Tag Archives: austrian cinema

The Robber: Interview with Benjamin Heisenberg

The Robber
The Robber

Format: Cinema

Release date: 21 March 2014

Distributor: Filmhouse

Director: Benjamin Heisenberg

Writer: Benjamin Heisenberg, Martin Prinz

Cast: Andreas Lust, Franziska Weisz, Florian Wotruba

Germany, Austria 2010

101 mins

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.

Watch the trailer:

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

The Paradise Trilogy: Interview with Ulrich Seidl

Paradise Love
Paradise: Love

Format: Cinema

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Ulrich Seidl

Writers: Ulrich Seidl, Veronika Franz

Cast (Love): Margarethe Tiesel, Peter Kazungo

Cast (Faith): Maria Hofstä;tter, Nabil Saleh, Natalya Baranova, Rene Rupni

Cast (Hope): Melanie Lenz, Verena Lehbauer, Joseph Lorenz, Michael Thomas

Austria, Germany France


He is not bothered by the fact that people call his films ‘shocking’ and ‘extreme’, says Ulrich Seidl: ‘I am just trying to offer a realistic view of the world we live in.’ More importantly though, the Austrian director, who would have become a priest if his family had their way, prefers to think of love as one of the central motives in his body of work, which mainly comprises poignant and fiercely honest explorations of the incorrigibly odd side of society. Known for playing with narrative form by blending documentary style and drama in telling stories that oscillate between moments of raw (and frequently debauched) human behaviour and a dark, brutish sense of humour, it wasn’t until his 2001 film Dog Days (Hundstage) that Seidl found international acclaim, followed by his first appearance in competition at Cannes with Import Export in 2007. His latest project, which started off as an anthology film but ultimately turned into a trilogy called Paradise, revolves around three woman from the same family but with different quests and desires, namely sex, religion and true love.

Paradise: Love is released in the UK on 14 June 2013.

In Love, which marks the first instalment of the triptych, Margarethe Tiesel stars as Teresa, a chubby single mother in her fifties, whose desperate search for love and affection turns increasingly wolfish when she steps out of her hotel room at a holiday resort in Kenya, where her friend has assured her that sex is plentiful. At first reluctant to go for one of the many underage beach boys on offer, she soon can’t help but give in to temptation. However, Seidl here slightly tones down the brutal rigidity of his earlier work as he moves into warmer territory, both climatically and emotionally.

Paradise: Faith is released in the UK on 5 July 2013.

The centrepiece, Faith, concerns Teresa’s sister Anna Maria (Maria Hofstä;tter), a fanatically devout Catholic, whose paradise lies with Jesus. She spends her vacation doing missionary work, taking a statue of the Virgin Mary from door to door around the countryside, in the hope of leading Austria back to the path of virtue. The tone is that of an uncompromising and mordant black comedy, which plunges into even darker tones from the moment Anna Maria is reunited with her Muslim husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh), an Egyptian confined to a wheelchair, who comes home after years away to demand his rights.

Paradise: Hope is released in the UK on 2 August 2013.

The final act, Hope, revolves around Meli (Melanie Lenz), Teresa’s 13-year-old daughter, who she drops of at a diet camp before heading to Kenya. But instead of trimming and toning, Meli can’t help but fall in love with her handsome doctor (Joseph Lorenz), who seems strangely attracted by the girl but, aware of the consequences, tries to keep his hands off. Meli, for her part, with her mother away buying love for money and her aunt busy praying, relies solely on her ebullient roommates to read the signs and follow her heart.

Pamela Jahn talked to Ulrich Seidl at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2013, where Paradise: Hope premiered in competition.

Pamela Jahn: What was the driving force in your venture to make three films relating to ‘paradise’?

Ulrich Seidl: We have a notion of paradise as the place of desire per se, and my intention was to make a film about three women and their particular longing, but ultimately with the aim of reaching paradise, in other words: reach love, affection, sexuality, attention, comfort. Very roughly speaking, that’s what the films are about.

