Thomas Arslan's 'In the Shadows' steps into the light at Berlin & Beyond.

Berlin & Beyond Provides Genius Genre Treatments

Max Goldberg October 22, 2010

It goes without saying that any lover of the visual grammar of narrative cinema has a soft spot for the heist film. In plots obsessed with clockwork and space, we find an analogue for the construction of a film sequence. This year’s Berlin & Beyond Film Festival features two of the best heist films in recent memory: In the Shadows and The Robber. They’ve already been paired by several writers and programmers for obvious reasons. Both are decentered holdup movies following lone wolf operators recently sprung from prison and back to work. Both take the desiccated approach to character and motive we associate with the chilliest genre stylists of 1970s American cinema. (In the Shadows is by veteran German director Thomas Arslan; The Robber was shot in Vienna by Benjamin Heisenberg.) Both are films of minimalist surfaces and exquisite rhythmic attenuation, with more stillness than we expect from American genre films today—existential, but tense all the same.

The Robber, based on Martin Prinz’s from-the-headlines novel about the Austrian marathoner and stickup man Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust), adapts art film conventions for a sleek, visually exciting narration. The film opens with Johann running laps in a prison yard, focusing his existence upon a monastic training ritual. After being released, he strides to the front of the Vienna Marathon and never lets up. He’s a name runner now, but still robbing banks. And yet the “but” in that description is misleading. One of the most interesting things about Heisenberg ‘s film is that it never mines the expected “character in conflict” tropes they teach in screenwriting classes. Johann robs and runs the same way: alone. 

The question of whether The Robber is more a sports movie or a heist film is an open one because Heisenberg’s elliptical editing breaks down the distinction between the two. In one shot, we see Johann running the trails in his marathon gear. In the next, we see him run onto a road from a distance. We assume continuity from the last shot, incorrectly. As the camera (in a car) approaches him, we realize he’s in his caper outfit (the Ronald Reagan mask, grey sweatshirt and shotgun that caused Rettenberger to be dubbed “Pump Gun Ronnie”). He waves his gun at the driver and climbs in for the getaway; he tells her to turn on the radio for a report on his latest heist.

Whether the spikes in Johann’s heart-rate graph correspond with a hill workout or a bank job, Heisenberg’s film operates according to a similarly jagged logic, alternating between muted dialogues and hyperkinetic runs. There is no “last big score” dramatizing the film’s plotting. We don’t know why Johann robs banks or runs marathons, though we suspect it has something to do with pride. In any case, a closely pursuant camera during two extended escape sequences makes for bravura cinema. The first of these is wonderfully reckless. Johann hops out of a van in broad daylight and cuts an even, silent line across a bank before tossing his duffel bag to the teller and announcing the holdup. The elderly cashier begins to wobble, and Johann pushes another employee into the cashier booth. She botches the job, letting the money fall out of the bag.

By the time Johann is out, we’re already hearing sirens—but instead of cutting his losses, “Ronnie” sprints a city block towards another bank (we see this is a high-angle shot reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s M). This time, we wait outside the bank while he collects. When he hits the pavement for his getaway, the cops are on him. The robber speeds through a parking lot and blurred network of corridors, his body now the weapon. Freeze the film at any point in this sequence, and you will see an image of Lust hurtling through space, the close shadowing camera emphasizing the frenzied rush of speed. After hopping a fence to clear immediate danger, Heisenberg cuts to a more distanced profile shot tracking Johann cruise across a park into the woods. Thumping toms rise on the soundtrack as he reaches his escape velocity—this plateau is as close an approximation of the narrow exhilaration of “runner’s high” as I’ve seen in movies.

If Johann’s irrational persistence in running and robbing makes him some kind of artist, his second escape from police custody is his masterpiece. The multiple stages and eventual winnowing of this sequence have the trajectory of an orchestral movement, one which begins with a brilliant crash of the symbols as Johann makes the mental calculations of his escape and then explodes the calm of the police station (a slight breeze ruffles some papers right before he makes his move, a nice touch). We do not feel anything like sympathy for Johann—a violent shock confirms our suspicion that he’s a sociopath—but pulse for pulse, Heisenberg keeps astride the man on the run.

The Robber draws considerable stylistic wattage from its narrative premise, but In the Shadows is a much rarer creature: a film narrative realized almost entirely through formal means. Consider the way Thomas Arslan draws a connection between Trojan (Mišel Maticevic), our professional stickup man fresh out of prison, and Meyer (Uwe Bohm), a rogue cop trying to edge in on everyone’s score. The mirroring of cop and robber is utterly conventional, of course, but instead of drawing it out in extended dialogue sequences that give actors the chance to showboat (think Heat), Arslan shifts our perspective without warning.

We follow Trojan for most of the first part of the film: he collects an overdue payment from a gangster (Arslan skates by exposition) and then casts out for new heist jobs. The second proposition sticks. Trojan meets his connection, a woman lawyer, at a cafeteria where they settle on the details of an armored car robbery. Here Arslan cuts to a car outside, where Meyer (who has already been efficiently developed as a parasite—he literally picks food off Trojan’s plate) observes the meeting. He follows the lawyer to the armored car driver and then continues following this lug until he’s wise. A terse sequence mostly comprised of inaudible conversations (shades of Coppola’s great film The Conversation), it’s a cunning bait-and-switch as Otto Preminger might have designed it. Though we don’t receive any new narrative information other than Meyer’s dangerous knowledge, Arslan effective draws out the cat-and-mouse game without having the characters say a word.

We are never made to identify with Trojan, but our alignment with him is something magnetic. Like him, the camera doesn’t make false moves, does not waste time, is always where it needs to be. The narrative is constructed to mirror Trojan’s professional habit of looking over his shoulder—almost every action or meeting in the film is repeated. This formal mimicry of double and triple-checking does not distract from the plot’s forward motion, but on the second viewing you realize that the film is constructed with more care than the heist (the robbery itself is carried off in a few brief moments, though Trojan and his partner’s Nico’s positions in an IKEA parking lot are established through some ingenious formal prep work).

Another reason for the strength of our alignment to Trojan is Maticevic’s commanding physical presence. It only takes seeing a transitional scene in which he enters a new hotel room, shucks a cigarette out from the pack, lights it, tosses the pack and lighter onto a chair and turns his back to the camera, facing a window. Arslan lingers over this image for a few extra beats, clearly relishing Maticevic’s solid stance. Although Trojan only makes a few sudden movements in the film, we never doubt that he is prepared to strike. Maticevic implies aggression with every brusque step—one could write a little essay just about the way he stuffs his hands into his jacket pockets or swallows a sandwich.

As the heist unravels, as it must, the film and Trojan keep their composure. He makes his planned escape to a country cabin in an eerily beautiful series of shots, but the morning is not restful. In the Shadows’ conclusion is oddly similar to The Robber’s: both men steal cars and head across an anonymous stretch of German-Austrian autobahn. But while The Robber’s finale is a dramatic peak, In the Shadows ends in suspension. Different gradations of light rush across Trojan’s heavy brow; a lurking synthesizer creeps over the soundtrack as the image slowly darkens, eventually only leaving the whites of Maticevic’s eyes. He looks like an animal. This is one of three calibrated stylistic flourishes in Arslan’s film, after an opening abstraction of a rain-streaked street and a stunning cash-drop in a carwash. The excesses of Enter the Void or even the Bourne movies pale next to Arslan’s extraction of effects. It’s disappointing to see a contemporary genre masterwork assigned a Monday afternoon screening for Berlin & Beyond, but by all means play hooky for In the Shadows.