In “The Robber,” a German film about a real-life champion marathoner who moonlights as a bank robber (or vice-versa), it takes 97 minutes for the protagonist—Johann Rettenberger, played tenaciously by Andreas Lust—to run out of breath. It took considerably less time for this reviewer to run out of patience.
In adapting Martin Prinz’s book about Johann Kastenberger, Austria’s most-wanted bank robber in the 1980s, Prinz and director Benjamin Heisenberg have done more than change the lead character’s name; they have also managed to create a cipher whose dual compulsions to run and to rob have to be accepted—unquestioned and unexplained. The film opens with Rettenberger literally running in circles around a prison yard, a pretty apt metaphor for the next hour-and-a-half.
Phenomenal camerawork by Reinhold Vorschneider covers two marathons—one through the streets of Vienna and another over the varied terrain of the Austrian countryside—and a climactic chase through the woods and over highways, 44 locations in all. Yet despite the physical action, Rettenberger never seems to get anywhere at all. He displays no emotion, exhibits a total lack of personality and participates in a love affair whose origins are more puzzling than erotic. As the social worker Rettenberger seems to have known prior to his release from prison at the beginning of the film, Erika (Franziska Weiss) allows her lover’s passionless demeanor and emotional passivity to dominate her completely. There are moments when you think she might crack a smile, but she doesn’t dare in the face of Rettenberger’s expressionless mask.
Speaking of masks, Rettenberger wears a so-called Ronald Reagan mask and carries a shotgun when he performs his crash-and-burn-style robberies. Although he spends a lot of time preparing for marathons, he seems to spend none at all planning his crimes, simply stealing the nearest available vehicle which he quickly ditches after the deed. In fact, one can only wonder how he got hold of his trusty mask and shotgun so soon after his release. He doesn’t have a home to go to—just a sort of half-way house—so the only conclusion is that maybe he had it hidden in his knapsack all along?
In any case, he is deaf to the imprecations of his parole officer who warns him against a return to his criminal past and the solitary lifestyle that, he cautions, encourages it. But this poor guy stands even less chance of changing Rettenberger than Erika does, and in the end, pays dearly for his interference.
Rettenberger never seems to derive any pleasure from or even to spend any of the money he steals, which he stashes under his bed. But then, he doesn’t seem to take any pleasure in anything he does. In the end, you can only wonder why he works so hard to evade capture when his life on the outside seems no more satisfying than his life behind bars.
“The Robber,” in German with English subtitles, opened Friday, April 29 in New York City in Manhattan. (By the way, careless subtitling often loses the English translation against too-light backgrounds such as white shirts.)