Based on actual events, Benjamin Heisenberg's The Robber chronicles the crime spree of an Austrian long-distance runner. It's difficult to imagine a more fascinating case of sociopathic, obsessive-compulsive behavior, or a more disciplined, engrossing study of it. And yet a vital ingredient is missing. The idea that spectators need to connect with a protagonist at some level can be dismissed as quaintly conventional, but difficulty identifying with this affectless character is a significant obstacle to your enjoyment of the film. It may mean this German-language feature won't gain traction, even with specialty audiences.
Of course, antisocial behavior is the whole point of the story and we shouldn't expect insights into a personality whose defining traits are elusiveness and inscrutability. Offering an interpretation through a mid-20th-century psychoanalytic prism seems destined to lead nowhere. Moreover, "Why?" is the least interesting question one could pose regarding the exploits of bank robber Johann Kastenberger, who gained notoriety during the 1980s. By using Martin Prinz's novel about Kastenberger as the road map for his screenplay, writer/director Heisenberg signals he won't be offering any easy answers.
Changing the title character's surname to Rettenberger, Heisenberg begins by showing him running in circles in a prison yard. Soon he'll be released after serving six years for armed robbery. Perfectly embodied by the lean and sallow Andreas Lust, Rettenberger has the laser focus of a physically fit junkie zeroing in on a fix. Thanks to the progressive Austrian prison system, he's been allowed to keep a treadmill in his cell and so emerges from captivity with the stamina to feed his interlocking addictions: running and robbing. His earnestly condescending probation officer (Markus Schleinzer) tries to steer him into the straight and narrow lane, to no avail.
Rettenberger's recidivism is a given. Meticulous about his prep work and his getaways, this otherwise laconic, low-key fellow immediately relapses, becoming a brazen bandit wearing a creepy, lifelike mask and wielding a sawed-off shotgun. His crime spree coincides with his strong performance in various marathons; you could say he's cross-training for his larcenous and athletic endeavors. A Houdini in Nikes, he excels in official footraces and, despite a conspicuous modus operandi, is able to stay ahead of the police after cleaning out one retail bank branch after another. He monitors his heart rhythm during hold-ups and charts the data about his body's performance on his laptop. Chillingly impassive, he doesn't express any pleasure in his heist routine and clearly isn't in it for the cash. It's all about the private rush—a completely interior, solipsistic high. The most substantive human connection he has is with an old friend Erika (Franziska Weisz) who lets him live in her flat. Eventually the authorities do close in, which is when The Robber really hits its stride.
As a matter of execution, the film's last act is undeniably thrilling. Exceptional work by steadycam operator Matthias Biber gives all the chases and action sequences a visceral energy. The movie's quieter, slower scenes lack a comparable intensity, due in large measure to the fact Rettenberger feels less alive when not in motion, but also because Heisenberg doesn't seek a way inside his head. Throughout, the filmmaker deftly places Rettenberger in his surrounding environment, whether it's downtown Vienna, a verdant park, a rural hillside, or the motorway. And the percussive music and sound effects echo the thumping rhythm of his beating heart. As for what makes him more than an automaton with a damaged psyche, we get much less to go on.
Since there's no evidence he might be taking pleasure from his actions (as opposed to mechanically feeding a compulsion) there's precious little spillover from Rettenberger's endorphin high for the viewer. It figures. Every compulsion is inherently unsatisfying, which is why a behavior gets repeated over and over again. Those observing the pattern tire of it much quicker than the person dominated by it. Heisenberg's scenario makes logical sense and is often transfixing, but there's no emotional hook and so no ensuing payoff. Rettenberger's relationship with Erika is intended to serve that purpose and would be more evocative if she weren't a cipher in her own right. It's hard to care about them, separately or together.
Heisenberg's treatment vividly communicates Rettenberger's neurotic defiance and destructive solipsism, but that's no substitute for enabling the viewer to become invested in the character's fate. Owing to this vacuum at its center, one could say The Robber runs in circles without reaching a finish line of much consequence.
Cast: Andreas Lust, Franziska Weisz, Markus Schleinzer, Hannelore Klauber-Laursen and Roman Kettner
Director: Benjamin Heisenberg
Screenwriters: Benjamin Heisenberg and Martin Prinz
Producers: Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Markus Glaser, Michael Kitzberger, Wolfgang Widerhofer and Peter Heilrath
Genre: Crime/Thriller/Drama; German-language, subtitled
Running time: 97 min.
Release date: April 29 NY