A coldly precise, potentially violent bank robber cleans out a bank while wearing an old man mask and brandishing a shotgun. He runs at a high speed from the bank, not to make a getaway, but to rob another bank down the street while the police race to the first bank. Is this man a hardened criminal? The answer is most definitely yes, but with The Robber, the story is not worth telling because of his daring criminal exploits. The interest comes from the contradiction that this fearsome man is also a national hero.

Based upon a novel that fictionalized the life of Austrian criminal Johann Kastenberger (known to the Austrian media as “Pump-gun Ronnie”), The Robber tells the story of Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust), a man we first meet running laps in a prison yard. Johann is doing time for an attempted bank robbery. Shortly after the film begins, he is paroled and immediately does two things:

  1. Robs the first bank he sees.
  2. Unexpectedly wins a marathon and, in turn, the adoration of the people of Austria.

Why he feels the need to jeopardize his freedom and put himself in the crosshairs of angry police officers is never made explicitly clear. Heisenberg drops hints that Johann is no longer capable of achieving a “runner’s high.” The implication becomes that the only way he has discovered to continue getting any kind of an adrenaline rush is by robbing banks. But for such a challenging film, that explanation comes across as rather pat.

Heisenberg certainly isn’t interested in explaining his protagonist’s motives. Nor is he interested in making the audience like him. He keeps a cold distance between the viewer and the characters on screen that mirrors the barriers the characters keep between each other. The closest that Johann comes to showing emotion is in his interactions with Erika (Franziska Weisz), a childhood friend he reconnects with after being released from prison. Erika seems just as introverted and disconnected as Johann. They briefly reminisce about their childhood, but avoid talking about any specific memories, even after their relationship becomes romantic. Do they share some traumatic childhood experience that has made them this way? The audience never knows.

But that is what is refreshing about The Robber. It offers no explanations for its characters — merely observing and allowing the audience to make their own determinations. The detachment with which Heisenberg’s camera views the characters and their interactions is never once broken to achieve a “cinematic” moment. Even in a chase scene that finds Johann being hemmed in by the police, the temptation to pump up the action is eschewed in favor of simply following his back as he makes his getaway. This actually helps the scene become more exciting than if it had employed a quick cut editing style with a blaring score coursing through the sound system.

This cold distance and lack of easy answers would not have worked without Lust’s amazing portrayal of Johann. Sporting a deadpan intensity without ever looking bored, he makes Johann an enigma without ever crossing the line into the territory of inscrutability. It’s a tricky performance, but you never tire of watching him, even as the film’s clinical detachment starts to take its toll in the third act.

Eventually, that is what leads the film away from being great to merely good. Great filmmakers (Stanley Kubrick and David Cronenberg spring to mind) have used a very strict, clinical detachment to amazing effect. But they always used that style to explore personal obsessions that give their films a unique personality. Heisenberg simply seems to be offering up a story of an unknowable man and refuses to turn him into a mainstream hero or anti-hero. This is a noble attempt to demythologize the idea of movie bank robbers as something to glorify, but it finally sucks all the life out of the film in the third act, just as a hint of emotion has started to seep into the proceedings.

Even with the film eventually running out of gas in the third act, Heisenberg has crafted a singular vision that offers no easy answers to why some people seem destined to self-destruct. In this world of watch and forget films, I’m always appreciative of a film experience that is hard to shake. The Robber is just such a film.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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