Based on the real-life case of the Austrian serial bank robber who became known as ‘Pumpgun Ronnie’ in the late 1980s, Benjamin Heisenberg’s The Robber (Der Rä;uber) tells the story of Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust), a successful marathon runner and confirmed criminal, who is driven by a constant, uncontrollable need for speed and adrenalin rushes. Shortly after being yet again released from jail, Rettenberger inevitably falls back into his old habits, raiding and running, soberly measuring his heart rate after any physical strain. He even breaks records as an athlete at local competitions, but neither the sport nor the unconditional love he receives from his girlfriend Erika (Franziska Weisz) can bring his troubled mind to rest. Following a man permanently on the move, Heisenberg succeeds in capturing the inner turmoil of Rettenberger’s animal-like spirit with the same meticulous precision and steely determination that his character puts into his strict training scheme, which gives the film an unsettling intensity and unfaltering energy.
The Robber premiered at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival, where Pamela Jahn caught up with Benjamin Heisenberg and talked about the challenges of filming a character who is constantly running, communicating his self-destructive energy and approaching the story like a wildlife documentary.
Pamela Jahn: Do you run?
Benjamin Heisenberg: No, but I thought that I should maybe start now. I have tried jogging a couple of times but I didn’t last very long.
In The Robber you are reworking the criminal case of Pumpgun Ronnie, aka Johann Kastenberger. Your film is based on the actual events but the script is largely drawn from Martin Prinz’s source novel. How much of the film comes from your own and Martin Prinz’s imagination and how much from actual fact?
We started off with the book because Martin, who was also my co-author, wrote the novel but he let me go off with it and extract the action parts around which I wrote a treatment. And then, parallel to writing the first draft of the script, we started researching the real character in detail. We met up with people who knew Kastenberger as a runner and also with people who knew him as a criminal, and with family members. We collected all this material and weaved all these elements into the script. Most of it is close to the real story, although the real man was probably more psychopathic than our main character. But I have to admit that working on the script was pretty tough and we changed it twice, completely. We used to have a lot more back and side stories in the second version but, in the end, we decided to limit it and we came back to an earlier version, which you now see on screen.
How did people react when you tried to talk to them about the case?
There were people who didn’t want to talk to us because they had enough of it. In Austria in the 1980s it was a big thing, and quite a few people who were closely involved with the man were simply fed up with the press and people interrogating them, and asking them where the money went. And we respected that. By the end of the day, he was a character who was fairly easy to understand. That energy that was inside him, you get that immediately when people talk about him, and that’s what fascinated me most with the character and kept his story alive for us during the writing process.
His energy and inner determination are almost infectious.
I have to admit there was a point where I thought I couldn’t do it. It was 2007, so about a year after I had started working on the project, I had some sort of crisis. I was really in bad shape, because I realised that I couldn’t go on writing this character – he was getting too close. [SPOILER ALERT] I had the feeling that I had to write another ending because I couldn’t let him commit suicide, it had to be different, and I panicked. [END OF SPOILER] But then there are elements in his character that I could relate to from the very first moment and that I find incredibly intriguing, which are the strength he has inside him and that kind of animal-like instinct that drives him.
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Where does this drive come from?
He’s looking for situations that take him to his absolute limits, it’s an urge that burns inside him, that he can’t resist. At the same time, he radiates an remarkable ease and rigour when he is in these situations. It’s that combination that is so powerful and intriguing, but on the other hand it is extremely self-destructive.
Andreas Lust, in the lead role, captures Rettenberger’s troubled mind and nature quite effortlessly. How did you develop the character together?
Andreas is someone who has this same sort of energy inside him and he sometimes can be off-camera like the character he’s playing. And that’s why we cast him in the first place. The funny thing was that, in the beginning, he wanted me to give him more back story and psychological explanations and for some scenes we did that. But most of the time I tried to tell him that a huge part of this character is an animal, he is like a wolf. That’s why I planned to make parts of The Robber like a kind of wildlife documentary, even though it was staged and dramatised. I said to Andreas, if you are a wolf, you have to be that wolf, you can’t play it, you can’t fake it, because then it becomes implausible. And then Andreas really identified with the character and he dived into it. There was a moment when we were filming him running, and I said, ‘Could you run a bit slower?’ And he said, ‘No, why? This is how he does it, and I do it the same way’. And we had an argument about it. It was really tricky to find that balance. But for me, Andreas really combines those two sides of Rettenberger: he can be pretty determined but he also has a very fragile, vulnerable side.
I can imagine it being quite difficult to film someone who is constantly running, constantly on the move?
Yes, absolutely, because the camera can react to this in many ways: it can swivel, or stay static or move with him. So you have to decide what works best for the scene, so that you get a feeling for the movement, the speed, but also the space he is running in, his surroundings. And every time he runs, or is on the run, it’s a new challenge.
You mentioned Rettenberger’s vulnerability, and what really seems to make him human is the relationship he has with his girlfriend Erika.
I always thought of this whole story as a sort of Greek tragedy with a character who has a fate that is laid out for him. And the moving thing about their love is maybe that this woman, who is very independent and who knows what she wants in life in a very modest way, falls in love with him and deliberately allows it to happen. Erika knows how to deal with Rettenberger, who lives a very alienated life and doesn’t care about social niceties or anything. However, at the same time she has a kind of vulnerability, an inner secret and a pride that she protects. And that’s something that bonds the two individuals on many different levels. It’s interesting when, at one point, she says to him: ‘You have to make decisions, and if you don’t, it mean’s something.’ That describes her really well. And she decides to go for this guy who is very dangerous, but she also knows that she can’t hold him, that eventually he will run away – literally.
Interview by Pamela Jahn