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SAN SEBASTIÁN 2018 New Directors

Hannes Baumgartner • Director

"We were focused on how to understand the development of Jonas’s spiral of violence"

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- SAN SEBASTIÁN 2018: We spoke to Swiss director Hannes Baumgartner, who explained to us how he built the intriguing main character in his first feature, Midnight Runner

Hannes Baumgartner  • Director

Premiered at the same time in Spain (in the New Directors section of the San Sebastián Film Festival), Greece (Athens International Film Festival) and Switzerland (Zurich Film Festival), Swiss director Hannes Baumgartner’s Midnight Runner [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Hannes Baumgartner
film profile
]
is an aesthetically powerful first feature that beckons us into the mind of an apparently perfect man who becomes a “monster”.

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Cineuropa: Where did the idea for the movie come from?
Hannes Baumgartner: It was my producer, Stefan Eichenberger, who was a professional runner at the time the events happened in Bern, who came up with the idea. He lived nearby and found himself on the same startlist as Mischa Ebner. Ten years later, the feelings he had when he approached him were still very vivid in his mind. The story really grabbed me some weeks later, when we started the research process. At that moment, I realised what Mischa Ebner represented, the enormous rage he extracted from himself. He was an upstanding example: he was socially integrated, he had a girlfriend, a stable relationship, he was a trained cook and a successful athlete – but on the inside, he was completely disconnected from his outside life. I think he became a runner, a top athlete, not because he was very skilled or for fame, but because he saw his own misery and he needed to take action to save himself from his inner emptiness. This reflection was a key moment that made me decide to dig deeper into the story.

How did you transform the true story into a movie? How much freedom did you allow yourself with respect to the real-life facts and characters?
It was important for us to preserve the real facts, but of course, it was necessary to compress the story. That said, the real focus of the movie was on the emotional development of the main character. For me, it was a search for answers and for the causes of his violence. The narrative stretched out to one year because it’s the year of Jonas’s sporting successes, but it’s also the year when his crimes started. For my screenwriter, Stefan Staub, and me, it was important not only to retell the facts, but also to dig into Jonas’s emotional development. We realised that irrational acts are also part of his personality. All of his acts and behaviour are not just the result of a cause-and-effect dynamic.

The most important contact we had when exploring Jonas’s personality was the psychologist who evaluated him. He did some amazing and fairly obsessive work to understand his personality. His help was really important for us.

How did you build your own Mischa/Jonas?
The research process to get to know the real character and to understand what happened was really important, but at a certain point in the process, you go beyond speculation. To really look into the main character’s inner life, you have to free yourself, to get the feeling of what happened. Mischa came out of a long process. While writing, we were really focused on understanding what we wanted to take away from the research we did, and what direction we wanted to go in. We were focused on Jonas’s inner conflicts and how to understand the development of his spiral of violence.

The portrayal of his sports career was also really important. We tried to get a sense of what it is like to be a top athlete and what it means to be so well organised that you reach the top. Max Hubacher, the lead actor, started his training two years before we started shooting. He had a personal trainer to help him develop his running style. It was crucial that he adopted a running style and learned how to avoid expending all of his energy by running. It was also very interesting for me to know the environment that professional runners find themselves in.

The movie doesn’t have a traditional film score; on the contrary, the sounds are very intense and meaningful. Why did you decide not to work with a traditional score?
It was clear from the beginning that I didn’t want to force emotions with a classical score. The topic of the movie was too delicate. The sound shouldn’t tell the audience how to feel about the character; they have to form their own opinion. Mostly, the movie takes the position of an observer, and we tried to work with environmental sound to reflect the realistic layers of the film. Only when the inner behaviour of Jonas comes to the surface, mostly when his brother appears, does the sound shift away from the realistic setting. That’s because we tried to show Jonas’s feelings, and how his inner strength, his inner despair, arose from his daily routine.

Your previous short films have already examined the reality of “normal” men destroying their comfortable lives in order to give in to the dark side of their personalities. Why does this topic intrigue you?
It’s got a lot to do with the contrast between the actions of my characters and the relatively well-protected environment they live in. Their actions just don’t seem to fit in. It’s interesting because while making my short films, I didn’t think about these topics; I just made them. Now, in hindsight, I can see more overlaps, especially in the characters themselves. They are not in touch with their feelings, and they don’t connect with their social identity, and that really empowers their dark sides. They are completely disconnected from their feelings.

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