CIFF 2010: ‘The Robber’ (Benjamin Heisenberg, 2010)

[8 October 2010]

By Leor Galil

The 46th Chicago International Film Festival is packed to the gills with films, fans and critics. For two weeks, many folks will be lining up to see some of the most anticipated cinematic releases of the year: there’s Black Swan, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 127 Hours, Certified Copy, Hereafter, The Tempest and The Debt.

But, with dozens of films to watch, and very little time to watch them, why spend it all on movies that are sure to return to theaters in a matter of months? There’s been plenty written about, say, Black Swan‘s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and PopMatters contributing editor Matt Mazur provided excellent coverage of that film and many others that screened at TIFF.

This is a time to check out movies that aren’t guaranteed to screen in the U.S. after the festival. Which would be a terrible fate for a film like The Robber, a tense thriller about an Austrian marathon runner who just happened to use his skills for speed to rob banks.

Based on the life of Johann Kastenberger, better known as “Pump-gun Ronnie”, The Robber succeeds by subverting the normal routine for a film about robbers. No “one last big job”, no glorification of a misunderstood rebel: what makes the film so powerful is the blight reality of its central character, the stoic Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust).

The re-imagination of Kastenberger as the fictional Rettenberger is quite stark. There doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason for Rettenberger’s addiction to theft, and that’s just his trouble. The movie opens with Rettenberger talking to his parole officer as he prepares to leave Stein prison and re-enter society.

“What are you looking forward to?,” the parole officer asks.

“Not running in circles anymore,” Rettenberger replies.

Of course, Rettenberger’s simple response is more existential than a statement of fact. Despite setting marathon records shortly after his release, Rettenberger continues his life of crime. Yet, despite his successes—in the public eye and behind a mask—Rettenberger seems unhappier as the days progress.

The Robber could easily have been a masterpiece of blockbuster cinema: fill it with massive action shots and pretty movie stars, and every studio in Hollywood would jump on the movie. Fortunately, writer and director Benjamin Heisenberg made The Robber such a stunning movie by externally focusing on the protagonist and never letting up. One of the most dramatic turns in the movie tracks Rettenberger as he dashes through streets and backways of buildings while the police are hot on his tail. Instead of focusing on the circus closing in on Rettenberger, Heisenberg’s choice to only follow Rettenberger—as he jumps from one building to the next, as he breathes hard while rapidly ascending a staircase in a parking garage as the sounds of a police car closes in—brings a new, engaging style to a familiar scene.

The movie opens with the caption “based on a true story”, but Heisenberg’s choice to mess around with the facts behind “Pump-gun Ronnie” made The Robber such a thrilling tale. In real life, Johann Kastenberger wore a Ronald Reagan mask when he robbed banks: in the film, Johann Rettenberger wore a faceless mask. It’s a smart move on Heisenberg’s part. There’s already been a film about athletic bank robbers who wear masks of ex-presidents while committing their deeds, and The Robber is no Point Break. Perhaps that may turn people away, but for those seeking a fresh take on the criminal narrative, look no further than The Robber.

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