The Robber is a German film made in 2010 and released here in the States in 2011. It’s the true story of Johann Rettenberger, a long-distance runner who also had quite the talent for single-handedly robbing banks. It’s a fascinating story, but unfortunately the story itself is far more compelling than the film.
The Robber picks up with Rettenberger about to be released from a stint in prison. He has a chance to go straight, and his parole officer is all over him trying to ensure that he does. Rettenberger has been keeping up his training in prison, and upon his release he’s primed to compete in the next big marathon, which he does. But despite his success running, and despite hooking back up with an old acquaintance Erika who quickly becomes his girlfriend, he can’t resist the urge to get back to his rubber mask, grey hoodie, and the adrenaline rush that comes from robbing banks.
The Robber isn’t a bad film, but it’s such a minimalist effort that we’re never made to care about any of the proceedings, and so it never even really hits the level of being good. It’s just simply there. Andreas Lust as Rettenberger is so understated that we barely develop any empathy for him. Franziska Weisz as Erika fares slightly better simply because of the nature of her role; she’s in love with Rettenberger and as she discovers his flaws, and even his criminal activities, she sticks by him and attempts to make a bid for his love.
There’s a lot of dramatic potential in this story. There’s certainly a parallel between a runner’s high and the adrenaline rush of a criminal activity, and that’s something that begs exploration. But director Benjamin Heisenberg is more interested in keeping an existential distance from his protagonist. He crafts a nicely supportive naturalism, but considering how internal the film is, and yet how little we get into into Rettenberger’s head, there’s no quarter given for this to develop into something compelling. Even as the film approaches its inevitable tragic climax, the disconnected feelings of loss it elicits are as much borne out of the missed opportunities of the film as they are for its protagonist.
Rettenberger never displays much vulnerability, much emotion, or seemingly any passion for anything. Perhaps that’s part of the point of the film; perhaps the real Rettenberger chose the life he did out of apathy and malaise. But considering how minimalist, naturalist, and understated the film is in every aspect, this hardly seems like a choice as much as a total aesthetic. And if a film solely focusing on one man’s struggle in such an internal way can’t generate an emotional connection with its audience, then what’s the point?