Benjamin Heisenberg is shooting THE ROBBER


Inspired by Martin Prinz’s Der Räuber, a novel about a bank robber who also runs, the man who went down in the history of crime in Austria as Pumpgun Ronnie, Benjamin Heisenberg is directing his second fiction film. An interview with the director.

Johannes Rettenberger went down in the history of crime in Austria as Pumpgun Ronnie. Martin Prinz made him the hero of a novel, and he is now the hero of your new fiction film. What makes this figure so fascinating?
Benjamin Heisenberg: Basically, I’ve always been fascinated in a way by bank robbers, and also by the Robin Hood effect that involves. My first short film was about a man who doesn’t know what to do with himself, who hangs around the kitchen, watches a porn film, then leaves the room and, when he closes the door, there’s a newspaper clipping with a picture of him. The caption says, “13 banks have been robbed, the police is searching for this man.” I actually saw this poster in Munich. This guy robbed a number of banks while riding a bicycle. He was arrested after about 18 of them. I thought the serial aspect was so interesting, and the speed and simplicity of the act itself: go in, rob the bank, and then take off on your bike. Then I read Martin Prinz’s novel and was fascinated by how this man was driven, who simultaneously put a lot into a sport and robbed banks with the same intensity, as if it were a kind of sport itself. Another thing that fascinated me was the tragedy of the long chase at the end of the story.

Did you first learn about Johann Kastenberger from the novel or do you remember him from the media reports?
Benjamin Heisenberg: The name Kastenberger didn’t mean anything to me before I read Martin Prinz’s novel. The story came to me after Nikolaus Geyrhalter Filmproduktion bought the option to the novel in 2005 and then looked for someone to make the film adaptation and write the screenplay. I was asked and read the novel all at once on a flight from Munich to Berlin, and then said yes right away. What I wanted to do was write the script together with Martin Prinz, the author of the novel, and fortunately the project interested him.

Is the rest of the story based on fact or was it fictionalized for the film narrative?
Benjamin Heisenberg: It’s a mixture. A lot of things in the film are based on fact. On the other hand, some things were fictionalized because many parts of the reality and the novelistic narrative style aren’t suitable for film. A more powerful story about the real Kastenberger would have required a much more pathological figure. I thought the love story, the athletic element and the robbery were so interesting as a challenge that it was in my opinion more important to sacrifice certain pathologies of the character in the interests of creating a more open vitality.
As the first step in writing the screenplay, we excerpted the story on the basis of the novel and attempted to work out a treatment from there. This led to the various versions of the screenplay. While writing we then took extensive detours to determine what the precise nature of the relationship should be between the novel, the actual story and the film. One of the changes that resulted involves the romance between the robber and his girlfriend Erika, who isn’t important in the novel, though she represents one of the core dramatic elements of the film.

The will to win, at both running and robbing banks, is an important theme for Rettenberger. On the one hand, he has this positive energy from sports, and on the other, he’s driven by a desire for self-destruction. He’s a contradictory and at the same time coherent personality.
Benjamin Heisenberg: Yeah, there’s a contradiction there, and there isn’t. Sports involve a certain amount of self-torture, and there are also elements of joy. Winning is very important, but I think that winning doesn’t represent the joy and the satisfaction for athletes. The important thing is the activity itself, and moving forward in the case of running marathons. Marathons are a way of covering a great distance under your own power. The regularity and pace of the stride and the natural movement are extremely fascinating. The robbery, on the other hand, is a form of breaking through society’s borders. Isolation, which is also an element of marathons, is completely different because, from one moment to the next, you drop out of society’s value structure. That entails both liberation and exile.

Is the mental power he developed by training for a marathon where the audacity of his actions comes from?
Benjamin Heisenberg: It’s a part of his character, seeking out situations that take him to his absolute limits. And he has a kind of Buddhist-like tranquility and meticulousness when he does this. The combination is positive and fascinating, but on the other hand totally self-destructive.
In this first phase of shooting we showed Rettenberger in such a way that the character’s energy can be sensed, as well as his fragility. He’ll make it obvious that inner tensions driving him are at work. This doesn’t involve merely trying something out. He’s suffering from something inside him, even when he senses the attraction of putting himself to such an extreme text, spreading terror and exercising power. That develops its own special kind of energy, and that’s what I’m looking forward to. Because of the love story that opposes the destructive energy, the end of this movement will be seen as a kind of redemption. The movement will on the one hand be portrayed as something positive, because Rettenberger never comes to a stop, but it will also be made clear that sooner or later there must be a resting point which is final for this individual.

