Revanche (2008, Götz Spielman)
A Matter of Stillness
Revanche demonstrates that ‘genre’ films do not have to play out at a high pitched level to be engrossing and entertaining. Revanche also demonstrates that stillness and quietude can be a positive, aesthetic strategy, which is a breath of fresh air in today’s market of faster is better, with a premium on movies that move. Director Götz Spielmann hails from Austria, home of some fascinating experimental cinema (just check out the wonderful Austrian DVD label dedicated to the avant-garde and experimental, Index), directors Ulrich Seid (Dog Days), Hans Weingartner (The Edukators), and perhaps Austria’s most famous export, Michael Haneke. In the interview on the recent Criterion DVD/Blu Ray release (which is a must buy) director Göetz Spielmann goes to great and articulate length to discuss the importance in his films of stillness, simplicity/complexity (which he describes as living on the border between chaos and order), and nature (which plays an increasingly important role in the film). All of this becomes apparent after seeing Revanche, a contemplative film that takes the usual revenge neo-noir (as it has lazily been labeled by some critics) story and uses it as a meditation on loss and the curative (redemptive) powers of nature. Hence people expecting a conventional revenge tale will be disappointed by what is ostensibly, an anti-vengeance story.
The film’s central characters are ex-con, small-time criminal Alex (the ruggedly handsome Johannes Krisch) and his prostitute/girlfriend Tamara (Ukraine beauty Irina Potapenko); a police officer Robert (Andreas Lust) and his wife/convenience store proprietor Susanne (Ursula Strauss), and Alex’s aging grandfather Hausner (Hannes Thanheiser), who owns a farm in a rural area near where Robert and Susanna live. Tamara works for a sleazy owner of a bar/brothel called Cinderalla, who tries to persuade her to become a ‘private’ hooker for his more socially upscale clientele. When she refuses, he sets her up with a violent client, but Alex hears her screams and comes to her rescue. To escape from the life of the brothel, Alex plans a minor bank heist. Tamara tries to convince him otherwise, and when her appeals fail she insists that she go along for the heist. She waits in their stolen car, praying all the time for Alex’s safe return, while Alex goes into the bank. Things go well at the bank, but the chance appearance by officer Robert (shades of Psycho as he appears outside her car window) investigating Tamara in a no parking zone sets off the hand of fate. Alex returns with the loot to find the police officer talking to Tamara and stops in his tracks. He reacts by putting his mask back on and threatening the officer with his unloaded gun. He tells the officer to lie down but does not disarm him, an error of soon to be tragic proportion. As they drive off Robert –who in an earlier BBQ scene with his cop friends laments the fact that nothing exciting happens in their district–shoots at the car, fatally hitting Tamara. The distraught Alex drives the car into the forest and walks to his grandfather’s farm to seek refuge, which sets in motion a series of events that will place Alex in close proximity with the man, Robert, responsible for the death of the woman he loved, Tamara. The scenario is set up for a slow-burn vengeance, but director Spielmann has other ideas in mind.
Following the credit sequence (described below) the film begins briefly in the country, capturing the quotidian activities of the young couple, police officer Robert and his wife Susanne, who owns a convenience store in the town center. Right from the post-credit opening shot framing Robert listlessly mowing the lawn framed through a bay window, with a too perfect background of rolling hills and shapely white clouds, we sense the weight of inertia and loss already in the characters, with nature in the background patiently waiting to serve its curative powers.
In the next shot Susanna is framed looking longingly through another open window, watching Robert pass through both sets of frames (the window and the cinema frame). The film then cuts to the city, instantly recognizable in its stark contrast to the country, with a shot of Alex, sitting quietly by the side of his bed, looking out at a commuter train zooming past his closed window. The room’s black furniture and gray walls foreshadow Alex’s mundane existence (an interior design which seems to follow him wherever he goes, from room to room). His life springs into momentary life when his prostitute/girlfriend Tamara visits him for some afternoon sex. More telling than the shower sex scene about how intimate their relationship is, is the post-sex scene where Spielmann frames them with a static camera through another door frame as they get dressed to go to work. The static long take (38”) shifts focus from the middle/background where Alex and Tamara quietly dress, to an extreme close-up of Alex after he moves into the foreground to sit and tie his shoes. There is no verbal communication in the shot, and yet the shot reveals how they are intimate yet separated by forces around them (Tamara has a large debt and family back in the Ukraine whom she phones regularly, Alex is an ex-con with dreams of starting his own business, but can only find menial work at a brothel). The film returns to the country for brief scenes (domestic scenes between Susanne and Robert, scenes of Alex visiting his grandfather) before settling there for the better part of the second half, a conscious choice on Spielmann’s part because of his love of nature. Echoing Tarkovsky, he speaks (again on the Blu-Ray special feature) poetically about how much he loves the image of a pond or river because of how it seems to be a container for things that have passed, emotional, temporal, and narrative. It is not surprising that the film begins on a gorgeously lit, enigmatic vista on a pond and the upside down reflection of the shoreline trees.
