"Revanche" (2008) tells two very familiar stories. In its telling of the first story, the "bank robbery gone wrong," it is decidedly unremarkable and even cliché riddled. When a would-be robber tells his girlfriend not once, not twice, but three times that "Nothing can go wrong," you can probably guess what's coming especially when his foolproof master plan consists of brandishing an unloaded gun and ordering the teller to fill a bag with money. However, in its second story, that of the "criminal given a second chance," "Revanche" distinguishes itself from a host of similar films and achieves something rather special.
Alex (Johannes Krisch) works as a bouncer at a Vienna cathouse where his Russian prostitute girlfriend Tamara (Irina Potapenko) also works. He stages the robbery to help spirit her away to a better life. When his plans inevitably go awry, Alex retreats to the country home of his grandfather (Hannes Thanheiser) to lick his wounds and craft a new plan. Here his fate and Tamara's become intertwined with that of his grandfather's neighbors, Robert (Andrea Lust), a policeman on scene at the robbery, and the cop's wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss.)
Alex, former bouncer and would be bandit, now spends his days chopping wood. Endlessly. Writer/director Götz Spielmann utilizes this basic chore as a metaphor for Alex's attempt to reconstruct himself, body and soul, from point zero. A key to this is a return to nature. Alex starts by cutting the large chunks on an industrial-sized circular saw, creating the film's most enduring (and menacing) sound effect. Later, he chops the smaller pieces by hand, grunting and sweating in the chill air. In the last scene, finally finished with his primal, seasonal labor, he plucks fallen winter apples right off the ground. It's the necessary antidote to years of alienated labor working only for the profit of a calculating pimp masquerading as a legitimate business man.
Spielmann doesn't waste time advancing his plot. When Alex first encounters Susanne in a supermarket, she immediately reveals that her husband is the officer involved with the robbery. Later when Alex spies on the couple, they are in the middle of a conversation about the incident and the profound effects it has had on Robert. It's not coincidence so much as fate, the primary motivating force in the movie. "Revanche" is a model of stripped-down efficiency, a modern fable which draws broad parallels and depicts profound moral quandaries with an elegance and frankness rare in cinema. Alex has to decide whether he will deal with his grief and anger by lashing out revenge-movie style or forego the pleasures of violent catharsis in favor of a more difficult process of self-examination and re-molding.
Spirituality is always at the center of the film. Susanne and Alex's grandfather go to church; Alex and Robert do not. Spielmann doesn't equate that simply with good and bad, however. Alex and Robert are the ones plagued by guilt while Susanne is able to rationalize her own transgressions by claiming that her God is an understanding and forgiving one, a notion that Alex responds to with contempt.
Even more prominent is the sense of spirituality immanent in the environment. The film opens with a beautiful shot of a placid lake reflecting a ring of trees, a shot repeated near the end of the film. Alex also takes frequent trips into the woods by day and by night, and even when he works in the barn he often shares the frame with trees seen through an open door. Spielmann, who prefers sparsely populated long scale composition, also holds many shots for several beats after people have exited the frame: doorways, fields, etc. Each space, both natural and manmade, seems to hold something deeper and more powerful. A force lurks in every corner, imbuing the film with a pulsing energy even in the stillest shots.
Some of Spielmann's choices are a bit heavy-handed but he is not in Puritanical lecture mode like fellow Austrian Michael Haneke. He grounds his moral tale with a deep-seated respect for his characters. This is most evident in his handling of Alex's grandfather. The crotchety old man is a familiar Hollywood staple, one whose stubbornness is mined for comic value. Alex's grandfather is certainly fixed in his ways but not out of nostalgia or reactionary tendencies. He's a genuine believer, both in God and in the Protestant work ethic. He doesn't exist merely to die gracefully and give way to the younger generation but as a moral touchstone for Alex who has lost his way. It's a bracing depiction when compared to the parade of movie fuddy-duddies who "rediscover" their youth by wearing their caps backwards or eating pot-laced brownies. Spielmann never condescends.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The HD transfer represents the expected upgrade over the SD version. The superior resolution is most evident in details such as leaves on the trees and several other outdoors sequences. The soft autumn colors look more vibrant as well.
The DVD is presented in DTS-HD Master 5.1. The relatively sparse soundtrack doesn't take much advantage of the surround channels but the mix is clean and clear. Compared to the SD, there's only a slight improvement as far as I can tell and I don't think it matters much with this film.
Optional English subtitles support the German audio.
The Blu-Ray offers an interview with Spielmann (35 min.) recorded in 2009 for Criterion as well as a "Making of" Featurette (36 min.) which features the typical interviews with cast and crew.
The best extra by far is Spielmann's 1984 short film "Foreign Land" (45 min.) a student film which won first prize at the European Film Academy Awards. It shares a lot in common with "Revanche" including the emphasis on integrating people with nature. It's a story about two young brothers left to their own devices at an Austrian hilltop ranch after their father leaves on an errand. It unfolds slowly and doesn't offer a major climax, but it's quite engaging. The film is preceded by a brief introduction from Spielmann.
The disc also includes a Trailer.
The insert booklet features an essay by critic and message board sensation Armond White.
In one of many howlers in the history of Oscar's Foreign Language Film category, "Revanche" (and "Waltz with Bashir" and "The Class") lost to the middlebrow hand-holder "Departures" in 2008. It's surprising that such a challenging, mature film could even have gotten nominated by the meek Oscar panel in the first place.
"Revanche" is another of Criterion's releases aimed at spotlighting contemporary cinema. They have also released "Hunger" this month and "Summer Hours" will follow in April.
Criterion has also released "Revanche" on SD. As usual, the Blu-Ray is actually cheaper on discount at Amazon right now, so you can figure out what to do.