Götz Spielmann’s Academy-Award-nominated film about a down-and-out Viennese ex-con starts as a neo-noir and ends up a meditation on guilt, forgiveness, and redemption.

Alex (Johannes Krisch) dreams of owning a bar and rescuing his Ukrainian girlfriend Tamara (Irina Potapenko), a prostitute deeply in debt. In typical film noir fashion, Alex considers robbing a bank to raise the funds to free Tamara and set himself up in business. After his plans go very wrong, Alex seeks refuge with his grandfather (Johannes Thanheiser) on the family farm. He soon meets the older man’s married neighbors: Susanne (Ursula Strauss) and Robert (Andreas Lust), a policeman who earlier crossed paths with Alex and Tamara, unbeknownst to Robert.

Alex blames Robert for his current woes, and schemes how to get even—the revanche, or revenge, of the title. Meanwhile, Susanne begins a flirtation with Alex. The balance of the film is taken up with the question of whether or not Alex will carry out his revenge.

After a brief prologue that cryptically provides a glimpse of the country setting, the first half of the film takes place in Vienna, establishing the embattled, dead-end life of Alex and Tamara, and tracing the events that lead, seemingly inexorably, to the bank heist. The camera is greedy for the facts of their existence, and records them relentlessly, unadorned by interpretation. Barebones filmmaking emphasizes the impression that Alex and Tamara are buffeted by events beyond their control, suggesting that any attempt to take charge of their lives will fail. The absence of music, the location settings, and Spielmann’s long takes from an objective point of view that sometimes resemble surveillance footage recall the “Vow of Chastity” taken by Dogme 95 directors.

Revanche suggests that environment is paramount in determining behavior and that only a welter of facts about characters’ surroundings and actions can explain why they behave the way the do. So we watch Tamara and Alex work, sleep, make love, eat. No single act bears much significance, but the accretion of scenes makes clear the mindless grind of Alex and Tamara’s grim existence, from which their romance provides the only relief. The first half of Revanche bears out Spielmann’s assertion, in an exclusive interview for the Criterion Collection DVD, that the challenge of making films is coming as close to chaos as possible while still telling a coherent story.

After taking such pains to establish characters, settings, and drama in Vienna, Spielmann leaves most of them behind, because they’ve done their work. With them goes the sense of total futility. The recognizable cast and mise-en-scène of the noir—the sleazy brothel owner, the bleary-eyed prostitute, the abusive john, the tawdry brothel—yield to the evolving space of the countryside, where farmers mingle with young professionals, and traditional farmsteads alternate with sophisticated, modern dwellings. While the urban Vienna scene enforces alienation and passivity, the rural setting allows for personal agency, and offers Alex a second chance, a way out of the downward spiral that seems fated in the city.

He quickly gets to work. As he settles into life on the farm, Alex first saws, then chops into stove wood, what seems like a small forest of timber. It’s a sign of his return to the rhythms of his childhood and thus a reclamation of free will. It’s also a handy metaphor for the way Spielmann methodically and thoroughly exhausts his topic. “You sure can work,” Alex’s grandfather says begrudgingly of the grandson who’s disappointed him.

Understated, naturalistic acting matches Spielmann’s workmanlike directing. Johannes Krisch carries numerous scenes with scant or no dialogue, simply through slight changes in expression or body language. Alternately warily adult and naively girlish, Ursula Strauss makes both Susanne’s devotion to her husband and also her attentions to Alex believably complex. Johannes Thanheiser’s portrayal of the grandfather renders the old man weary but not pathetic. One long take finds grandfather and grandson wordlessly sharing a simple dinner, and the scene does more to reveal their reconciliation than minutes of dialogue could have.

Spielmann, who writes as well as directs his films, structures Revanche carefully and deliberately. Late in the film we see the scene that opens the prologue, this time from another angle, its context finally clear. When the bracket of the complementary scene falls into place, the intervening narrative that compares and contrasts city and country, criminal and cop, grandfather and grandson, prostitute and wife, becomes a dialectic whose resolution has a cathartic effect on characters and audience, and leaves us believing, just a little, that there’s still hope for Alex.

Among the extras on the Criterion Collection DVD is the 1984 short film that won the 23-year-old Spielmann first prize in the European Film Academy Awards: the 45-minute Fremdland (Foreign Land). As Spielmann himself observes in the director’s introduction to the short, many components of his signature style (what he calls his “filmic language”) are apparent in this early effort. The film captures a boy’s first day of work in the summer pasture of his father’s farm in the Alps. As with Revanche, the final scene echoes the first, with the revelatory effect of retroactively lending coherence and meaning to the action in between. Labor—herding cattle, milking cows, mucking stalls, and (of course) chopping wood—valorizes rural life even as it reveals characters. Like Revanche, Fremdland establishes dread (here through foreshadowing and parallel editing), but refuses to provide the expected payoff, leaving us to admit, somewhat sheepishly, that a boy discovering the value of work and exploring his expanding world can be subject enough for a satisfying film.

The DVD also includes a compelling “Making of” featurette, which is nevertheless somewhat redundant after the lengthy main interview with Spielmann, and the booklet offers an essay by Armond White, film critic for the New York Press. “Revival of the Fittest” assesses Revanche and establishes features of Spielmann’s style and his chief themes, among them what White calls an “astounding formal control” and a “sense of belief”.

Both interviews with the director entertain and enlighten. Spielmann discusses his approach to film (he claims he’s “a rather un-intellectual filmmaker”), details how he interacts with actors and crew (he has actors practice lines late in rehearsals, so that there’s still something fresh when the camera finally rolls), and reveals his penchant for thoroughly researching stories. He credits his cinematographer Martin Gschlacht as a full partner in creating his films, and vocalizes his admiration for Michelangelo Antonioni (not surprising, given both directors’ fondness for quiet films and long takes). Spielmann closes with a paean to embracing stillness in film, well captured in the exhortation “to narrate the silence”.

RATING 8 / 10