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By Robert Koehler
“Tales from the Vienna Streets” might be the umbrella title for the films of Götz Spielmann, who has crept his way, slowly, surely, to the centre ring of Austrian cinema through two decades. And quietly. In North America, at least, Spielmann is an obscure figure, while in Europe he’s been part of the mainstream since his debut Erwin und Julia (1990), which observes various people trying to make it or just survive in Vienna. He has made none of the splash of a Barbara Albert, Michael Glawogger, Ulrich Seidl, or, certainly, Michael Haneke, with whom Spielmann is often sloppily and incorrectly compared. Even by way of non-pirated DVD, Spielmann remains difficult to see, largely a result of marketing decisions and the hard fact that he hasn’t won any of the sexier prizes in the international film business. Even less helpfully, he hasn’t been the object of a cult.
All of which means that for most viewers of Revanche, they are in for a profound revelation. Without the benefit of retrospect, there would be no way to fathom that with Revanche Spielmann has achieved a major artistic breakthrough; but even without having his past work in one’s back pocket, it’s clear that Revanche also marks something crucial to European film at this time. While one team has been moving even more radically than usual against narrative’s primacy (you know the names), another team (most recently typified by the surpassingly average Tell No One) is owned lock, stock, and barrel by the one and only Mr. Plot. Stasis and angst (see Seidl) remains a matter of existential faith with many European filmmakers, even as the belief in happy endings (countless Spanish movies) is also on the rise. Even as many of the continent’s more interesting filmmakers adhere to the notion of a distant camera and an ensemble cast (see Klotz, Serra, Arslan and many others), the lure of the movie-star close-up and its attendant privileging of celebrity (see, if you must, Almodovar, Fontaine, Wenders) is on the rise.
Navigating these cross-currents and opposing ideologies, while remaining doggedly true to his exploration of the Viennese streets, Spielmann has come upon an alternative strategy, one that sometimes mixes and matches clashing tendencies, and at other times provides—and this is where Revanche becomes especially interesting—a way out of what has been becoming an aesthetic vice grip of the harsher leanings of some Austrian cinema. Don’t term it “cold”; this is a critical trap that goes back as far as the reviews of the earliest von Sternberg on through Kubrick, the misperception of a deliberately objectivist perspective as being somehow less than human because it rejects the warm and fuzzies of psychological entertainment. Besides, try defining what “cold” really means, in terms of art.
Revanche describes the unexpected journey of Alex (Johannes Krisch), a lowly, gruff, hard-bitten ex-con and brothel assistant, whose dream of running a club in Ibiza and attachment to an unhappy Ukrainian hooker, Tamara (Irina Potapenko), leads him to robbing a bank. Intersecting with Alex’s course is Vienna cop Robert (Andreas Lust) and his wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss), who live—like so many police marrieds do—far beyond the city crowds, literally in the woods. From the streets to the woods: This is one of several paths that Spielmann’s multi-directional film takes, and if his overall opus can be taken as one large tale, then this departure from the city to the enveloping maw of nature provides Spielmann with an opening to consider human existence in larger and more substantial ways.
This venture to the forest should be seen as starting in its fully mature form with Antares (2004), the smartest and cleverest response to The Decalogue (1989) by any European filmmaker. Antares posits three storylines and several characters living in a massive Vienna apartment housing block and how they find various ways to fill their emotional black holes, from fucking like bunnies to throwing jealous rages. It displayed a new structural inventiveness and complexity in Spielmann’s work—he insists it’s the first film in which he had full artistic control—which earlier had been informed by the strictures of the stage, where he has worked as a director and playwright (sometimes under the spell of Arthur Schnitzler). Antares also seemed like an end point, offering up city people trapped in coffins, inside a complex that resembles a cluster of bunkers more than any place one would actually choose to live.
Revanche proposes a way out for some of its characters and some of the emerging impasses in European filmmaking. The film charts the effect of doubling in a dazzling number of ways, equating it with both a locked-in repetition and a second chance (per the title); but most dramatically of all, it charts various escape routes. In this strategy, Spielmann combines a meticulous structural form with emotional truth, a thorough poetics with a penetrating understanding of human nature. The doubling device never stops. Alex is early on seen showering, sexually, with Tamara, and then showering with another hooker, in order to wake her up and get her to work. Before she’s shot dead by Robert’s pistol, Tamara is startled by Alex’s sudden appearance, as is Susanne later when she encounters Alex (twice, once in daylight, once at night). A photo of Tamara’s corpse dogs at the guilt-ridden Robert, who carries it around like a knife he might use on himself, while another photo of Tamara is kept by Alex as a spur to avenge her death. Lines—such as the brothel owner’s refrain, “my loss, your gain”—are repeated, usually to ironic effect. Some shots, such as the unforgettable series of fixed views of Alex violently chopping wood in his sickly grandfather’s barn, or the Antonioniesque moving shot drifting off from Alex’s racing motorcycle on a road and into the woods, are exactly replicated later (under differing light conditions), but are so intrinsically powerful that their repetition is undetectable on a first viewing.
The desires for escape—from Vienna, from a particular kind of life—appear at first to be purely belonging to Alex, about whom his country-bound grandfather tells Susanne, “(In Vienna) you end up arrogant or a scoundrel—he ended up a scoundrel.” But Alex’s first dream of Ibiza, dissolving in the wake of Tamara’s death and his desperate hiding out at the grandfather’s, transforms into something entirely different and unexpected—in actuality, in the final bucolic shot, as he finishes harvesting some of his grandfather’s prized winter apples, and closing the door on the farmhouse. Between the earlier point and this one lies the revenge/revanche, which interlocks like the workings of a fine watch with Robert’s desire to settle in as a competent cop who can at least decently shoot his gun, and Robert’s and Susanne’s ineffectual efforts to have a child. The man of the streets now surveys the couple of the woods in nocturnal hiding (Spielmann tracks Alex, whom Susanne labels “a lone wolf,” moving through the woods as if on a hunt), and the question presented is simply: What will these characters choose to do? Though accident has brought them together, Revanche considers the ramifications of individual choice in the course of action, that there are always (at least) two options, two paths in the woods, two lives to create for oneself: either a repetition of past behaviour, as humans are often wont to do, or some kind of future created by choosing against repetition, toward new possibilities. Happy, not happy, these characters now removed from the interlocking traps of Vienna must finally confront themselves in the woods, where a lone wolf might toss a gun into a lake, and watch the ripples form.