Noir meets existential drama in Revanche, the first film by Austrian writer-director Götz Spielmann to receive American distribution. Concerned with the duality of nature and human nature, and the singularity of the human essence binding us to our seeming opposites, Revanche is a potent mood piece lifted by gorgeous cinematography, resonant performances and, above, all, Spielmann's sensitive filmmaking.
Ex-con Alex (Johannes Krisch) is luckier than he knows. He has a job, though it's as a handyman in a brothel. He has a girlfriend, though he must share her with johns and the worrying encroachment of their boss. And he has family who needs him in the person of his farm-dwelling grandfather, though the pair have a frosty relationship. Alex also has options, though he tragically can't see them all. Instead, he reverts to the familiar: a simple, can't lose bank job. Of course, this is a path doomed to disaster, which Alex's Ukrainian girlfriend Tamara (Irina Potapenko) clearly intuits.
Meanwhile, policeman Robert (Andreas Lust) and his wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss) face their own stresses, borne of a recent miscarriage and Robert's low sperm count. It's no great leap to connect Robert's failure to produce a child with a certain lack of confidence at work. Robert and Susanne live in the country, not far from Alex's grandfather Hausner (Hannes Thanheiser), but it's in Vienna where Alex and Robert have the fateful meeting that will set the greater part of the film's plot into (slow) motion. Tension builds steadily over the duration of the picture, with both men turning over and over what they've done wrong and, as a result, stumbling further into dangerous territory.
That dangerous territory is literalized in the foreboding forest that lies adjacent to Robert and Susanne's well-appointed home, Hausner's rustic farm, and a placid pond that's an unsettlingly silent reflecting pool for the film's examination of nature and human nature. The characters, too, are reflections. "You know what your problem is?" the brothel owner rhetorically asks Alex. "You're too soft. You want to be tough, but you're not." Likewise, Robert is told at work that he's too slow and too tense to be effective at his work. The struggling couples face hurt and loss, as does Hausner, who still mourns his late wife. Despairing loss of faith contrasts with those more conspicuously open to grace.
Spielmann is one of the latter, and his essential optimism about the human condition steers even the film's lost characters toward a promising measure of redemption (the film's title has a double meaning in German: "revenge" and a kind of "second chance"). The never-showy, always beautiful work of cinematographer Martin Gschlacht is responsible for much of the film's elegance, and the vanity-free work of the ensemble cast is uniformly fine. That said, Krisch is a revelation, conveying buffeting waves of emotion with an aching restraint. Spielmann's portrait of shared humanity has a unity of vision and a dramatic sincerity that should provide him a second chance with American audiences, if not a lifetime of success on our foreign-film circuit.
Criterion celebrates a recent theatrical release in its special edition of Revanche. As usual, Criterion begins with an exceptional A/V transfer. Director-approved, the image is nicely detailed and flawless in its color, contrast, and texture; it's also utterfy free of any signs of digital manipulation. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix can also be considered definitive—it's a clean and sharp rendering of the source material.
A Criterion-produced "Interview with Götz Spielmann" (35:33, HD) is a fascinating compliment to the film, introducing us to a potential modern master in the making. Spielmann demurs at the outset that he's not an intellectual filmmaker, but he's certainly articulate about his craft and his intentions; he discusses the film's themes, the use of nature and locations, and, most intriguingly, his approach with actors.
"The Making of Revanche" (36:13, HD) provides an in-depth look at the filming of many sequences and includes interview snippets with Spielmann, Johannes Krisch, Hannes Thanheiser, Ursula Strauss, and Andreas Lust.
Criterion also sees fit to include Spielmann's 1984 debut short film "Foreign Land" (44:43, HD), which comes with a "Director's Introduction" (3:31, HD). In its remote setting and rural domesticity, it's a well-matched bookend to Spielmann's most recent film.
Lastly, the disc includes the "U.S. Trailer" (1:37, HD).
As always, Criterion also supplies critical context in the enclosed color booklet, in this case an essay by New York Press film critic Armond White. Those lamenting the decreased availability of foreign films can thank Criterion for providing this opportunity to take in one of the best of 2009.
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