Revanche: Revival of the Fittest

Revanche begins with a reflection of trees in a lake at twilight. They’re seen upside down—an image of nature reversed—yet the earth is eerily calm. This almost otherworldly illusion arouses a viewer’s awareness of perspective, which is then disturbed by the splash of an object tossed into the middle of the lake. Widening ripples shatter the impression of stillness, and a genuine sense of mystery sets in. Such an intimation of the supernatural typifies Austrian writer-director Götz Spielmann’s unique vision in this film.

Although Revanche is Spielmann’s first film to be released in the United States, it is actually his fifth overall, so his style and tone come to us fully developed. He began his career as a playwright, yet Revanche is thoroughly cinematic in story, look, and pace. Its chronicle of underworld desperation and domestic loyalties observes a plain, uncontrived natural universe whose immanence and splendor are depicted realistically, mysteriously, classically. This is the story of several seemingly unrelated characters whose interconnectedness evokes the quizzical, unknowable facts of existence and announces the potential of faith.

Spielmann’s arrival on the American film scene is exciting for the way Revanche opposes the contemporary trend toward dark pessimism with a vision that contemplates light and, conditionally, belief. At one point, a repentant character is asked, “What would your God say?” and she answers, “He’d understand.” Revanche’s plot resembles classic film noir yet ultimately renovates it: Alex (Johannes Krisch), a strapping ex-convict working as a bouncer at the Cinderella, a bar/brothel in Vienna, schemes to escape that mean world, along with Tamara (Irina Potapenko), a Ukrainian immigrant working there as a stripper and prostitute, by robbing a bank and investing the money in a friend’s bar. An unforeseen turn of events reconnects Alex to his estranged grandfather, Hausner (Hannes Thanheiser), an elderly farmer in a small village, and to the rural life Alex escaped. These events also irrevocably tie Alex’s and Tamara’s fates to those of a couple living near Hausner’s farm, policeman Robert (Andreas Lust) and housewife Susanne (Ursula Strauss). Moving from city to country allows Spielmann to poignantly contrast the experiences of the two couples.

But these characters’ relationships go deeper than dramatic coincidence. By giving both couples equal narrative weight, Spielmann shows striking commonalities among seemingly different people. When Robert complains of being cursed with bad luck, he echoes Alex’s earlier cry of desperation. Each of the four main characters becomes involved in a form of retaliation against life’s unfairness (Revanche is German for “revenge,” as well as “second chance,” as in a rematch). Spielmann’s classical unities and timeless storytelling verities avoid sentimentality and thus seem fresh.

Like that disturbing image of an upside-down lakefront, Spielmann’s charac­ters change our perspective on the world and life as movies conventionally present them. The spiritual conflicts of the dead-end urban underground, where gangsters and hookers deceive and exploit one another, extend to the peaceful-looking countryside, where people live in neat houses and work in respectable professions. Bringing together urban and rural struggle, Spielmann balances mankind’s philosophical quandaries and daily strife, searching for meaning in our shared fate.

Through sharp, clear comparisons—observing the different professional and domestic occupations of Alex and Robert, Tamara and Susanne—Spielmann links the demimonde and upright society. The characters are seen not simply in their lowest, most desperate moments but at moral crossroads. Each person is depicted as physically primed for life’s struggles, evident in the way Spielmann focuses on their bodies, whether agile or tense. (The director doesn’t shy away from frank nudity; there’s a realistic sense of male and female sexual and psychological intimacy.) But though these are hardy, fit characters, depression visits them: details of physical and spiritual endurance show on Alex’s face and torso, in Susanne’s casual strength, Robert’s athleticism, Tamara’s erotic poise, and old Hausner’s joy at playing the accordion. This focus on bodily stress and effort, however, stands in contrast to these characters’ inability to control their destinies.

This existential condition is exemplified by Spielmann’s astounding formal control. In one superb shot, the camera follows behind Robert and Susanne as they drive down a wooded road: when the car veers off onto a tangent, the camera keeps going forward into the mystery of the natural environment. This happens twice in Revanche, conveying the inevitable, if not the otherworldly—a sense of a greater power or unseen force that Spielmann’s characters do not perceive but to which he makes the audience privy. The quality of immanence, not often featured in contemporary movies, enlarges this film’s bank heist concept and pushes it into the realm of art. It almost feels new.

Spielmann favors propulsive movement and precise placement for his camera, with mostly medium shots that do not sway the audience’s reaction or engagement. His formal exactitude allows an intellectual as well as empathetic response—a method that works especially well on a slow dolly-in to a hostile confrontation between Alex and Susanne. The mystery of their personalities and unpredictable fortune is given respectful distance; it’s melodramatic but without a pushy director’s coercion. Spielmann rejects obvious narrative tricks to focus on life as it’s lived.

Working with cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, Spielmann bestows upon Revanche a ravishing serenity keyed to everyday splendor. The story starts out recognizably in the realm of noir, but it gradually embraces the sublime. Spielmann’s evocation of enigmatic phenomena recalls Carl Theodor Dreyer and the early films of Ingmar Bergman. Gschlacht photographs nature’s presence as profound, but it’s never made indifferent or a source of apathy; there’s a felt connection between mankind and the cosmos. This is apparent when Alex hauls cords of firewood and the camera, panning left, catches a glare from the sun, as if verifying the reality of his toil. Spielmann choreographs action to camera movement in ways that sharpen our perception but also unite different genres. When the camera pans right to see Alex standing in the woods, watching Robert and Susanne converse outside their home, it’s a classic noir scenario, in all its pessimism. But a later scene contains an elegant reversal of this shot, starting with Alex again spying but quickly panning left to Robert and Susanne, who take their quarrel to the back porch: settling on their pain, the camera’s gaze is now empathetic, transcending the earlier generic parameters. There’s another repetition in Revanche: late in the film, Spielmann again shows images from the opening lakefront scene, but from a different angle, and with a spectacular flourish not unlike a David Lean epiphany, in which human efforts are swallowed up by nature.

Spielmann is interested in aspects of life that exceed simple comprehension. Fathoming the interconnections between disparate people, he emphasizes realistic perception and spiritual discovery. He told an interviewer: “Loneliness is probably an inextricable part of our modern lives, and yet I consider it an illusion. We always think of ourselves as being separate from the world, and in this way we deceive ourselves. This separation is just an invention of our imagination; in many ways, we are constantly and directly interwoven in a larger whole. Loneliness is an attribute of our limited awareness, not of life itself.”

In Revanche, Spielmann uses his camera as a witness to the larger whole, to narrate our social and spiritual commonality—his animated camera movements and numinous imagery open up our limited awareness. An amazing aspect of Spielmann’s storytelling is the way it lets each character’s effort to control her or his own life reflect and speak for another’s—Susanne’s religious devotion recalls Tamara’s last-minute prayer, Alex’s grief parallels Robert’s regret. The emotional resonance of these depictions of perseverance and faithful nurturing suggests a godlike point of view. Revanche brings back to cinema a long-missing sense of belief.

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