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Interview with Benjamin Heisenberg

Benjamin Heisenberg, “The Robber” is based on a book by Martin Prinz, which in turn is a
literary reworking of an actual Austrian criminal case about the man known as “Pump-gun
Ronnie”. How did you come across this project?

At the beginning of 2006, producer Michael Kitzberger of Geyrhalter Filmproduktion called me
and asked whether I would be interested in a bank robber story which they had the rights for. At
the time I was living in Munich and read the book “The Robber” by Martin Prinz on the flight to
the Berlinale. I was immediately hooked. I met Michael in Berlin and, after some consideration,
made a firm commitment.

Did any images come to mind as you were reading the book?

The images were there straightaway. I had already been very fascinated by the bank robber
as a character. When I was quite young, I made a short film about a bank robber as he was
about to do a robbery. It dealt with a bank robber that did his robberies on a pushbike. At the
time there was already one aspect I particularly liked: bank robbery as a sporting challenge.
That took me away from the typical thriller, where there is usually a complicated plan for the
robbery which is made well in advance. The pathologies of the Rettenberger character said a
lot to me, too – I see him as a kind of natural phenomenon, driven by an inner energy which
drives him to take bank robbery and running to their extremes. On the other hand, he also had
a need for life, love, human contact and relationships. They contradict each other dramatically
with a tragic outcome.

How much did you fall back on the book by Martin Prinz, which in turn went back to the
original case of Johann Kastenberger, called Rettenberger in the film?

Martin wrote his book based on articles that appeared in the newspapers and developed a literary
narrative from it. He even knew Kastenberger from his running career and met him once
at a major event. In writing the screenplay, we familiarised ourselves with the existing sources
and at the same time even collected new information about the real person. So a character
emerged which I think says a lot about the real “Pump-gun Ronnie”.

Rettenberger is a man with little personality, so the character’s motives for a criticism of
society is not there, as he does not rob to get rich, or use his criminal activities to overcome
a disadvantage.

I believe it closely corresponds to the real character of Kastenberger, that the robber is a social
outcast. It is also assumed that he was well educated. It was his character which made him a
robber, not his background. We shot the film in the year when Vienna had the most bank robberies.
If my information is correct, by the summer there had been 78 bank robberies. The shortest lasted for only 19 seconds. Besides, the banks lost some credibility during the financial crisis, and so it follows
that the money is not really significant to the robber, it is just about “doing” as many banks as
possible. The man is a sportsman, so it is not about getting rich. He never uses the money; it
just sits in a plastic bag under his bed.

The character of Erika (Franziska Weiss) is also striking in this context. She lives in a tenement
flat in the film which she inherited from her family, but she seems to have no past.

Erika has, so to speak, been left behind. She is the last survivor of a family which was living
comfortably in Vienna. This family had slowly crumbled and died out unremarkably. That is why
Erika is now working at the job centre simply to earn money; she is no longer working in a job
that fits her “class” and education. In that respect, she is relatively undemanding, but she is
also completely self-determined and as a result, she is free to do exactly what she wants. At
this point, she is open to someone like Rettenberger who, with his strong energy, promises the
freedom she is looking for.

The keyword is energy, because of the main character; the film is almost constantly on the
move. What problems did that create?

The shoot was a real challenge for everyone involved, as so much movement and relatively
extreme situations had to be shown in the film. To be able to do that, for example, during the
first production period we had to be in 44 different locations in three weeks, based on that you
can work out how often we had to change locations every day. That was a real challenge for
all of us. On top of that, we sometimes shot complicated scenes in public places such as the
Vienna Marathon, on the motorway or in the Prater Park. That pushed the crew, the actors, the
production team and me to the limits of our abilities. On the other hand, this method suited a
film about a high performance sportsman and I think you get a sense of the spirit of the shoot
from watching the film.
What was interesting for me was the juxtaposition between the “action” themes. My ideal was
to create a form that was true to the story, so you can follow the characters easily but it is still
told dynamically and attractively. That explains why we often change the perspectives in the
film; however, the narrative generally remains with Rettenberger. This reinforces the fascination
which his running and his performance generally holds for the audience and you get a kind of
kick out of the movement.

The Robber is an unusual story. How did the producers approach it? Were they ready to take
all the risk from the very beginning?

The producers were very open-minded and contributed important elements to the film. . Geyrhalter
Film, which produced the majority of the film, specialises in documentaries and, as a
result, brought a very open, exciting approach to this narrative feature film. Peter Heilrath, on
the German side, had already co-produced “The Sleeper” and therefore we had a very close
working relationship.

In a key scene, Rettenberger runs in the Vienna Marathon – how was that actually shot?

