If you happen to be looking for a film with which to begin engrossing yourself in German (or even European) cinema, then Götz Spielmann’s Revanche is as good a movie as any to start with. It is, in fact, an Austrian production, but Austria and Germany share a language and so many other cultural commonalities that, at least when it comes to art, the differences between the two states seems negligible, especially to an outsider like me. I know little about German and Austria cinema, and I’ve seen just about the same films as I think practically everyone else has: Downfall and The Lives of Others. But Revanche has me enthused and looking for more German-language titles. This is a terrific thriller, quiet and contemplative, made in a style that we don’t see much of nowadays, especially here Stateside. (There will be spoilers herein, but despite that, Revanche is one of those films that is more about the mood and tone it evokes rather than the major beats of the plot, so it may not matter for some readers.)
Revanche concerns itself with two couples: Alex, a soft-spoken bouncer at a Viennese brothel, and Tamara, his Ukrainian girlfriend and a prostitute at said brothel; and Susanne and Robert, married and living out in the countryside, she a manager at a local supermarket, he a policeman. Things go sour at the brothel and Alex decides he and Tamara must leave the country. But before departing for good, he robs a small village bank, a way of getting money needed to pay off Tamara’s debts. A policeman opens fire on the car as they flee the scene, accidentally slaying Tamara. Alex, heartbroken and shaken beyond belief, retreats to the countryside outside Vienna where he lays low, working on his ailing grandfather’s farm. One of his grandfather’s neighbors is the kindly Suzanne who, as luck would have it, is married to the same officer that killed Tamara. Fate, it seems, has given Alex a chance to settle the score.
As you may have guessed, the film’s title essentially translates into ‘revenge,’ although the word has more nuance in German than it does in English. It also means ‘to stage a rematch’ or, rephrased, to have a ‘second chance’ at something. Most of that is lost when we flip the word into English, and to call the film “Revenge” is to make it sound much more menacing than it is. Revanche is certainly no murder-fest about a man spilling blood to correct some ill done against him. Rather, it’s a social thriller that is more cerebral than anything else—emotions replace guns, and guilt, frustration and anger are the primary weapons.
Director Spielmann goes about his business with a great deal of subtlety, which is entirely appropriate for a film that is more focused on what the characters feel as opposed to what they do. As thrillers go, Revanche is something of an aberration in that respect: in something like Basic Instinct, an example that’s fairly representative of the genre, the film revolves around the spectacle of what’s happening onscreen: the interrogation scene where Sharon Stone flashes the cops, the various car chases, and so on. The action we get in Revanche consists almost entirely of one sex scene and a man chopping wood (not a euphemism, but literally cutting firewood). The real action occurs far below that simple surface, when we become privy to what the characters are feeling and are encouraged to try and indentify their motivations.
Scenes or exchanges that seem to be extraneous are really, as we come to realize, just Spielmann giving us a better understanding of the characters without telling us he’s doing it. It’s impressive to see him at work. In one scene, Suzanne tells her husband’s friend’s wife—her husband has friends over for a barbeque, and we get the sense that this woman is only an acquaintance at best—that her pregnancy just miscarried after three months, and the woman rudely announces how thankful she was that her pregnancy didn’t suffer the same tragic fate. Later, Suzanne grows frustrated at her mother-in-law’s intrusiveness over the couple’s plans to attempt a pregnancy again. Even reading them off the page here, these seem like throwaway scenes; in fact, as becomes clear, Suzanne is growing increasingly frustrated with her husband, and every interaction with him—either directly or through people related to him, like his friends or his mother—ends bitterly. So rather than throw a million and a half domestic arguments at us, Spielmann instead shows us how sickened Suzanne grows by everything related to her husband. It’s a roundabout way of revealing the strife within their marriage, but it’s much more interesting than simply showing them arguing and sleeping in different beds (as another director might have done it).
That subtlety also extends to the psychology of the characters. Suzanne ends up committing adultery with Alex because of the frustration with her marriage, yet there are greater motives than that beneath her act. Spielmann doesn’t specifically draw attention to them, but the attentive viewer will realize what’s going on immediately and will be rewarded for it. There’s some revenge occurring here on the part of Alex: Suzanne’s policeman husband killed Alex’s girlfriend, and now the reverse happens—Alex is taking the cop’s woman. But there is an even more furtive dynamic at the heart of it. Suzanne’s husband is virtually infertile, and she is struggling to become pregnant again. By instigating an affair with Alex, she is in essence going with a suitor, and trying to find another father for her child.
To characterize these delicate motives and behaviors as ‘mind games’ would be incorrect; instead, what Spielmann presents us with is essentially a small micro-study of the kinds of life events that drive people. Suzanne is preoccupied with her marriage; Alex with the man who killed his girlfriend, and getting revenge for that act. The events that follow are unusual and often shocking—but the event that triggered it all was shocking too. Incidentally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the terrific acting here. It is superb across the board. None of the actors were known to me, but you won’t find a better assembled, more capable cast than the one Spielmann managed to compile here. Consider the skill necessary to convey some of the script’s finer points—even given Spielmann’s solid directing, it would have been all for naught if not for the standout performances that really make the film what it is.
Revanche is something of a rarity. Where most thrillers are bombastic, it goes in precisely the opposite direction, being almost excessively silent, and it ends up being a tremendously satisfying experience. I don’t think Revanche is an exclusive European or Austro-German phenomenon: as a genre, long ago thrillers became sensationalized joy rides, all too often about exotic sex and mesmerizing violence. Spielmann doesn’t go for that here. He tells a more sensitive and thoughtful tale, and the result is unique. It cannot be missed.
Revanche is available from the Criterion Collection in the United States, as well as on Amazon Instant Video. Artificial Eye handles the distribution in the United Kingdom and other European territories.