How much irony is there?

None. It’s meant very seriously. But added to this is the fact that ‘paradise’ is a term that is used very often in the tourist industry, which is why it was so suitable for the first part of the trilogy. In travel magazines, every place is called paradise, and in every holiday resort there is a bar on the beach called Paradise too. But then, in the second film, paradise is meant in a religious way, while in the third part it becomes a place of desire again.

Paradise Hope2
Paradise: Hope

How did you choose the running order of the films?

We decided the running order after a very long process and time spent at the cutting table. I’ve been working on the films for about two years. First, it was meant to be just one film that would link the three different stories together, but once we started shooting, it became clear that it would be too complex to do that in terms of the emotionality of watching and following the three different stories at once. Then I started thinking about splitting them, first into two films, then three films, and once we had decided that it would be a trilogy, we had to determine the running order. For a long time, I thought I would start with the story about the mother, but followed by the story of the daughter. In the end, I changed my mind and put that last.

As in saying, ‘hope dies last’?

Not really. It hasn’t got anything to do with the title, it was mainly because there was a dramaturgic element to it. All three women are somewhat caught in a prison: a hotel resort for the mother, a house in Lower Austria for the sister, or a diet camp for the daughter in the final act. Each place has its own universe surrounding it, with its own images and its own style, but putting the story of the mother at the beginning and that of the daughter at the end provided a sort of framework for it.

What exactly does ‘paradise’ mean for Teresa in the first film?

She is woman who has been disappointed by men in the past. She’s a single mother at an age when she can’t easily find the man of her dreams, because she feels like she is no longer as attractive as she used to be. So she is looking to satisfy her desires, she is looking for the promises that the word ‘paradise’ contains. She is going to Africa to find her luck, to find happiness, which is a total paradox given the highly charged social, cultural and political environment there.

In a way she knows that she is looking in the wrong place from the start.

Maybe, but she can’t help it. It may sound trite, but all my films are somewhat mirrors of our society. As a filmmaker, I am always interested in outsiders, misfits, because my whole youth was pretty much contingent on that. Therefore my films are concerned with what people call the essential things in life: love, sexuality, beauty, loneliness, mortality, death, power relations. And of course the fact that Teresa is suffering because she doesn’t match today’s thin-ideal standard of beauty is part of this. In Africa she feels accepted, because women of her stature are seen as beautiful, regardless of their age. And the question is, why? And in a way this also shines light on our society and the way we look at things. In the second film, there is a similar thread in terms of the conflict between Muslim and Christian worldviews. So, there are always different layers to each of the three films.

Paradise Faith
Paradise: Faith

Men usually are given a hard time in your films. What is it that interests you so much in the female perspective?

I wouldn‘t necessarily say that about the men in my films, but it’s true that I find women more interesting than men. Why? I don’t know, but in general I think I have more sympathy for women when it comes to all those gender conflicts that my films are concerned with. And in this case it was a conscious decision I made to tell three stories about three different women, but I have also just finished a play which had only men in the cast, so it really depends on the project I am working on. Regarding the men in the trilogy, I have to say that male audiences don’t really like the films, maybe because they feel offended, because they have to ask themselves: Why do these women have to sleep with beach boys? Or, if you look at the third episode, it’s essentially a Lolita story, told from the perspective of the girl. But in the end, the man is stuck in a dilemma about whether or not he should give in to his feelings for Meli. And in the second part, the Muslim man feels ambivalent and somewhat trapped, because in the Western world he can have every woman he wants, which is different to where he comes from. But at the same time, he’s disgusted about it and thinks all these women are whores. This kind of inner conflict in Muslim men is something I have come across very often and which I find very interesting.

Is it the breaking of taboos that fascinates you in a way?