Firstly, I think it’s an interesting aspect to the project that within this bank robber story we are
also giving a very accurate, depiction n of the ordinary training and competitions that a semiprofessional
marathon runner goes through every day. Even while I was writing I learnt a lot
about running and thought that it may be very exciting to those people watching the film who
are interested in running and marathon runners.
The Vienna Marathon was one of our most difficult shoots, because it was about showing a
runner who keeps out in front with the best sportsmen. That day, a total of over 20 camera
operators provided footage of the route for the film. On top of that, we spent weeks working
out a down-to-the-minute shooting schedule. We manoeuvred with a small convoy of cars and
two motorbikes with mobile cameras through the marathon and so we were able to repeatedly
use the same runners again and again. When we did this, naturally we always had to take care
to stay out of the way of the real marathon. The speed of the top group is faster than you can
imagine. The best athletes run a kilometer in three minutes or less, which means you have
to be highly trained to run along with them even for just one or two kilometres. As you can
imagine, on that day Andi Lust needed to deliver an excellent physical performance, something
which he had spent months training for.

How did Andreas Lust get this role?

I knew Andreas from his performance in “Revanche” by Götz Spielmann, in which he was very
good. That is why we invited him to the casting session. Generally, for principal roles I look at
quite a lot of people and do extended casting sessions with Markus Schleinzer, Martina Poel
and Carmen Lolei. Throughout this process, Andreas always remained one of our favourites. In
the end, we had three candidates. We worked very closely with these three on the acting and
did running tests with a professional trainer. In the end, Andreas understood the role so well,
interpreted it in such a compelling way and was also incredibly physically fit that the choice
was not a difficult one to make.

How were things with Franziska Weiss?

I knew Franziska from “Hotel” and “Dog Days” and we had also got to know one other in person.
Although I found her compelling from the start, we cast in the usual way, and she played Erika
in the casting session so well that I was already very enthusiastic. In a case like that, however,
I tend to gravitate towards one person for the entire process of the casting session to be sure
that I have not left out anything I want to be clear on. Working like this from the casting session
alone, we find out a lot about the character, and you can think of it as a worthwhile preliminary
pre-shoot process.

The cameraman, Reinhold Vorschneider, is often associated with the Berlin school, therefore
with quiet, meditative films and not with a thriller such as “The Robber”.

For Reinhold it was a challenge, as it was for me, to make a film which is so constantly on the
move. On the one hand, he was unable to shoot everything himself because we used several
cameras and often shot with steadycam. On the other hand, we had to accept taking chances
- much more than our first film together “The Sleeper” - which was dictated by the movement,
and particularly the fast working method. For our steadycam operator, Matthias Biber, it was
also often like being on a rough sea crossing, following this fast runner upstairs, downstairs,
through the narrowest passages, over meadows and through undergrowth.
Nevertheless, Reinhold’s clear vision and his incredible sensitivity for light and people within
space can quite clearly be seen in the film.

The soundtrack has two levels: a classic score and numerous numbers from the radio,
mostly only used briefly.

The radio was already there in the screenplay. I didn’t think Rettenberger was someone who
watched TV. In cars he stole, he just turned up the radio, and didn’t spend a lot of time looking
for a station, but just listened to what came on. Even when writing, I found juxtaposing this very
subversive character with the pop world very interesting. In the film, they are hits that you can
really belt out. This produces a lot of comedy and drives the story. If you are on the run after a
bank robbery and you hear “We don’t need Guitars” by the ‘Chicks on Speed’ at full pelt, then
that is just brilliant.

So the actual film score takes a bit of a back seat because of this?

I have been working with Lorenz Dangel for a while. He is a very old friend of mine and writes
amazing film music. I originally conceived a complete score for the film and Lorenz actually
wrote 200 minutes of very compelling music and recorded it with real instruments as a layout
track. Now only about ten minutes of score are in the film, not because something was wrong
with the music, but because in my opinion and that of my editor the film and the character
of Rettenberger, resisted music. It was as if this was jinxed and as a result was the reason for
many arguments in the cutting room between Lorenz and us. The current solution, which we
only found late in the day, suits all of us very well. Only at certain points, now, do you hear the
orchestra music that was written. Where it does emerge the score gives this really surprising
emphasis and forcefulness to the story. . In “The Sleeper” I had already used music so this
decision simply came from nowhere. These were moments where it was like an afterburner and
suddenly made the film a different kind of experience altogether.

How do you explain the ending, which is very different from a classic showdown?

The ending gradually emerged while I was writing. The real Kastenberger was finally pursued
on the motorway in the end. He drove through a road block, was shot once from behind and
shot himself before the police got to him. We thought about this ending for a while. Having the
character end his life with a suicide did not seem right to me. Martin Prinz had said from the
beginning: the book and also the film deal with arrival. This person who always had to be on the
move found peace in death. This is also a resolution and a kind of moment of happiness, sad as
it is. He finds a resolution that he could not find in love. And that is also how it was produced.
Rettenberger managed to hold off the police and ended up in the drizzle somewhere on the
motorway in Lower Austria. It was like taking a deep breath and then slowly releasing it.