Austria is presently the defending champion of the Best Foreign film Oscar following its dream run last year with The Counterfeiters. However, the inclusion of its contender this year, Götz Spielmann’s Revanche, has come as quite a big surprise. With the film pipping heavy-weight contenders like Italy’s Gomorra (2008) and Romania’s Rest is Silence (2008) , it does make me inquisitive as to why the Academy preferred this one. Now that I’ve seen the film, the curiosity still persists. This is a film that doesn’t have spoilers.
Austria is presently the defending champion of the Best Foreign film Oscar following its dream run last year with The Counterfeiters. However, the inclusion of its contender this year, Götz Spielmann’s Revanche, has come as quite a big surprise. With the film pipping heavy-weight contenders like Italy’s (2008) and Romania’s Gomorra Rest is Silence (2008) , it does make me inquisitive as to why the Academy preferred this one. Now that I’ve seen the film, the curiosity still persists.
I’m not going to give away the plot here although I’m going to mention some interesting points in the film. But don’t worry. This is a film that doesn’t have spoilers, for it derives its glory, ironically, not from concealment of plot points. Revanche kicks off with an array of seemingly disparate sequences involving more than half a dozen individuals. We are forced to think that this is going to be one of those hyperlink films that deal with interconnected lives. But in a Hitchcockian twist to the story Spielmann kills off the central plot and steers the film, literally, into a completely new environment. He shifts a seemingly event-driven film into one that balances character and their actions very delicately.
Spielmann’s camera is reminiscent of the damn good contemporary films from countries like Germany and Romania. It takes up the position of a non-human character in each scene and captures the mise-en-scene with great detail. In most of the scenes, it is situated at a shady corner of a room, the end of a corridor or among the trees of a park. There are no unnecessary pans, hand held sequences or even drastic zooms. To use a cliché, it merely observes. A sizeable distance is maintained while documenting the characters and their actions. But what effect does all this produce? One could say that it provides us drama in its purest form.
Clearly, there is considerable drama in the character’s own lives. The ever-baffling twists of fate, luck and destiny by themselves provide enough fodder to keep one astonished. Spielmann cleverly retains it and never tries to externally dramatize it by employing soundtrack (there isn’t one at all in the film), spectacular camera movements or even by extremities of the character’s actions (although the parallel editing in the first half hour does impose itself on us). The bank robbery, that could easily have been made the central piece, lasts less a minute! Also, Spielmann never delves into the characters psychology for even a moment. He never claims to explore their motivations and intentions. Why does Alex work at the farm at all? Why does Susanne visit the old man? Why does Alex throw away the gun? Spielmann never intends to answer these questions though me makes all of it completely workable. Each of the characters here could be made into a complete melodramatic film. The old man, Alex, Tamara, Susanne and Robert are easy candidates for in-depth psychoanalysis. But Spielmann eschews from making even one.
Furthermore, Spielmann doesn’t even rely on the twists in the plot for attention. The audience can easily guess out what an action is going to result in much before it is revealed. When Alex pins the picture on the wall of his room, we know immediately that it is going to give him away. Spielmann deliberately does that. Consider the moment Alex comes to know that Susanne has found out his secret. There are no wide eyes or Vertigo shots over here! There is a long pause where Spielmann focuses on Alex’s face. That is all. Alex has assimilated what this means and what its consequences are going to be. That is the stuff Revanche is made of. The twists aren’t as important as the actions that they result in or those that precede them. And it is indeed these “actions” alone that help us piece together the characters’ motivations.
Interestingly, there are extended shots of Alex chopping the wood and his grandfather playing the accordion. What begins like an establishing technique goes on to become something more vital. The wood chopping becomes more than Alex’s work. It becomes a gesture by itself. It seems as if it is his interaction with the hermetic world. And same is the case with his grandfather. Both these characters are in complete loneliness even though they live together. They seldom talk and carry on with their “gestures” even if there is no one to receive them. There is something elusive in the presence of these actions. At times the wood-cutting seems like a token of atonement and at others, it seems like a representation of building resentment. In an case, it falls in resonance with the execution of the whole movie - Actions taking the place of words, gestures taking the place of dramatic cues.
Daldry’s Oscar contender The Reader (2008) mentions how European literature thrives on secrets to drive its characters’ lives. That how persons in power are the ones in possession of great secrets. Many a time, concealment of truth is the prime way to domination. Revanche is exactly that. Alex is pretty helpless and possibly a pawn of fate till the second half of the film. Once he knows that he is in possession of an exclusive piece of information, he is able to control his fate and of others. Susanne is very much an instrument controlled by Alex. And so is Robert. Note how the single secret can create or destroy vantage points. Objectively speaking, Alex is the one guilty of a crime. But the concealment of truth makes it look like Robert is the one. Alex is the one who is vulnerable to law. But because he has used his knowledge to suit his plan, it seems as if Susanne is going to be the victim if everything comes to light. And this is the “Revenge” of the title – revenge without a single (well, one!) bullet fired.
Revanche opens with a shot of a placid lake followed by a startling fall of an object into it. There are ripples and then back to an unperturbed state. But what is buried into it now will be an object of tension for ever. This sequence is what Revanche mirrors in the rest of the film. What the intrusion of the third person Alex into the peaceful life of a countryside couple has resulted in. The issues may be buried and done with amicably. But its consequences, the tension that Susanne is thrown into and the fear that Robert is nudged into will echo for eternity.
I’m not sure if the Academy really considered Revanche as a contender or did they just use it as filler. It neither has the political grounding or the moral righteousness or even the emphatic statements that it looks for. Perhaps Waltz with Bashir already has the Oscar it in its kitty.