With two excellent feature films, talented Austrian writer/director Götz Spielmann made the world sit up and take notice in the 2000's. He established himself as a filmmaker unafraid of life's downbeat rhythms and the power struggles unleashed by human sexual desire. Despite unconfirmed rumors of various projects in the works, Spielmann has not made a new film in four years. While we eagerly await a new production - with no indication of when that will be - it's clear it will be quite awhile before another Spielmann film makes it to North American audiences. Fortunately, his two previous successes are readily available on home video, and any fan of reality-driven dramas would do well to check them out.
In 2004's Antares, set during a cold, overcast weekend in Vienna, we peer through the drab concrete walls of a high rise apartment building and into the complicated lives its residents in three lightly interwoven tales of domestic strife. The first story concerns an attractive middle class couple (Petra Morze and Hary Prinz) whose opposing work schedules have caused their lives to become a grinding routine, and their marriage to slowly erode.
Next, we learn about a young grocery cashier (Suzanne Wuest) who is desperately trying to get pregnant for all the wrong reasons. Lastly, we meet a sociopathic realtor (well played by Alex Kiendl) whose emotions can range from smoothly charming to violently abusive in mere seconds, and we become involved in his pathetic attempts to reconcile with his estranged wife (Martina Zinner), who is trying to rebuild her life.
The first narrative is the strongest, featuring a compelling performance by Morze (who is sort of the Catherine Deneuve of Austria) as well as some surprisingly graphic sexuality. Viewers may even feel a bit of a let down when the second story commences, but stick with it, as the momentum is soon restored and we are treated to an ending that ties up all the loose threads in a believable and satisfying way.
Here the director is clearly influenced by the work of his fellow Austrian Michael Haneke, but Spielmann’s filmic stylings are more traditional, and, while there are moments here that will make you gasp, he wisely never delves full-out into Haneke’s brand of drastic, intentionally disturbing realism. Antares is reminiscent of an edition of well crafted short stories and if, for instance, John Cheever or Raymond Carver were from Eastern Europe, the results would look something like this.
2008's Revanche is an extraordinary film all about the symbiotic relationship between opposites and how they not only attract, but actually need each other to survive. Fittingly enough, the film feels at times like two completely different tales rolled into one. Yet this polarity is neither confusing nor intimidating, and in fact adds an enticing flavor to the narrative.
The first half of the film takes place in a Viennese sex club where a recent Ukrainian immigrant named Tamara (Irina Potapenko) uses her willowy allure to build a steady clientele of middle-class Austrian businessmen. She also maintains a romantic relationship with strong and silent Alex (Johannes Kirsh), the club’s bouncer and handyman, who dreams of settling down with Tamara for a better, and more conventional, future. As life at the club becomes more and more dangerous, Alex hatches a hastily conceived scheme to finance their escape, but a series of missteps, and just plain bad timing, reveal the fatal flaws in his plan.
The scene then shifts to a nearby rural community, where Alex reconnects with his elderly grandfather (Johannes Tannheiser, whose character takes stubbornness to amusing new levels) and generally keeps a low profile. But there are two other characters waiting to round out our scenario; a frustrated hausfrau named Susanne (Ursula Strauss) and her policeman husband Robert (Andreas Lust) who, each in their own way, either use Alex or are used by him to attain a deeply personal solace.
The film showcases Spielmann's marvelous gift for recreating the light, space and rhythms of reality. Within his airy dramatic pauses and leisurely vistas of rolling farmland, we are allowed the time to absorb and contemplate the deep-rooted fears and emotions that have driven all of these characters to the edge of a bleak desperation.
While Robert and Alex have clear cause to develop into mortal enemies, Spielmann craftily elects to show us that the men share a secret tragic history; a history that affects each of them in equal, but ironic, ways. For its type, Revanche is a nearly perfect film: full of earthy beauty, impeccable pacing, stark authenticity and masterful direction.