Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski now realizes that revanche is a dish best served mit schnitzel.
Our review of Revanche: Criterion Collection, published February 17th, 2010, is also available.
"Why are you this way? What did anyone do to you?"
The above interaction between two characters in this contemplative Austrian thriller speaks to some of the film's themes—secrets, trauma, healing—but also to the best way to experience Revanche. If you haven't seen it and are a fan of the genre, stop reading here and you'll be glad you don't know everything. The film just unfolds itself so beautifully and has so many tiny surprises that it's best to go in fresh.
If you're looking for a more detailed recommendation, or wondering about Criterion's release, read on and I'll promise not to disclose too much.
Facts of the Case
Alex (Johannes Krisch) is an ex-con who does grunt work at a Vienna brothel and seems to have one good thing in his life: Tamara (Irina Potapenko), a sex worker employed there whom he's secretly dating. When Tamara's career takes a turn for the worse, Alex plans a bank robbery to fund a new life for both of them, but the heist goes awry and Tamara is killed.
Retreating to his ailing grandfather's (Johannes Thanheiser, Earthbound) idyllic farm, Alex lives with his grief and ponders revenge. But his solitude is interrupted by a curious neighbor, Susanne (Ursula Strauss), and her police officer husband, Robert (Andreas Lust).
Revanche opens with an inspired shot that aptly characterizes director Götz Spielmann's considerable gifts. The camera shows us the smooth surface of a forest pond, undulating ever so slightly and reflecting the tops of a row of evergreens. Soft bird calls and a scattering of other gentle woodland sounds wash over the image, setting a slow, meditative tone. It's a gorgeous image enveloped in a rich soundscape, and just as I was bumping up my volume, the better to drink it all in, an object smashes down on the water's surface from out of nowhere and shatters the whole environment—causing me to jump about a foot into the air.
This shot introduces the film perfectly, and demonstrates how many levels Spielmann is able to work on simultaneously. Symbolically, it resonates with the story's motif of sudden events that devastate individual lives, and then ripple outward to touch the lives of others. Tonally, it showcases Spielmann's unusual talent for combining intense calm with edge-of-your-seat tension. And narratively, this seemingly disconnected shot weaves its way into the plot later on, at a crucial moment. Spielmann makes these complex links between style and meaning seem effortless in their construction, which they surely aren't.
He also combines a great cast with a character-driven script, letting this batch of capable actors dig in to challenging roles. Krisch shines brightest as Alex, expressing volumes with expressions and the way he holds his body rather than with words. He plays a tortured soul perfectly, packing his tense frame with equal measures of crippling sadness and barely-contained rage. Revanche's other four principle performers are also very good, especially Strauss, who is given an important and complex character without quite as much time for development as she deserves (if Spielmann has a failing as a writer, it's that he doesn't show as much interest in his female characters as in his male ones).
Though the writing and acting are both engrossing elements of Revanche, it's the film's audiovisual environment that propels it into greatness. Spielmann and his cinematographer take so much care with composition that you'll feel like each shot arrives gift-wrapped with a fancy bow, regardless of whether the objects in the frame are beautiful or mundane. In an era dominated by quick cutting, sweeping camera movements, and the shaky "realism" of handheld, Spielmann has the guts to just put the camera on a tripod and let it run. Because the way he arranges his frame is so compelling, you won't mind looking at one static shot for 30 seconds at a time.
The same principles of care, subtlety, and the slow build govern the excellent soundtrack, which favors the ambient noises of the countryside over a score. The grandfather's labored but earnest accordion solos provide rare snippets of music in what is ultimately a very quiet story. A notable exception is the well-used repetition of scenes with Alex chopping firewood for his grandfather. As he channels his anger into this rustic work, the high-pitched grinding of an electric saw or the steady blows of an ax threaten dark connotations beyond this innocent labor.
Criterion provides an immaculate transfer for Revanche, as we've come to expect from them, rendering these breathtaking sounds and images extremely well. The image is crisp and bright, but with the attractive grain we associate with film stock (consistent with the original 16mm print). Blacks are deep and colors are rich, but not more saturated than the sometimes-muted palette calls for. This balance comes in handy in switching between the drabness that many of the Vienna scenes display and the countryside's lush growth (though Spielmann does not play these two looks off each other simplistically). Accompanying these images, the immersive sounds of the countryside fill the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track sumptuously.
To some extent, Revanche isn't a film well-suited to Criterion's usual helping of ample special features, because this rather reserved film itself is best when it stands alone. We learn some interesting tidbits about the production and Spielmann's methods from the 36-minute making-of documentary (most notably, that Krisch worked at a real brothel to research his role), but nothing that adds considerably to enjoyment of the main feature. Spielmann's interview (also 36 minutes, and done specifically for Criterion in 2009) is much the same. If you're profoundly interested in him personally as a director, this extra will be enlightening, but otherwise it feels a bit dull and lengthy. While obviously a master at communicating his ideas through film, Spielmann's self-presentation vacillates from passionate and intelligent to vague and mildly pretentious when interviewed. More interesting is his 45-minute short film from 1984, Foreign Land, which is included in this release, along with a short introduction from him. It tells the story of a young Austrian boy left by his father in the care of a gruff farmhand at the top of a mountain, with the idea that he will spend the summer learning the trade. This early work has interesting points of continuity with Revanche in its focus on nature and the rhythms of manual labor, though its meandering plot and slow pace don't seem to pay off to the same extent that they do in that later work. The scenery and cinematography, though, are beautiful. Lastly, the release is rounded out with a full-color booklet that contains info on Criterion's transfer of the film and an essay by critic Armond White. White writes intelligently about Revanche's visual style and roots in the noir tradition, and his short essay is well worth reading.
Just before his robbery, Alex assures Tamara, "Nothing can go wrong." In any movie, especially a movie with this title, we know that won't be the case. But predictability ends there, and the journey from what goes wrong to the Revanche's end is full of wonderful surprises, both emotionally and stylistically.
Not guilty, and not to be missed!
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