This credit sequence shot sets up the film’s aesthetic philosophy: a long take (1’16”) static camera; still waters, an object falls into the pond, causing sonic ripples that eventually give way back to stillness. The scene has an unsettling air of mystery to it. What is the object that falls into the pond? Keeping in mind Spielmann’s quote on the temporal nature of water, the scene acts as a container of the whole film. The scene’s meaning only comes much later in the film, when we learn it was a flash forward from later in the narrative, or what Noel Burch calls a ‘retroactive edit’ (a shot whose narrative/temporal/spatial meaning is revealed later in the film).
When Alex decides to stay with his grandfather, the proximity between Hauser’s farm and Robert’s country home might seem like a forced plot coincidence to draw together Alex and the man responsible (at least in his eyes) for the death of Tamara, Robert. While Alex tells his grandfather he is there to help cut wood for him –which he does diligently– he is also biding his time until he can strike out at Robert and fulfill his quest for vengeance. But as important as the necessity of coincidence (a la Last House on the Left) is the natural setting, which Spielmann uses to both contrast aspects of the city but also bring together secondary themes such as communication and redemption. For example, Robert and Susanna don’t appear to be your traditional country dwellers, yet have settled into small community living. Alex, by contrast, is a person who escaped his country origins to settle into the city, yet he makes peace with his inner demons in the country, and ends up living on his grandfather’s farm (this is in fact the last shot of the film). The theme of redemption in nature is subtly suggested in one of the film’s most haunting shots, which is repeated twice. When Alex drives to his grandfather’s farm nestled in the woods he turns left and drives up a clearing, but the camera rests on the empty frame of the forest; in the center we see piles of logs and to the right, barely perceptible, a wooden replica of Christ on the cross.
In doing so Spielmann is outlining apparent differences only to erase them through counterpoint (Alex the city boy finds solace and redemption in the country).
Spielmann also reveals another less obvious but very interesting reason for counterpointing the city and the country. For him the city represents, essentially, capitalism versus the communalism of nature. The brothel where Alex and Tamara work is a heightened signifier of urban life, where only profit matters and the corporate, individualist mentality (and in the brothel there is the added irony of women being exploited for the benefit of men, starting from the seedy boss….which forms another parallel to nature, as nature is often likened to the female). By contrast in nature profit has no place. In nature things work in harmony, communally.
Another element that binds the seemingly different characters is the sense of loss each of them live with. Alex’s own loss of the young woman he loved is counterpointed with the loss of other characters. His grandfather Hausner (Hannes Thanheiser) is suffering after the death of his wife, living in a dying world. Robert clings to a police photo of Tamara, unable to escape this image of death. While on the home front, Susanne and Robert are unable to have children, an act which weighs heavily on them emotionally and socially (in the one scene where Robert’s parents are over for dinner the mother-in-law asks Susanne prying questions about children and motherhood during a kitchen scene). Even Tamara, when alive, suffered from being away from her family and native land (we see her make at least two phone calls home). Spielmann is clever to place these characters in a splendorous natural landscape which serves to put the collective sorrow into a non-human (non- moral?) perspective.
On the recent Criterion Blu-Ray disc director Spielmann outlines on many occasions in different ways how important mood and tone is to his film, more than story, plot or character. And the importance of an apparent simplicity in visual style which disguises a complexity which, to quote him, lives on the border between order and chaos. This notion of an apparent simplicity is reflected in his style, which has a propensity to static long takes with very little music, nuanced (as opposed to showy deep shadow lighting). Spielmann lets each shot run longer than would appear necessary, so that viewers have the time to look at and process the image. Spielmann sets this up against what he sees as films that “cut every three seconds” and in the process are “shattering the viewers’ concentration.” Although he doesn’t veer into Theo Angelopoulos, Bela Tarr, or Andrei Tarkovsky territory with his long takes, his two hour film contains only 210 shots, for an average shot length (ASL) of 35 seconds, which is slower than perhaps 80%, if not more, of films being made today. His takes are for the most part ‘invisible’, meaning the camera and action do not call attention to itself, but there are a few notable exceptions. Like a nearly three minute take which begins with a post-dinner nightcap in the living room then moves into the kitchen/dining area where Alex and Susanne they have sex on top of a dining table. Spielmann’s camera places attention on small details of space and place, and often frames and lights the interior country spaces with the same meticulous attention to detail, light and sparseness as the great Northern Renaissance painters, with some of his compositions recalling the paintings of Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Eyck.
