Austria (2008) Dir. Götz Spielmann
Often the default scenario for a revenge thriller is a fast-paced action heavy drama, set in a bustling metropolis, with mysterious phone calls, car chases and excessive violence, starring a glamorous cast. Austrian writer-director Götz Spielmann eschews all of this with his gritty, low key and authentically human take on the genre.
Alex (Johannes Krisch) is an ex-con who works as a bouncer at the Cinderella brothel, run by the demanding pimp Konecny (Hanno Pöschl). Unbeknownst to his boss, Alex is engaged in a secret affair with one the prostitutes, Ukrainian Tamara (Irina Potapenko), a favourite of Konecny’s. Worried they will soon be rumbled, Alex hatches a plan for the pair to escape which will be funded by him robbing a bank.
During the robbery, as Tamara waits in the getaway car, she is approached by policeman Robert (Andreas Lust). A masked Alex returns just in time to intervene and they make their escape but a missed shot from Robert hits and kills Tamara. A panicked Alex hides away at the farm of his grandfather Hausner (Hannes Thanheiser) to clear his head. Hausner receives regular visits from neighbour Susanne (Ursula Strauss) keeping the old man company, which unnerves Alex, until he learns that she is Robert’s wife.
Spielmann doesn’t just subvert the revenge movie premise but also the perceptions and judgements of the audience towards the characters. The cast is made up of good people doing bad things, bad people doing bad things and desperate people doing desperate things. Which is which is not as black and white as one might expect it to be, driven by the fact that everyone has their own very good reason for doing what they do, further blurring the lines of “right” and “wrong”.
We are not told how the tragic couple of Alex and Tamara came to be in their respective situations but we really have no reason to ask, instead we accept it as so. It is evident that neither are happy with their circumstances, Tamara in particular, who is being groomed by Konecny to be a private hooker. Tired of sneaking about and being under the thumb, Alex’s plan is their only hope for a better life.
Robert and Susanne are tragic for a different reason. She wants a baby but he is unable to fulfil his part in the process. Susanne visits Hausner to stop him being lonely but one might assume she is also lonely with Robert being on duty. Problems increase when Robert learns of Tamara’s death after the abandoned car is found with her body, and falls into a deep psychological depression, resulting in him being struck off work pending an official inquiry of a manslaughter charge.
The overlap in all their lives is inevitable and while the set-up may seem a little contrived on the surface, Spielmann distracts us from this by adding subtle layers of intrigue to exactly how the paths will cross and how each revelation is to be handled. And it is not just left to the story either, the dynamic of the main characters is an intrinsic element in the outcome and eventual impact of this unique tangled web.
Arguably the most pivotal scene comes in the third act when Alex, having decided to extract revenge against Robert confronts him in the park, Robert unaware of Alex’s true identity. They calmly discuss the shooting of the bank robber’s girlfriend by Robert, with Alex playing the role of third party observer but asking relevant questions when a fraught Robert asks a simple question of his own, which shifts the burden of blame from one to the other.
Simple but effective, this is just one of the many examples of the intelligent and astutely written script that forces us to observe and pay attention to all aspects of a particular situation. For all intents and purposes the man who did nothing wrong is being punished while the real criminal is still free; yet the criminal has been hurt and believes the good man is the one who is free; ironically they both share the same emotional burden.
I won’t reveal if Alex gets his revenge or not, but irony once again rears its head in the film’s denouement, an open ending but a rich and fertile one, teasing us about the next chapter which we shall never get to see. Possibly infuriating for some it is really the only one, taking into account the prior two hours of quietly intense and involving drama.
Spielmann’s direction is distinctly European – low key presentation, occasional lingering shots, intimate camerawork and prolonged moments of silence – but the experience is palpable and immersive. The opening shot, in hindsight, is rather symbolic – trees are reflected in the still waters of a lake as the credits roll, then from nowhere something hits the water, disturbing the silence and creating a huge ripple in the water surface, a portent of things to come.
The cast are uniformly excellent and arguably the film strongest facet, their atypical “film star” appearances being a boon to the authentic veneer. Johannes Krisch has the requisite everyman look to convey the burdens of his heart at every step as Alex, while Ursula Strauss is deceptively bold as Alex’s truest sparring partner in Susanne. Irina Potapenko has a short ride as Tamara but straddles the attractive girl next door/hot slutty chick line very well.
Andreas Lust has the uneasy job of essaying Robert’s gradual unravelling which he does so with a quiet dignity, but the most beguiling character is old Hausner, played with great understatement by Hannes Thanheiser, the most unlikely and unwitting fulcrum of this and any story.
Revanche needs to be seen to fully understand and appreciate its every nuance. Essays can be written on the meanings and importance of certain scenes, shots of character motives but they can only offer half the experience. If you enjoy subtly intense, thought provoking World Cinema, this film is recommended.