How would you describe Rettenberger?
Benjamin Heisenberg: I see him as a natural phenomenon. I never examined him in psychological terms or as a conglomerate of personal characteristics, but more like an animal. That’s why I planned to make parts of The Robber like a kind of wildlife documentary, even though it was staged and dramatized. A certain animal that Rettenberger always made me think of is the wolf. I can watch wolves running around all day. They have such a fascinating way of moving and behaving in the wild, while hunting, and a grace that comes from restless toughness and coldness. I wanted the audience to be able to sense in the film how someone is imprisoned in his life, and although he knows it, he isn’t able to do anything about it. Then the human impulse of love gets in the way, which he suddenly becomes aware of, and this entails an almost unbearable amount of pain when he realizes that he isn’t human enough to act upon it.

Comparing Rettenberger and the main character of Sleeper, both of them are figures with an unfathomable secret and for whom there is no redemption in the end.
Benjamin Heisenberg: In the case of Sleeper I see a person whose principles and the moral framework they exist in get mixed up. His own insecurity, in love, in his self-image and in politics, is so unsettled that he’s basically helpless and alone in the end. The main character in The Robber is fundamentally different, because morals in that sense don’t play any kind of role. The main thing is not so much psychology as the way an individual deals with human society through this strange natural form: robber, runner, driven man, lover. Although this comes to a sad end for both protagonists, I think that the robber’s end isn’t as depressing as in Sleeper, where everything that he could have held onto has vanished. The Robber arrives at the end of his path. That has more to do with fate, is less human, and that could make it easier to handle, for me.

Pace and rhythm were important elements in the film adaptation when giving recklessness and suspense, speed and then deceleration space to develop.
Benjamin Heisenberg: In that regard, the film is completely different than Sleeper, in which there are a number of long continuous takes and a great deal is seen from a point of tranquil observation. In The Robber movement is the most powerful element. There are a large number of settings in this film because this man moves so quickly. Places that we spent weeks looking for disappear after ten seconds of shooting, because he just passes through. Since we wanted to explain the mechanics of his style of robbing banks in the film, some things have been resolved in a classic way, which, together with the large number of locations, resulted in a great deal of pressure during shooting. Editing will be much more important in the making of The Robber than was the case with Sleeper. The most important things will be identification, suspense and kinetics.

What made Andreas Lust ideal as the lead?
Benjamin Heisenberg: Andreas is an extremely concentrated actor with a great range who put a lot into this role. Furthermore, we realized that his entire disposition, his subtlety, intelligence and intensity would add a great deal to Rettenberger’s character. In terms of the athletic aspect, we performed extensive running tests and analyses when casting the main candidates. Andreas played a policeman who jogs in Götz Spielmann’s Revanche. That gave him a relatively good basis for his training. During the preparatory phase the task of getting Rettenberger into the right condition represented a big challenge, partly because we planned to shoot among the top-ranking runners at the Vienna Marathon. Andreas spent three months training for that with Martin Prinz, primarily because he wanted to practice a running style which is believable for a pro runner.

What role does Franziska Weisz play?
Benjamin Heisenberg: Franziska plays a woman living a relatively straight life. She works at the employment office, though she’s overqualified, as she has a university degree. But she took care of her mother and, during that period, developed a combination of distance from life and her own view of herself. She’s not the kind of person who maintains a number of façades. Because of the nuance, humor and vitality in Franziska’s performance, she’s a particularly good counterpart for Rettenberger, a person who has no patience for social politeness or the kind of friendliness that some people put on when dealing with others. Erika knows how to comment on personal matters in a straightforward way without insulting anyone. However, at the same time she has a kind of vulnerability, an inner secret and a pride that she protects. That’s another things that bonds the two individuals on many different levels.

How much of shooting is already finished?
Benjamin Heisenberg: What we have to condense or draw out will become obvious during editing, and that will help us plan a second round of shooting in the fall. I think we’re somewhere between halfway and two thirds finished right now.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
© 2008