No, at least that’s not my aim. I am not making films to simply provoke people or anything, but sometimes the truth, reality as such, provokes a scandal, which is good. In my films, I only try to guide people to look at things that are ‘normal’, things that people sometimes don’t dare to look at, although, or because, they are presumably ‘normal’. To me, art means pointing people and audiences to something that helps them think about themselves or the world we live in. And every single one of us has a handicap, nobody is perfect! Every person has a deficiency in one way or another. So in a way, this is about all of us.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Viennale 2012

Electrick Children

Vienna International Film Festival

25 October – 7 November 2012, Vienna, Austria

Viennale website

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival, which ran from 25 October to 7 November. Under the direction of Hans Hurch, it was a terrifically eclectic festival, very much aimed at audiences rather than the film industry. And as a city, Vienna is hard to beat for film, with a surprising number of excellent independent cinemas.

To commemorate the anniversary, this year’s retrospective was dedicated to the Vienna-born director Fritz Lang, offering an opportunity to watch both the highs (1955’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt) and lows (1942’s Hangmen Always Die! ) of his staggering career. There was also a tribute to Michael Caine, and a very special evening with the experimental director Peter Kubelka, who presented his new work, Monumenta, in front of a home audience.

Five female filmmakers were also honoured with a programme devoted to their films, which included the debut from actress Amy Seimetz, Sun Don’t Shine (2012), as well as rare films by the experimental filmmakers Colleen Fitzgibbon and Narcisca Hirsh, Mati Diop and shorts by Kurdwin Ayub. There was also a special focus on horror, ‘They Wanted to See Something Different’ (a line taken from The Hills Have Eyes, 2006), which saw double bills of The Thing (1982) and The Thing from Another World (1951), plus a host of midnight screenings, including Alien (1979) and Deliverance (1972).

Although it was impossible to see even a fraction of the movies screening at the festival, three new features stood out, based in large part on some excellent performances.

Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s The Shine of Day (Der Glanz des Tages), which won the prize for best Austrian film, blurs the line between documentary and fiction to cast a light on an intimately revealing encounter between two very different men. Philipp Hochmair (both performers essentially play themselves) is a well-known theatre actor, his life consumed by the demanding roles that he adopts on stages in Hamburg and Vienna; the audience is given a glimpse of a life spent learning lines, rehearsing, performing. For Philipp, acting is a compulsion that overshadows the realities of everyday life. But the arrival of his estranged uncle, played by Walter Saabel – circus performer, knife thrower and bear wrestler – who is trying to reconnect with his family and his own difficult past, and his sudden involvement with a desperate neighbour force Philipp to engage with the real world. There’s a terrific chemistry between the two very charismatic actors, and with much of the dialogue improvised, the film feels like a rare, touchingly honest human drama.

Elie Wajeman’s impressive debut, Alyah, stars Pio Marmaï as Alex, who sells drugs in the Parisian suburbs to make money, mostly used to pay off his brother’s debts. Isaac, fucked up but still charming (perfectly played by the writer/director Cédric Kahn) is a burden, and Alex discovers an opportunity to escape when he hears about a cousin who’s opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv. But first, he has to confront painful family ties and rediscover his neglected heritage in order to pass the ‘alyah’ and move to Israel. It’s a brooding, compelling film that charts its own path between the two poles of French cinema – the gritty, banlieue-set realism and the fairy-tale world of the Parisian elite – to conjure up something surprisingly original.

Rebecca Thomas’s Electrick Children stars Julia Garner as a 15-year-old who has spent her life living in a fundamental religious community in Utah. Her world is turned upside down when she finds a hidden music cassette, with only one song – a cover of ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ – shortly before she discovers that she’s pregnant. Either too traumatised or too naive to acknowledge who abused her, she convinces herself that the singer on the tape must be the father of her child, and runs away to Las Vegas to find him. It’s a compelling film that perfectly captures that moment in your adolescence when you heard that song, or saw that film, that suddenly seemed to change everything. And while the plot might seem a little absurd, Thomas does a brilliant job mixing humour with something much deeper, while Garner beautifully portrays Rachel’s wide-eyed innocence, and growing self-awareness.

Sarah Cronin