The Robber, a cold but oddly fascinating piece of work, contains some of the best chase sequences in recent memory. When bank robber Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust from Revanche) pulls one of his jobs in the Vienna metropolitan area and then literally sprints away from the police, we run alongside him, puffing all the way, via hand-held camera. And when he finally relaxes, restlessly, we share his anxiety. It’s the only thing we know about him, or will ever know.
German director Benjamin Heisenberg — he and Martin Prinz adapted the screenplay from Prinz’s novel, based on the true-crime exploits of one Johann Kastenberger — keeps the psychology to a bare minimum in detailing Rettenberger’s brief career. The robber is presented to us fully formed, a man of grim, unsmiling determination who gets out of prison and immediately begins knocking over banks as if he were in competition. No explanation, other than that Rettenberger refuses to live what other people call ordinary life.
This dramatic approach can cause its own type of jitters in those who would prefer that the robber accept the affection of social worker Erika (Franziska Weisz), a former girlfriend he bumps into while reporting to his parole officer. But Rettenberger seems to really care about only one thing: running. He has his own treadmill in his prison cell (how did the parole officer swing that?) and after he gets out on parole, on days when he’s not robbing banks he enters marathons, much to the delight of onlookers — he’s a local Austrian guy, after all. When they meet him outfitted in his mask and tracksuit, carrying a shotgun, they’re not so thrilled.
If a protagonist, even a creep like Johann Rettenberger, is running away from someone in a movie (the cops, other criminals, etc.), it’s natural for us to hope he escapes. That’s just the pull of the narrative. But since we know essentially nothing about Rettenberger except that he sees crime as a track-and-field event, and violently shuns anyone who tries to help him, we have no sympathy for him at all. We can’t wait to see him crash and die. It’s an exhilarating race, but when it finally ends we feel relieved.