Criterion // 2008 // 122 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // February 17th, 2010
Whose fault is it if life doesn't go your way?
Austrian director Götz Spielmann has been making films for two decades, but only came to the attention of America with the 2008 release of Revanche (Revenge), a character-driven thriller that was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Spielmann's fine movie arrives on DVD (and Blu-ray) courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
Ex-con Alex works rousing hung-over hookers and bouncing surly Johns at a Viennese brothel called Cinderella. He's secretly begun an affair with a Ukrainian prostitute named Tamara. When the Cinderella's owner takes a special liking to Tamara, Alex proposes that he rob a bank in his grandfather's rural town so that he and Tamara will have money to make a life elsewhere. When the robbery attempt turns tragic, Alex hides in plain sight at his grandfather's farm. There he takes care of the old man and begins an affair with a neighbor who happens to be the wife of the local cop that he holds responsible for the sad turn his life has taken. Eventually, Alex must choose between revenge and redemption.
Revanche is such a taut but human little thriller that it reminds one of the neo-noir of the Coen brothers (Fargo) or Christopher Nolan (Insomnia). Yeah, it's that good. Set in the seedy underbelly of Vienna, the movie's first act feels conventional to the point of cliché, but thrives on the simple authenticity of Spielmann's visual design. Alex is a deadpan former ex-convict who dreams of a better existence but plods along in the only life he can make for himself, working as muscle for a penny ante pimp. Tamara is a put upon hooker with a heart of gold. It might all come off as derivative, except that Spielmann shoots Vienna with a complete disregard for the city's romantic trappings, setting his drama in back alleyways, the grungy interiors of the Cinderella brothel, and Tamara's shoddy hotel room. Against this beautifully low-rent backdrop, Johannes Krisch delivers a stunning performance as Alex. He looks the role of a petty crook with his paunch, mustache, and slicked back hair. More important, his reticence and sad eyes imply a deep reserve of frustration and anguish lurking just beneath his surface. His dreams of a better life with Tamara may be naïve and romantic, but his interactions with the girl are anything but. Their relationship is simple, unpretentious, built on a complete acceptance of one another, warts and all. This sense of unromantic, unshakeable grace is a key thematic element of Spielmann's movie.
Throughout the film's first act, Spielmann meticulously sets up his world so that a shocking turn of plot in the second act feels organic and propels us into the thematic and narrative meat of the story. Revanche blossoms into a brilliant thriller/character study as Alex transitions from the concrete jungle of Vienna to his grandfather's farm, where he spends his days keeping an eye on the old man, shopping at the local market, and chopping firewood. The little farm community is full of rolling fields, wooded paths, and a placid green lake, all gorgeously shot by Spielmann and his crew. The movie's narrative pace slows, while its thematic tension ratchets up considerably. Spielmann proves a director who can hold an audience's attention through the subtle examination of character as opposed to bombastic action or plot-driven suspense. I'm at pains here to talk intelligently about the movie while also giving away as little of its plot as possible (the plot description above purposely avoids a number of significant revelations), but suffice it to say that Spielmann uses the crime genre as a mechanism for exploring human psychology. While Alex steels himself for his act of revenge, we see his intended victim struggle with guilt and post-traumatic stress. Meanwhile, the rural setting and Alex's assimilation into his grandfather's community chip away at his resolve to do harm, making him more empathetic to the weaknesses and failings of the people around him. Spielmann's deliberate pacing and near fetishizing of nature are part of the rich tapestry of character, plot, and visual design that support the director's theme of the power of simple, unflappable grace as the only meaningful and appropriate response to the dire consequences of human frailty. Revanche is a small but powerful film that transcends the trappings of its genre.
Criterion's DVD was sourced from the movie's original Super 16 mm camera negative. Considering the small format stock, the image is incredible. Colors are natural, detail is solid, and grain is fine, controlled, and not at all noisy. There are no source flaws or digital artifacts. It's a beautiful piece of work. The movie's original audio track was a digital recording in German. It is presented here in a mellow but flawless Dolby 5.1 surround mix. Revanche is a placid (though frequently intense) movie. The visual and audio poetry comes across well in this fine presentation by Criterion.
The only extra on the set's first disc is a theatrical trailer for the film, presented in anamorphic widescreen. Disc Two contains a handful of video supplements. Spielmann delivers a 35-minute interview from 2009 in which he discusses his approach to making films. The Making of Revanche (36:12) was shot on the movie's set and includes footage of Spielmann setting up particular scenes as well as interviews with various members of the cast. Finally, Foreign Land (Fremdland) (44:50) is a student short film by Spielmann from 1984. It won the jury award at the Munich International Festival of Film Schools. The short is accompanied by an optional introduction by the director.
A 10-page insert booklet contains "Revival of the Fittest," an essay by New York Press film critic Armond White, production credits, and notes about the transfer.
Götz Spielmann's Revanche is a beautiful film. Criterion's DVD presents it beautifully. Don't hesitate to check it out.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Short Film