What makes Johann run—and rob? Benjamin Heisenberg’s second feature is as taut, lean, and fleet as its title character, played by Andreas Lust and based on the real-life Johann Kastenberger, who was both Austria’s most-wanted bank robber of the 1980s and a champion marathoner. Writing the script with Martin Prinz, who adapted his own 2005 novel about the notorious criminal, Heisenberg forgoes backstory and psychological explanation, structuring his film as a series of adrenaline spikes.
Johann is already in motion—and marked as a lawbreaker—when The Robber begins, doing laps around a prison yard before continuing his workout on a treadmill in his cell. Only offhand remarks betray anything about Johann’s past: A conversation with his parole officer before being sprung reveals that the running man tried to escape twice during his six-year sentence. Once released (eight minutes into the film), Johann steals a car, blasting pulse-quickening FM radio pop, and dons the gray trench coat and rubber mask that will become his uniform as he sticks up bank after bank. (The real Johann was known as “Pump-Gun Ronnie” for his choice of weapon and Reagan disguise.) When not stuffing wads of euros into a black duffel bag—bounty that will later be stashed haphazardly under his bed, apparently to be used only for the purchase of Nike Lunaracers—Johann is in training, running in parks and forests, building the speed and stamina needed to set a new national record at the Vienna marathon. Solemn, monomaniacal, and monastic, this kinetic antihero has a few other needs as well, stirred when he re-encounters Erika (Franziska Weisz), a social worker almost as opaque as Johann.
Heisenberg paces his film like a strenuous yet exhilarating session of interval training; Johann’s criminal activities and his sprinting from the polizei reach maximum cardiovascular exertion when he robs two banks within five minutes. Following these high-intensity bursts, the scenes of Johann’s diligent physical conditioning become almost trancelike, similar to the effect of running a long, flat stretch of road. His behavior never explained and thus never romanticized—particularly notable when he commits more grievous crimes later in the film—highly self-sufficient Johann remains a study of pure motion, of energy that must simply be expended. Against interpretation, Heisenberg (who is, after all, the grandson of the physicist who gave us the uncertainty principle) has nonetheless created a nimble, dynamic character study of a fiercely guarded loner on the run.