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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: True to Life

The Robber
Thim Film/Zorro Film

How to Live Forever
Variance Films

A new Austro-German film called The Robber is a mystery. The mystery is not about crime, although there are crimes in it: it is about the criminal. The film shuns conventional explanation of the man; it merely observes. Strangely enough, we feel that this is the film that the criminal would have liked to be made about him.

In the 1980s there was an Austrian marathon champion who won all sorts of prizes and who had an odd other occupation: he robbed banks—until he was found out. A novelist named Martin Prinz wrote a book based on the facts; he and the director Benjamin Heisenberg then wrote a screenplay based on the novel, and now the film appears. How closely the screenplay sticks to facts, or whether it includes all of them, we cannot know; but surely the main point in the making of this film is to reproduce life as it happens, not to heat it up filmwise nor to make it bow to orthodoxies of screenplay writing. The picture states that this is who the man was and what he did. The basic artistic end of their film is to conduct us past the comforts of explanation to the mystery that lies beneath and beyond all explanations.

We first see a man in a runner’s outfit running around a large courtyard, running and running. At last Hans Rettenberger, as he is called here, is taken inside, and we see that the courtyard was within a prison. He is returned to his cell. Even there he has a treadmill, which he uses. Hans is in his early thirties, slim and trim of course, with an intelligent face and the air of a man with secrets we wouldn’t believe.

Soon he is taken to the office of a parole officer. He has served six years for an attempted bank robbery, and this officer, a friendly, decent man, gives him intelligent advice about his future conduct. He is released.

The first thing he does is steal a car. Next he robs a bank single-handedly, wearing a rubber mask—a so-called Reagan mask—and carrying a shotgun. (No explanation of where he got these things. Perhaps he had them stashed for six years.) Then he visits the employment office where he is required to check in, and there he meets, quite by accident, a young woman he once knew named Erika. She understands where he has been, and she offers him a room in a large apartment that she has inherited. He accepts, almost as if her offer were in the order of things.

Through all that we have seen so far and through almost all that follows, Hans has been calm, taciturn—except when he is actually robbing and shouts at people to fill his money bags while he brandishes his gun. His demeanor remains cool for the most part, even when, as they must, he and Erika make love. He wins more marathons; he robs more banks. She knows what he is doing, and now, almost reservedly in love with him, she asks why he is living this way. His reply is the closest he ever comes to explanation in the whole film. He says that his reasons have nothing to do with the way she thinks of life.

There are two drastic ruptures in Hans’s curious composure. They are contradictory. In a fit of pique, hardly more, he commits a murder with a trophy he has just won in a marathon. And after he is stabbed by someone else from whom he is stealing a car, Hans spares the man though he has a pistol.

The police are beginning to identify the robber and to close in on him. Here comes a reminder of Godard’s Breathless. Like the Jean Seberg girl who is involved with the criminal Jean-Paul Belmondo, Erika, who loves Hans, tips off the police about his whereabouts, less in the cause of justice than to protect herself from the man she loves who could ruin her life.

Franziska Weisz, who plays Erika, is utterly credible, which is all that is asked of her. The three people who had the daring to make The Robber and did it with the requisite steadiness are Heisenberg and Prinz and Andreas Lust, who plays Hans. Lust creates a character with a private ethic, solipsistic and consuming, with a suggestion of capsule Nietzsche—an exceptional spirit who has found himself on a wormy planet and who elevates himself with extreme rigor and risk, disregarding the petty rules of the commoners around him.

Thus The Robber makes not the slightest move to engage our sympathy. It evokes instead a kind of wonder at the thoroughness with which it exists in itself, bravely, almost brashly. Heisenberg directs with a kind of fierceness and no pity for those who want usual movie comforts. The very last shot is from the inside of a parked car, looking out the windshield at a rainy empty highway, as the wipers swish. Art has embodied unadorned life.

There isn’t much new to be said about death, but that won’t stop us, all of us, from saying it. Hence this documentary—and this review of it.

How to Live Forever was made by the experienced Mark Wexler, who, an affable host, appears in it as interviewer. He visits people all over this country and in a few others who are interested, in their smiling ways, in death. They very rarely mention it: what they talk about mostly is prolonging life or rejuvenation, neither of which would be subjects at all if it were not for death.

The film begins with a visit to a trade show of funeral equipment in a huge exhibition hall through which we are guided by a sexy blonde in a clinging dress who makes winsome faces at us in front of coffins. But Wexler’s tone throughout is not satirical: he is sympathetic as he interviews a guru of calorie-counting-as-life-preserver, one of laughing yoga, one of physical fitness (Jack LaLanne, who did all that fitness could do). He gives us a glimpse of elderly porn performers in Japan. He takes us to visit a 101-year-old man who smokes and drinks, then a 114-year-old woman who did not smoke or drink—on camera at least. We hear the venerable comedian Phyllis Diller, who talks about meeting a man so old that his blood type has been discontinued. There is much, much more.

Through it all we feel a slight bewilderment—that there are so many people who treat death as if it were a problem to be solved. None of the teachers or masters in the film promises immortality, but each of them is proposing—is selling-a means of treating inevitability as questionable. The only memorable comment comes, unsurprisingly, from Sherwin B. Nuland, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine who is also a notable author (and a contributor to these pages). He says he feels that his death is a debt to the past and to the future. We can take this to mean that the past gave him a place in a tremendous procession, that he had a chance to make a contribution, and that now he must make room for those to come. This seems a bit stoic, but it has a ring to it.


Speaking of death... the departure of Sidney Lumet on April 9 brought forth, gratifyingly, a flood of appreciative comment. But there were two points about him that, as far as I could see, were underemphasized.

First, many of the obituaries said that Lumet, throughout his career, was concerned with social causes. This is true, but so was Stanley Kramer. The key quality in his career was, social causes or not, his growth as an artist. True, along the way he accepted some screenplays that were clinkers. Still, compare his work in his earlier films—say, 12 Angry Men and Long Day’s Journey into Night—with The Verdict or (sheerly in directing terms) Guilty as Sin. The earlier ones are by a gifted young man who wants us to notice that he can think of clever things to do, whether or not they fit the moment. Then take a look at the scene in The Verdict in which James Mason as a villainously clever lawyer walks around a long sofa addressing an unseen listener and finally reaches the point where we see that the listener is Charlotte Rampling, a secret accomplice. The movement of Mason and the camera, leading the story through suspense to revelation, is pure Renoir.

Then there is Lumet’s book, Making Movies, published in 1996 (and reviewed here). I have just re-read it, and I certainly would group it with those masterly books on the subject by film-makers—notably Eisenstein and Pudovkin. This is not to class Lumet with giants, but it is to value the sense of participation with which he takes you through every step of preparing, making, and presenting a film. Some of the technical material is presumably dated by now, but the feeling that Lumet creates of the position of the director—the sense of responsibility, challenge, ultimate loneliness, and perverse joy in that loneliness—that, I would guess, will never be dated.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the June 9, 2011, issue of the magazine. 

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