The characters in Revanche also reflect Spielmann’s idea of simplicity masking complexity. All of the characters are marked by their surface identity: a policeman, a prostitute, and a petty criminal. However, this external shell is offset by other less defined character traits, such as ambiguous motivation. More importantly to what makes Spielmann’s characters human, is that they each display weaknesses, frailties, and uncertainty. Alex pleads with everyone that will hear him that he had aimed at the tires, so much so that we sense he is trying to convince himself. But his guilt is genuine, only the exact reason for it is vague. The event scars him psychologically, to the point where he is given a leave of work. Even without much back story, we get the sense of a past weighing heavily on Tamara and Alex. Robert’s wife Susanna, who on the surface seems to be the most one-dimensional character, becomes perhaps the film’s strongest character (or at least obvious, as the actress Ursula Strauss says in her interview on the Criterion release) because she is not afraid of her weaknesses. For example, we learn that their inability to have children is due to Robert, which casts a different spin on her sexual interest in Alex. Once she learns that Alex is staying with his grandfather, she increases her visits to his farm. When Alex, who is no doubt troubled simply by being close to someone emotionally associated with Robert, confronts her about the frequent visits, she makes her motivation clear by inviting him to her home later that evening, while Robert is away at work. Is she just physically attracted to Alex, or does she have ulterior purposes of becoming pregnant? When we later learn that Susanna is pregnant we assume the latter, but it remains an assumption, for nothing is spelled out in the script or the performances.
In a tangential but relevant parallel, Revanche recalls another recent thriller film that played hard and fast with genre rules, Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey (2000). In The Limey an ex-criminal (played by Terence Stamp) comes to Los Angeles to investigate the death of his daughter. Before long he learns that her death was not accidental, and his quest becomes one to avenge his daughter’s death. In both films we have criminal characters hell bent on vengeance that in the end come to realize their own complicity in the death of the person they loved, and end up renouncing their desire for vengeance. Redemption replaces revenge. The moment of this revelation in Revanche comes in the first dialogue exchange between Robert and Alex near the end of the film. Alex learns of Robert’s daily jogging trail that takes him through the woods and past a bench overlooking the lake. He begins to stake the trail, waiting for the right moment to shoot Robert. On one occasion they cross paths and exchange greetings, but nothing more. In this scene, which plays out in a remarkable long take of 3’16”, Alex sits on the bench waiting for Robert, who takes his cue and stops to talk. Playing the innocent, Alex asks him whether he is the police officer involved in the shooting. Alex’s questions become more probing. Alex asks Robert if he is not afraid that the robber, who is obviously still at large, might come looking for him for revenge. Robert reacts in a way that suggests the thought had never entered his mind. He pauses, thinks, and replies, “Let him.” The admission of a man tired and emotionally spent no doubt touches Alex, who realizes that there are no easy victims in this scenario. Before he runs off to continue jogging Robert stops, turns to Alex and tells him what he would, in turn, ask the robber if he did meet him: “Why did you take her along [to the bank heist] in the first place?” The cut to the reaction shot of Alex, which brings to an end the three minute plus long take, is symbolically framed with the lake in the background, suggesting the weight of the past on both characters. Robert’s pointed question brings home Alex’s own complicity in the accident (Why didn’t he listen to Tamara’s pleas to not go ahead with the robbery? Why didn’t he disarm Robert when he had the chance?) This is the point where we have the ‘retroactive edit’ to the opening credit scene shot, and we learn the identity of the object which splashed into the pond during the credit shot: a gun, the gun which Alex has guarded closely to enact the act of vengeance which has been his sole driving force after the accidental (?) shooting death of his girlfriend Tamara. It is a moment that signals Alex’s coming to terms with his anger, his thirst for vengeance, and giving it up to be in another state of mind, reflected in the calm surroundings. Along with the gun, Alex has tossed into the lake his anger, remorse, and thirst for vengeance. Nature absorbs his demons.
Alex is framed in extreme long shot, bathed in the comforting beauty of nature (the earth, trees, water, reeds). Spielmann holds the shot for 35 seconds, long enough to take in a strong current that causes the water to ripple across the frame. In one of many parallels that Spielmann designs between Robert and Alex (they both cling to a photo of Tamara, they both suffer from a sense of loss, they both ultimately share the same woman, Susanna, etc.), the shot of Alex standing by the lake cuts to Robert sitting in his veranda, looking aimlessly out into the night.
The link between the two men is cemented forever in the next and penultimate scene of the film, where Susanna breaks the news to Robert that she is pregnant. What she, of course doesn’t tell him, is that he is (most likely) not the father, forging a secret alliance between Robert, Susanna, Alex, and by extension, Tamara.