Revanche (2008) dir. Götz Spielmann
Starring: Johannes Krisch, Irina Potapenko, Andreas Lust, Ursula Strauss
By Alan Bacchus
Some spoilers below...
Götz Spielmann's Oscar nominated Revanche is an inspired masterpiece of a thriller, which doesn't really turn out to be a thriller in the end, but something more emotionally complex and profound than a mere genre film.
Alex and Tamara are lovers desperately trying to make a life together. First they have to get out of the sex traffic business. Tamara is a hooker/stripper working for an Eastern European gangster and Alex is the club’s hardened but ineffectual barkeep. Alex makes a plan to hold up a small town bank, grab the cash, pay off their debts and ride away into the sunset in freedom. Plans go wrong, of course, when the heist and their escape are interrupted by a humble cop, Robert.
Spielmann is clever to subvert our expectations, steering the movie in the direction of a lovers-on-the-run road movie in the first half before pulling the rug from under us and making a dramatic left turn to something deeper and more complex. The second half deals with the fallout from Alex/Tamara’s encounter with the cop, the details of which I won’t reveal here. Soon Alex finds himself alone hiding from the authorities in the home of his elderly grandfather and his kindly female neighbour, Susanne, who happens to be the wife of the cop who disrupted the heist.
The title Revanche means revenge in German, but it can also mean ‘second chance’ – the prevailing theme that dominates the rest of the film. Alex wrestles with the choice between his desire for revenge and his inability to commit to another act of violence, and whether his grandfather and the town will become his second chance at making a real honest life for himself.
After the heist, Spielmann disposes of the urban setting and the strip club, and we don't see the slimy pimp or club owner again. As such, it’s a greyer area of conflict. What was easily characterized as good vs. bad, hero vs. villain and protagonist vs. antagonist is much more difficult to identify with.
The relationship between Susanne and Alex is particularly intriguing. Alex appears to have contempt for Susanne a) because of her association with the cop that prevented the bank robbery and b) because of Susanne’s nosey small town congeniality, which threatens Alex’s grieving process. Then, out of the blue, Susanne seduces Alex. It’s a shock to us, but it’s an instinctual carnal attraction between desperate souls, not unlike Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton’s smouldering love affair in Monster’s Ball.
But Susanne’s agenda is more devious than Alex’s. Alex easily succumbs to passion, because well, he’s a man, and it doesn’t take much to seduce a man. For Susanne, it’s a desperate attempt to save her marriage by secretly conceiving a child even if it’s not her husband’s.
Spielmann sets a quiet tone with a trendy observational style, a languid easy-going pace and non-stylized though pristine visuals. Without overt violence or conflict he slowly simmers his situations and characters with internalized emotions. Like Hamlet, Alex, who desires revenge against Robert, is unable to make a decision and take action – a trait that is planted by Tamara’s pimp in a throwaway conversation early in the film. So we sense there’s a possibility of violence at every moment, whether it’s against Robert, Susanne or even himself. Spielmann’s repetitive use of the wood chopping is almost pornographic, suggesting that it’s either groundwork for its significance later in the movie or that at any time Alex, who is so wound up, could lose control, chop off a finger or lose a limb.
Revanche succeeds masterfully because Spielmann makes us love Alex, Susanne and Robert so much that we desperately want all of them to achieve their dreams and make good for themselves.
Revanche, nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar in 2009, also received the Criterion Collection treatment on Blu-ray, a format that renders Spielmann’s compositions sharply and immaculately.