SAN SEBASTIAN — Swiss filmmaker Hannes Baumgartner’s debut feature “Midnight Runner” headed into its San Sebastian’s New Directors world premiere on Saturday afternoon buzzing off a series of international press screenings held the week prior.
The film’s protagonist, Jonas Widmer, seems to have it all together. He’s his country’s most impressive young distance runner and Olympic hopeful; he works as a chef in a high-end restaurant; and he and his girlfriend are looking to buy their first place together.
Beneath that shiny venire, however, is an emotionally damaged, immature young man, still reeling from the recent loss of his brother. He has abandonment issues stemming back to his birth-mother and complicated relationships with women, always putting himself in impossible positions in regards to personal relationships.
As his insecurities accumulate, his training schedule amps up, and he begins experiencing insomnia bordering on night terrors, Jonas turns to violent crimes perpetrated against women strangers for reasons even he doesn’t seem to understand.
A fictionalization of true events which took place in the early ‘90s, the film is adapted to the modern world. According to Baumgartner, fictionalizing the events was important as a means of creating distance between those events and the people it affected. It also opened avenues for interpretation on his part.
“Midnight Runner” is produced by Bern’s Contrast Film and co-produced by Swiss Radio and Television, SRG SSR and Teleclub, with domestic distribution being handled by Zurich-based Filmcoopi.
Variety talked with Baumgartner about his artistic interpretation, the film’s pacing, and empathizing with a killer ahead of the film’s San Sebastian premiere.
This film is about a marathon runner, but the pace feels more like a sprint. In what ways did you push the tempo of the film?
I think a lot of it has to do with the main character himself. Jonas is in nearly every shot of the film and it is his un-resting disposition that dominates the pace of the film. He has a very demanding job where the working day often ends after midnight. At the same time, he tries to have a relationship. Beneath this constant occupation lies a disrupted inner self where he is controlled by the memories of his brother and their traumatic childhood. The appearance of his brother is not only connected to feelings of loss, for Jonas it’s also a confrontation with his own dark side. His brother is a mirror of his own restlessness and he fortifies the emergence of feelings like shame, aggression and despair. The more he is haunted by his past the more he desperately tries to cling onto his surface life. He needs to keep moving to protect himself from his inner emptiness and despair.
Jonas seems entirely clueless as to why he does what he does. Did you have a specific trigger that kicked off his behavior in mind when working on the film, or was it always a bit ambiguous in your head?
The more we dug into the research process the more it became clear that there are a multitude of connected reasons: The brother plays as much as a role as Jonas’ enormous need for affection, as well as his incapability to communicate his feelings. The film tries to show this web of causes and their interaction – without being able to unravel it completely. It shows a person with a fragile sense of self who is continuously looking for recognition, and can hardly cope with rejection. Because he cannot control his emotions, he tries to dominate his victims. The inability to handle his feelings is thus being compensated. For Jonas, this compensating is intensified towards murder over the course of the film.
Why does Jonas only target women?
Jonas’s quest to escape from his inner emptiness is diffusely connected to women. They embody his longing for saving, for someone who understands him, and who could release pressure and inner emptiness. Hence it is mostly women with whom he maintains relationships, and to whom he attempts to open up. Men are charged entirely differently. With them, he competes athletically. In his inflated expectation of a woman saving him, Jonas approaches them in an increasingly more direct and random fashion. However, since he isn’t sure how they could solve his problem, this search remains a dead end. He almost exclusively provokes rejection, which only increases his frustration and desperation. The women who reject him become the target of his pent-up anger.
Jonas comes off as an empathetic character in this film; in your research did you find the real killer to be empathetic as well?
There are many tragic elements in his biography which affected me. His traumatic childhood and his constant struggles for social integration are only two examples. At the same time, preserving a certain distance was very important to me while examining his acts of violence. A disturbing characteristic of his psychology was the inability to assess his acts. He showed little awareness of the results and consequences of his acts. This ambivalent relation toward the real offender has been a constant companion throughout the development process.