There’s likely to be no better opening sequence in a film this year than the one found in Austrian director Gotz Spielmann’s fifth feature, Revanche. The quiet calm of a lake reflecting majestic trees on its surface is broken by a sudden splash, as something is thrown into the water from outside the frame. The philosophy of Spielmann’s narrative reflects something similar: the slightest action can upset the flow of things. The sequence also expresses the important role nature plays in Revanche, as the woods and the tranquility of the lake serve as a necessary retreat for Spielmann’s morally conflicted characters. Alex (Johannes Krisch), a brutish ex-con, works at a sleazy Vienna brothel, “The Cinderella,” for slick and equally-sleazy owner Konecny (Hanno Poschl). Alex meets in secret with a Ukrainian prostitute from the brothel, Tamara (Irina Potapenko), promising the young immigrant a better life, far away from her scuzzy job and cramped, drab apartment. Meanwhile, Robert (Andreas Lust), a cop in a rural town outside Vienna, lives with his wife, Susanne (Ursula Strauss), in a luxurious house just through the woods from Alex’s lonely grandfather, Hausner (Hannes Thanheiser).
Predictably, disparate lives intersect when, in the interest of a better future with Tamara, Alex decides to rob a bank. And yet, what would normally be the catalyst for plot progression in a typical genre picture instead becomes the unconventional beginning to a slow-burning character study. Similar to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, Spielmann here uses voyeurism to explore his characters’ tortured psyches: Alex watches Robert and Susanne from a safe vantage point in the woods and, in the throes of his own moral crisis, he observes Robert’s visible guilt. But where von Donnarsmark’s Foreign Language Oscar-winner progresses with an almost mechanical remove (and often contrivance), Revanche (which received a Foreign Language Oscar nomination last year, but did not win), unspools patiently, arriving at a more satisfying emotional climax. Where Spielmann’s film has been criticized, then, is in the role that women play in this film; however, Revanche is less about relationships (Robert’s to Susanne; Alex’s to Tamara) than it is about the shattering of a man’s macho resolve. It’s clear to everybody but Alex that his plan to rob a bank contradicts his character (his boss at the brothel tells him he’s “too soft” for their line of work). Likewise, when Robert’s buddies in the police force boast about a violent run-in, he bemoans missing out, yet when a similar conflict presents itself, he only regrets it ever happened.
In addition to his thought-provoking thematic concerns, Spielmann also displays an impressive control of his medium. The director frames his characters with wide shots, allowing us to inhabit the same grubby spaces, and using close-ups and obvious camera movement only when necessary, but his masterstroke reveals itself to be his use of location. The cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky is an obvious point of comparison: Spielmann has a knack for capturing nature with the same meditative grace of the Russian director’s best work. Tarkovsky found aesthetic sublimity in his Solaris through that film’s contrasting landscapes- – the warm embrace of nature giving way to the chilly isolation of space — just as Spielmann accounts for Alex’s spiritual rejuvenation through his escape from the confining urban sprawl of Vienna to the calming countryside. It’s cause for excitement that there is a filmmaker working today who is this attuned to his environment, and the way in which Spielmann’s revenge saga unexpectedly evolves into something more cathartic and meaningful would likely make Tarkovsky proud.