The Robber (Der Räuber)
Germany (2010) Dir. Benjamin Heisenberg
Why do people run? To stay fit? The joy of being outdoors? The sake of competition and the glory of holding significant wins or record times? If it is the latter, the handsome prize money top-level athletes can earn along with endorsement deals would be a major motivator. For some, this question would yield a rather interesting answer.
In this drama based on his story, runner Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust) is released on parole from prison following an attempted armed robbery, hoping to pursue a career in running despite being told there is no money in it. This isn’t a problem for Johann as he immediately resumes his criminal career by robbing bank, his face disguised by a mask.
Having reacquainted with an old friend, social worker Erika (Franziska Weisz), who lets him stay with her, Johann runs and wins a marathon in record time, reaping a huge cash prize for his efforts yet continues to rob banks. The notoriety of the Masked Robber makes headline news yet this and Erika discovering Johann’s secret and throwing him out doesn’t encourage Johann from changing his ways.
Benjamin Heisenberg adapts the novel by Martin Prinz, which in turn is best on the real life Austrian criminal athlete Johann Kastenberger, known as Shotgun Ronnie because he wore a Ronald Reagan mask during his robberies that terrorised Vienna. Kastenberger served a seven-year prison sentence for his first crime in 1977 but upon his release in 1985, he resumed his felonious hobby, until he shot himself whilst on the run in 1988.
Prinz’s novel and Heisenberg’s dramatisation takes only the bare bones of the facts from Kastenberger’s story, toning down the sociopathic murderer side of him (he killed three people during his second crime wave including a police officer) to make this Johann a more distant character. Johann’s lone victim in this version is his parole officer (Markus Schleinzer), the one person who didn’t suffer the same fate in real life.
This vital difference in character creates a he problem with the narrative – that it sets out to be a psychological study of a warped mind but gives us absolutely nothing to study. Johann is quite literally a blank slate, presented to us as an enigma comprised of foibles and little else making him very difficult to understand. If he had a damaged psyche from his childhood then his anti-social behaviour would have some basis be we get nothing.
Ultimately we are left with a serial criminal with apparently no real motive for his crimes, who shows no intention of seeking rehabilitation or redemption, pushing away those are try to help him. It’s hard to fathom if his seriousness about running is about passion or athletic pursuit or is related to his criminal activities. His speed definitely comes in handy when fleeing the crime scene although he is not averse to using a car (stolen, natch) for an even quicker getaway.
For most of the time, Johann barely speaks and when he does, his words are economical, perfunctory stabs delivered with no hint of emotion. Quite why Erika should fall for him is left to our imagination, unless their past holds the key to this but with discussion being so thin on the ground, it remains a mystery. For a brief moment it does look like Erika might be able to steer Johann in the right direction but whatever compels him to run races also compels him to run away.
During the film, we witness one sex scene, two marathons, three car jackings, and four bank robberies, yet the first hour is exceedingly dull. In between the adrenaline rushes of the hold ups, we are stuck in what feels like an endless loop of Johann sitting around, moping about, or performing health related tasks that are never explained but hint at being vital to his running.
Played in stone cold silence, everything takes an eerie turn, not helped by the infrequent dialogue being largely whispered. But this silence isn’t atmospheric or a tool to help us focus on the activities, which are humdrum at best, it creates an empty space free of any enigmatic promise that only invites ennui. The camerawork is equally pared back and inert for these scenes, recording the moments almost with a sense of duty.
In the second half, when Johann is arrested then makes a daring escape from the police station that leads to cross country hunt, and the tempo picks up and the camera is there to catch every second of it. A close-up account of a chase through various buildings is a breathless endeavour for both actor and cameraman, whilst the tension builds when the manhunt spill out into the countryside.
Without any redeeming qualities or any background information shared about him, it is impossible to feel any sympathy for Johann when (spoiler) he meets his fate, or to be engaged by him as a character. There is no hook beyond his actions and without any sort of rational, his exploits feel egregiously selfish and offensively wanton, especially given his athletic ability.
Andreas Lust is a superb choice for this role as he is very unassuming and unremarkable in appearance, giving off no vibes of being dangerous or even interested in anything other than running. The intensity of the character is brought out slowly, going from quietly miserable to quietly on edge, and Lust navigates this with subtle changes in his expression that almost go unnoticed, hitting home in the final scenes.
Heisenberg was clearly going for some kind of gravitas with his sombre and restrained arthouse presentation but he forgot to include some substance that would give the film the weight it needs to achieve the prestige he aspired to. The Robber is competent work overall but takes too long to reach second gear, and doing nothing to flesh out the central character who is screaming for depth and exploration is a huge and detrimental misstep.