Running a marathon gives most people enough of an adrenaline rush, but for the truly hardcore, why not rob banks as well? In the 1980s, Johann Kastenberger excelled at both: The Austrian oddity set records in long-distance races while—in the rest of his free time—he secretly knocked over bank after bank. Benjamin Heisenberg’s The Robber is the exhilarating account of Kastenberger’s life on the run, adapted from Martin Prinz’s 2005 book. An intelligently shot study in self-control and calculated release, it’s equally surprising as an action film and character portrait.
“We’re used to films where we get to know the person right away in the first 10 minutes,” says Heisenberg of the mysterious figure, renamed Rettenberger in the movie and rivetingly played by Austrian actor Andreas Lust (Revanche). “In this film, the thrill comes out of observation. We do the first 10 minutes of a normal film over 90 minutes.”
Far from the arty thumbsucker that description might conjure, the film has chase sequences to outdo Hollywood’s finest. Just as absorbing is the enigma of the trim, driven robber, whom we first meet fresh from prison as he resumes his parallel pursuits.
The antihero’s motives are a fascinating blank: He hoards the stolen cash under his bed and boasts to no one, and, until the police finally catch on, there’s no clear endpoint to his private routine of robberies, escapes, and marathons. “It is more than him constantly reassuring himself of his freedom. He has to prove to himself that he even is alive,” says Lust. But it’s also a road to oblivion: “Running to destroy oneself.”
Heisenberg places his subject’s motives almost beyond psychology, drawn from “a deep way of being that is probably there since birth.” Ironically, one of the filmmaker’s very first shorts was also about a bank robber—but at rest: “He comes home between two bank robberies, looks at a porno movie, and goes out again.” (The adventuresome Heisenberg will next shoot a buddy comedy.)
As for the real Kastenberger (who met a premature end), Lust recalls how his escapades triggered fear and fascination among the public. “People would barricade themselves in their houses out of fear of coming across him. He was a murderer, after all,” he says, referring to an unplanned act of violence depicted in the film. “On the other hand, there was sympathy for this lone warrior who managed to escape and fool the whole Austrian police.”
‘The Robber’ plays at Alice Tully Hall September 27 and 29