Peter Brunner’s debut feature My Blind Heart centers around an extremely complex character called Kurt (Christos Haas), a man suffering from Marfan Syndrome - an incurable illness which has left him almost completely blind. After killing his mother, Kurt goes on a journey of self-exploration, he goes to a nursing home to later hit the streets in order to find comfort.
Kurt is played by Brunner’s high school friend Christos Haas, who suffers from Marfan Syndrome in real life. "Christos and I have known each other since high school and already then, at the age of 13, I wanted to make a film with him", Brunner explains the reason behind making the film.
Shot entirely in black and white, the film features several disabled actors while successfully avoiding to exploit their current situation. With a cinematography that could refer to Tsukamoto's Tetsuo, Brunner impresses and proves to be a remarkable filmmaker whom had the fortune to study under Michael Haneke at the Vienna Film Academy.
According to Brunner, My Blind Heart is "a film directed inward, which puts the perception of its main character and his inner world at the center. This decision has also affected the aesthetics of the film and provided a lot of space for the opportunity to work with abstraction."
This remarkable film screened at IFF Rotterdam in the Hivos Tiger Competition and at Slamdance FF in Park City. My Blind Heart is a journey to the character's darkness while clinging to his last sheer of light.
I talked to Peter Brunner about his latest visual masterpiece My Blind Heart.
Gomes: I read that you’ve always wanted to make a film with your childhood friend Christos Haas. Why make a film using his disease as a character in your film? And how did he feel about exploring the dark side of having this disease?
Brunner: We took the disease of a real person and incorporated it into fiction. This is easy to say, but Christos is not a study subject and this is not the Elephant Man. I went to school with Christos for a year before they kicked me out. Back then I was already extremely fascinated with Christos. When I met him again years later by chance, I knew much more precisely what it was that had fascinated me at that time. Carl Theodor Dreyer once said: “An expressive face is like an unforeseen landscape, which one never tires to explore.” To me, Christos has such a face and when I look at him, I can find myself in him. That is why I knew that he could carry a 90 minute film as the lead actor, even though I knew that we had to a lot of work, since he had never acted in a film before. Our work was not only about the character, but also about the process of turning a non-professional into an “actor”. It was also about my responsibility as a filmmaker to keep accompanying this non-professional after we had finished the film, and to be there for him.
At this point I want to clearly distinguish between Christos Haas, who has the Marfan Syndrome in real life, and the character Kurt. Kurt is in a crisis and he is torn in the truest sense of the word, but not due to the disease. First and foremost, I am interested in following the characters as far as it is possible for me with my film language. Within my idea that I had for the cinema, the disease is a starting point to tell a very personal story that is very important to me.
Gomes: You can tell by the dynamics between the characters that a strong relationship was built between them. By listening to their stories, you feel that every bit shared is so personal that transcends the screen and becomes a reality. How was the casting process?
Brunner: I try to establish a relationship with the performers in which they are collaborators at eye level. That is why their ideas mean a lot to me and I often try to find solutions on how I can incorporate these ideas in a way so that they make sense in the overall context as I imagine it.
After a very long casting process to find Conny I spent several months with Jana McKinnon and Christos Haas. During this time we built our relationship, and our trust in each other, and found our language together. Each actor is different and everyone needs something else to loosen up. But primarily it was important to me that, for example, the characters of Conny and Kurt had so many layers and backstories that the actors could be spontaneous out of the characters. I wanted these characters to build a frame around the abstract narration, because in the end my point is to offer a deep insight into the inner world of a character.
It is extremely important to me to find people who are willing to risk a great deal and who are not afraid. In search of such people who offer this kind of collaboration I found not only Christos but also Robert, who plays Roberto. Robert understood that this was his chance to share a very personal story. I think that through this trust we succeeded to show people with a handicap more personally than any other film managed before. I believe that there has never been a performance of people with a handicap who revealed so much of themselves in a character as in this movie. And I am grateful for their work and the risks they took. They were my first choice, not actors. If you walk down the street and see a person that fascinates you, in my opinion it is sometimes better to talk to that person and cast that person than to look for an actor.
Gomes: This film is visually stunning. The first thing that came to mind was a similarity with Shinya Tsukamoto’s way to picture an individual going through a breaking point in his life. Visually, what was your initial idea to portrait those changes? Could you describe how that aesthetic choice contributed in building the film’s tone?
Brunner: I love Francis Bacon's and Michelangelo Caravaggio's paintings. It is very important to me that the human body is at the heart of my film. The body is probably the last cry of mankind in the 21st century. I don't know, but despite every technologic extension our bodies have biology will eventually claim what it is entitled to. No one will live forever. No one is more important than another. When I was at school my former class teacher, to whom I owe it to have been tolerated at a school long enough so that I could graduate, told me that the sum of the destruction of the dark maelstrom that rises from Thomas Bernhard's books also develops an enormous energy. To generate such energy visually was the goal in order to get deeper into Kurt's inner world. The Marfan Syndrome is a genetic disease where the connective tissue is constantly threatened with dissolution. This dissolution was an inspiration for the dramaturgy as well as the aesthetics.
I do not know if the visual style has also to do with the fact that my father is a psychoanalyst. I was always wary of not being found out so I automatically tried to be as cryptic as possible, and might have therefore developed an abstract, cryptic film language - at least that is what a friend once accused me of. To be honest, it is just very important to me to make as personal films as possible.
Gomes: Movie fan to movie fan, who or what inspired (or inspires) you to keep creating and making movies? Any recent movie you watched that you would like to suggest to movie fans out there?
Brunner: I think it is very dangerous when one becomes a film lexicon and watches films 24 hours a day just because they are always available online. Dangerous because you might start to make movies about movies. Nevertheless, I watch a lot of movies to learn from them. The three films that probably inspired me the most are Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman, which I saw when I was about 9-years-old together with my parents. Number two, I was about 15, is a film that still keeps me thinking: Stalker by Andrej Tarkowskij. And number three is probably Opening Night by John Cassavetes. At the moment I am very interested in the films of Amat Escalante and Carlos Reygadas.
Gomes: I am looking forward to what you would be doing next. Do you have any project on the horizon?
Brunner: We are currently right in the middle of funding a European-American co-production, called We Are Sisyphos. The film is about a 30 something American who has a serious trauma and is searching for a self-therapy. This self-treatment is unprecedented and extreme. Like in my other films, it is my goal to give a deep insight into this character's inner world, however, the narrative level in We Are Sisyphos will not be as abstract as it is in My Blind Heart.