There are many ways to train for the New York Marathon. My own method involved running three days a week and watching as many running movies as possible—and not just films about famous runners or historic races. (By far the best known of these, Chariots of Fire (1981), about the British heroes of the 1924 Olympics, is hard to watch: the races are shown in absurdly overdramatized slow motion, making one want to fast-forward through the entire thing.) Much more interesting are movies that in some way explore the psychology of running, even if they are mostly about other matters. In this vein, Benjamin Heisenberg’s remarkable new film Der Räuber (The Robber, 2010), about a serial bank robber, may be the most eloquent—and disturbing—portrait of the running mind ever made.
To understand the importance of Heisenberg’s film, it is worth first considering the surprisingly rich history of films that deal tangentially with running. At a time when marathoning was still largely the province of elite professionals and amateur obsessives, John Schlesinger’s paranoid thriller Marathon Man (1976) was prescient in suggesting that the sport might have broader relevance for coping with the multifarious challenges of the late-twentieth-century world. The plot is suitably over-the-top: the protagonist, played by Dustin Hoffman, is a driven Columbia graduate student who is writing a dissertation about the McCarthy witch hunts and training for his first marathon; he becomes enmeshed in a CIA plot involving an ex-Nazi doctor who wants him dead.
But the larger theme here seems to be escape, or just survival, and the most persuasive parts of the film show Hoffman’s character contending with the mean streets of New York. In a climactic scene, he is sprinting barefoot toward the entrance ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge, pursued by armed men. He is able to elude them by replaying in his head the Olympic triumphs of Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian legend who won the 1960 marathon running shoeless through the streets of Rome. Marathon Man evokes Bikila’s poise through footage from Tokyo Olympiad (1965), in which the impossibly placid Ethiopian, this time wearing shoes, repeats his Olympic victory in Tokyo.
Although there is much talk now of Kenyan runners dominating the sport, the current marathon world record is once again held by an Ethiopian, Haile Gebrselassie, who also was a favorite in this year’s New York Marathon. (He set his record of two hours, three minutes, and fifty-nine seconds in Berlin in 2008, when he was thirty-five years old.) Like Bikila a half-century ago, Gebrselassie has an entrancing way of making the outer edge of human physical potential look rather effortless. Take the opening minutes of Endurance (1999), a film about Gebrselassie’s rise from poor Ethiopian farmer’s boy to Olympic gold medalist, in which he bounds across the rough rural highland where he grew up, mile after mile …