Along with a direct title, this film has a high-concept premise: a long-distance runner who robs banks. Once we hear this log line, poster copy from old-time Hollywood appears in mind: He runs! He steals! He runs again! It’s the kind of idea that a studio could expand into a mile of action footage.
Meanwhile, the figure of the long-distance runner suggests solitude inclined towards rebellion. The archetypal example is, of course, Alan Sillatoe’s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” the 1959 English short story, which the author adapted for film in 1962 (directed by Tony Richardson; the title became a turn of phrase sometime in between). In “Loneliness,” Colin Smith is brought to a youth detention center. His long distance running there serves as personal therapy. When competing against a renowned public school, a far-in-the-lead Smith throws the race with the finish line in front of him. Though he’s lost the chance for an early release, his personal sacrifice has created a statement.
The Robber(Der Räuber), directed by the German filmmaker Benjamin Heisenberg, can be read as a semi-sequel, even if based on the real-life Austrian robber/marathon runner Johann Kastenberger (1958-1988). The film begins with Johann Rettenberger’s (Andreas Lust) release from prison, from which he’d tried to escape twice. Having done time for attempted robbery, he had continued to train inside. Soon after his release, he takes first prize in the 25th Vienna City Marathon, gaining enough recognition that his parole officer asks him to autograph a magazine article featuring the race. Other aspects of Johann’s life aren’t so great. He’s charged a steep rate for an apartment, clearly a result of his record. Plus the enamored parole officer informs him that his commitment to running results in an unstable life.
Johann believes that a steady job would interfere with his training. And hence, he steals a car upon his release and begins a series of bank robberies. His heists are quick and cool; Lust plays Johann as capable of such feats, while Heisenberg avoids sensationalism. Like Colin Smith, Johann is an outsider who resists social structures. The press calls Johann the “Great Unknown” upon his win, and he acts the role. Bank heist masks on film suggest absurdist distortion as early as Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and as recent as Ben Affleck’s The Town. By wearing a Reagan mask, Thatcher-era real life criminal Kastenberger followed suit. In the film, however, Johann wears a mask that, looking like paper mache, reflects blurred anonymity. And yet after he puts it on, we notice little change in the expression.
When he reunites with a woman, Erika (Franziska Weisz), their relationship is strained: he looks askance at her laughter at car crashes during a movie; their sex seems to require too much intimacy for Johann. During one scene a jump cut, revealing the two nude but standing, helps to disorient us and the characters. The lighting suggests noir Expressionism, though the shadows look like ink that thickens upward. Johann is likely relieved upon learning the next day that she has another lover. His relationship with Erika is the closest he comes to a familial structure. Fittingly, the relationship will jeopardize his secret life of crime.
Johann operates with the rules of the onscreen gangster. He stays focused on steps that keep his robberies effective. While appearing like impulse crimes at first – we never see him prepare – they unfold like well-ordered plans. He continues to rob to keep himself in marathon training. Like the classic American gangster film, Johann will meet his downfall, as the source material dictates. Yet, as a prior convict, the need to complete crimes plays like a compulsion. In this sense, Johann is a noir protagonist, trapped and doomed by his past.
Johann wears a heart monitor for his training. At one point, when reviewing his rate over a period of time, he sees it spike during a recent bank heist. It’s as if he’s searching for life in what appears to be a flatlining existence. Ironically, he lives during his crimes and merely exists, or perhaps copes, as he trains. While the film’s premise implies that he runs after his robberies, he mostly uses cars (stolen or jacked). It’s when he must flee on foot, during a robbery taking longer than usual, that trouble starts. In a suspenseful moment like this, Heisenberg resists using upbeat music (in fact music at all). He’d rather focus on his subject. Though, noting the use of Steadicam, we realize Johann will be safe for now. Soon enough, Erika will get too close to him; he’ll resist his parole officer in an act that will finger him to police – no longer the “Great Unknown.” Heisenberg ups the suspense when it’s needed.
Johann’s final night with Erika plays like a last supper before her betrayal. The film cannot avoid embellishing the motif: he soon comes upon a cross before taking a wound in the side. Erika’s choice leaves Johann permanently on foot, the payoff we’ve wanted. Now freedom requires that he run, the fugitive subsisting on his passion. When fleeing through the woods, where prospects look bleak, Johann dips himself into a narrow hole near brush. The search party passes him by, to complete a convention of suspense films, then Johann regards his surroundings. We wonder if thoughts similar to those of Meursault in Albert Camus’ The Stranger pass through his mind: if he were to live in the trunk of a tree with just the sky over head, he would get used to it. (Meursault, of course, comes to this thought in prison.) This was Johann’s life prior to release, and in a sense it’s the kind of life he desired during freedom: to run, and live, and alone. He never accepts that the system requires more than isolation from communities and the law.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. His book, The New American Crime Filmis forthcoming with McFarland.