Guilt and grief are rendered in quiet, desperate tones in Götz Spielmann's Revanche (Austria's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar), a movie that could easily bookend In the Bedroom for its patient probing of pain and salvation. It may not be what escapists are looking for on a Saturday night, but for cineastes it's a film that simmers within you days after viewing.
What starts as a too-slow neo-noir about an ex-con named Alex (Johannes Krisch) who decides to rob a bank in order to free his Ukrainian prostitute girlfriend (Irina Potapenko) from her pimp, unexpectedly turns into a muted but poignant moral drama. Building on the kind of coincidences that would sink a mainstream flick, Revanche (which can mean "revenge" or "do over") sends Alex, devastated by the tragic outcome of the robbery, to his grandfather's farm (Hannes Thanheiser) in the film's second half.
Nearby lives Robert (Andreas Lust), the unfortunate cop who stumbled upon the robbery. Tortured by its outcome and feeling emasculated by his inability to have a child, he withdraws from wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss). This ignites an unexpected relationship — between her and the brooding criminal contemplating revenge.
While the plot twists probably sound soap opera-ish on paper, on screen Spielmann presents them as the inevitable ironies of life, understating the contrivances and rooting everything in gritty authenticity. His style is very much in league with recent trends in alt-German cinema, trading in austere and serious dramas that favor visual storytelling over talky emotional confessionals. This "Berlin School" movement has produced directors who love lingering silences and tormented protagonists. To succeed, however, they must find an actor who can hold an audience's attention.
With Krisch, Spielmann has done just that. Hard on the outside but soft enough inside to earn our empathy, the rough-hewn actor makes clear Alex's internal struggle, and up until the end we're never quite sure what he'll do. It's the perfect counterpoint to Revanche's motif of predestination and choice.
By contrast, the character of Robert never quite draws us in, though it's obvious Spielmann meant his story to provide a mirror to Alex's. Underwritten, the blandly handsome Lust doesn't have the gravitas to engage our emotions. As his wife, Strauss, on the other hand, becomes an inescapable force in the film's final third, elevating what could have easily been a stock character.
Visually, Revanche is as restrained as it is ravishing. Martin Gschlacht's excellent cinematography uses natural lighting and desaturated colors to give Spielmann's long takes and quiet melodrama a menacing sense of poetry. It's haunting, thoughtful and perfectly suited to his slowly ripening drama.
But what makes Revanche a film worth seeking out is its note-perfect ending. Teetering on the edge of rage and redemption, Alex holds all the cards. Whatever action he chooses will become the template for the rest of his life. It's to Spielmann's credit as both a writer and director that we're never sure which meaning of the film's title Alex will ultimately choose.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 3-4, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 5. It also shows at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 10-11, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 12. Call 313-833-3237 for more information.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.