viewer is paying for the movie rather than the whole package, but this two-disc set (also available as a one-disc Blu-Ray) comes highly recommended.