Director: Götz Spielmann
Screenplay: Götz Spielmann
Stars: Johannes Krisch (Alex), Irina Potapenko (Tamara), Andreas Lust (Robert), Ursula Strauss (Susanne), Johannes Thanheiser (Grandfather Hausner), Hanno Pöschl (Konecny), Magdalena Kropiunig (Prostitute in Hotel), Toni Slama (Tamara’s Customer)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 2008
Country: Austria
Revanche Criterion Collection DVD
RevancheRevanche is Austrian writer/director Götz Spielmann’s fifth feature film (in addition to several made-for-television features), but the first to receive significant distribution in the United States, so European viewers will have to forgive American audiences and critics who are treating the film like a major new discovery. Not having seen any of Spielmann’s other films, I cannot comment on how Revanche fits with them stylistically and thematically, but this film’s simple, direct emotional power, its well-honed existential themes, and its fine observation of human behavior suggests that he has been refining his art for some time now; it feels like the product of a master craftsman. Spielmann’s style is unassuming and avoids the easy, manipulative trappings of voice-over narration, extradiegetic music, and flashy editing and camerawork, even as it emphasizes beautiful compositions that use space--both open landscapes and tight interiors--to emphasize the characters and their emotions.

Revanche tells the story of two couples from opposite sides of the law and how their lives intersect and intertwine, first tragically, but then with the promise of possible redemption. Alex (Johannes Krisch, a veteran stage actor making an impressive cinematic debut) is a tough, plain-spoken ex-con living in Vienna and working odd jobs at a brothel. His girlfriend is Tamara (Irina Potapenko), a Ukrainian immigrant who works as a prostitute at the brothel (they must keep their relationship a secret, which intensifies their physical and emotional connection but also keeps them in constant danger).

At the same time that we see Alex and Tamara’s lives in the red-light district of Vienna, we are introduced to Robert (Andreas Lust), a genial police officer, and his wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss), who live an apparently idyllic life in the countryside near the farm owned by Alex’s grandfather (Johannes Thanheiser), a tough, stubborn, and deeply proud old man who refuses to leave his home despite his obviously fading health. For the first third of the film Spielmann brings us into the lives of these characters, showing us Tamara’s proposition by the brothel manager (Hanno Pöschl) to move up to a higher class of prostitution, Robert and Susanne’s struggle with their inable to have children, and Alex’s tense relationship with his grandfather, who sees his grandson as a moral and professional failure.

The story takes a sharp turn when Alex, as desperate people tend to do, decides to take control of his future by robbing a bank. He is clearly a hardened man of few words, and we have seen that he has a violent streak when he beats a customer who is mistreating Tamara at the brothel. Thus, we are primed to expect that something could very well go wrong during the heist (even though he insists the gun isn’t loaded), which it does, but not in a way we would have expected. The turn of events during the robbery sends the film into its second half, which brings all of the characters’ lives together in consistently unexpected and moving ways, with one character seeking revenge for what he perceives as a deliberate wrong while another is wracked with grief and guilt over what he has done.

Part of the power of Revanche is the way in which the story unfolds. I have been deliberately vague with much of the plot description, especially in the second act, because the currents in Spielmann’s narrative are most effective when they catch you unaware. Yet, none of the plot developments feel forced or contrived, which is a small miracle given that Spielmann is working in the virtually exhausted arthouse terrain of interlocking stories about complete strangers, which when overdone (as we saw a few years ago in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel), is more exhausting than enlightening. By limiting his characters and making their interactions deeply personal but sharply divided on different levels of both knowledge and emotional investment, Spielmann keeps the film’s focus on the characters’ shared humanity, rather than any labored machinations of the plot.

Spielmann organizes the film in dichotomies, emphasizing the criminal versus the law-protecting, the city versus the country, the seedy versus the respectable, the young versus the old. Yet, in creating all of these visual and thematic oppositions, Spielmann’s primary goal is to overcome them, to show us how such divides are broken down when people enter into and affect each other’s lives; that is, how these dichotomies are really just perceptions, convenient means of organizing our worldview and deciding who is “us” and who is “them.” In this regard, the film’s title, which has been left blessedly untranslated, is crucial. In its first sense, the German word revanche means “revenge,” but it also means “a second chance,” which beautifully encapsulates the film’s suggestion that the most tragic events in our lives can either destroy us or redeem us and, most importantly, that we have the power to decide which.

Revanche Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set
Revanche is also available from the Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioGerman Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Subtitles English
  • New video interview with writer/director Götz Spielmann
  • “The Making of Revanche” documentary
  • Foreign Land (Fremdland), Spielmann’s student short film (with an introduction by the director)
  • U.S. theatrical trailer
  • Essay by critic Armond White
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 16, 2010

    Criterion’s high-definition transfer of Revanche, which was approved by writer/director Götz Spielmann, was taken from the original Super 16mm color negative. Because the film is so new, no digital restoration was required outside of color gradation. The image looks gorgeous, with strong, natural colors, dark blacks, and good detail throughout. The fact that it was shot on Super 16mm obviously limits the definition of the image, but because the transfer was made from the original negative, rather than the blown-up 35mm prints that were shown in theaters, grain is kept to a minimum. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital surround soundtrack is a 24-bit direct port from the original digital audio masters and sounds excellent.
    The majority of the supplements on Criterion’s edition of Revanche are housed on the second disc of this disc-two set (the first disc includes the U.S. theatrical trailer). There is an informative new video interview with Spielmann, which runs about 35 minutes and is essential viewing for those of us who were not previously familiar with his work. “The Making of Revanche” is a half-hour documentary shot during the film’s production. It includes some talking-head interviews with Spielmann and members of the cast, but it is interesting primarily for its unadorned footage of the production itself. Also included on this disc is Foreign Land (Fremdland), the award-winning student short film Spielmann made in 1984, which also includes a brief three-minute introduction by the director.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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