Interview with Director Hannes Baumgartner

What prompted you to tell the story of a serial offender in your debut film?

The real offender’s ambivalence and inner conflict have engaged me from the beginning: on the one hand his brutal, goal-oriented violence on the other his societally commendable integration – a top athlete and popular chef. A person who is described as sensitive, dutiful and always ready to help by those around him. This contradiction challenged me to see behind the façade of this person.

And why do you tell the film solely from the perpetrator’s view?

The perpetrator’s point of view makes a direct examination with the ambivalent main character possible. I’m interested in the process of encapsulation: how a person drives themselves further and further into isolation despite offered outside help, how they are incapable of finding a way to put the immense inner suffering into words. The film is to show how the main character is desperately trying to suppress this incredible inner pressure through sports, work, and relationship – and how this suppression process leads him to violence.

MIDNIGHT RUNNER is based on a true story. How much of the film’s story line is true, how much is fiction?

The film is a subjective interpretation of the real case. The focus lies on as genuine as possible a depiction of the emotional development and not on an objective retelling of the facts. I’m most interested in the process of Jonas’ isolation, his great sense of emptiness and despair. In this sense, we took the artistic freedom to densify the true story and to add fictitious elements in a few places. In order to protect the affected people and to establish a creative area of freedom, we have changed all the names and moved the story from the early noughties to today.

The film is very observant and you eschew to offer a concluding explanation for the deeds. How come?

I think that it is necessary for many people to find a plausible explanation for such brutal acts. The horror mustn’t remain unexplainable. Over the course of our research which lasted several years I had to realise, however, that our main protagonist’s tragic acts cannot be explained in a monocausal way. There is a plethora of causes which are all connected: The past plays as much as a role as Jonas’ enormous need for affection as well as his incapability to communicate his inner world and feelings. The film tries to show this web of causes and their interaction – without being able to unravel it once and for all. The aim is challenging the viewer to a differentiated examination of the background of violence.

What role does his brother Philipp play in the fatal development from top athlete to murderer?

The brother is his central person of reference. He is the only person who shares the fate of his childhood with Jonas and who can understand Jonas’ inner life at least to some extent. With Philipp’s suicide, Jonas loses a vital part of his own identity. Philipp’s appearance in the film is, however, also a confrontation with Jonas’ own dark side: the brother reminds him of the traumatic childhood and quarries shame, aggression, and despair to the surface.

What is the importance of sport for the main character?

Sport is an important outlet for Jonas to deal with his frustration, disappointment, and his inner emptiness. The athletic success also supports and reaffirms him in his quest for recognition and attention. At the same time, the sport becomes a front: the stability that Jonas conveys to the outside through his athletic career, paradoxically also gives him an aura of being untouchable – nobody thinks that a successful top athlete can have far reaching issues.

You worked on your debut film for five years and intensely studied the real perpetrator’s psychology. Do you feel empathy for him?

There are many tragic elements in his biography which affected me. His traumatic childhood or his constant struggle for social and societal 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 shocking characteristic of his psychology was the inability to assess his acts. He showed little awareness for the results and consequences of his acts. This ambivalence of empathy and rejection has been a constant companion throughout the development process.

How do you reply to the possible reproach that you offer a murderer a platform with your film?

Violence is a societal reality, which is why I think it is pivotal to examine it in its complex entirety. MIDNIGHT RUNNER isn’t a legitimisation of violent acts, but an attempt at understanding their origin. The sophisticated debate is a first step to approach the topic.

An important aspect of your desired debate is currently being discussed intensively: the connection between masculinity and violence. Your main character Jonas assumes dominance over his female victims. To what extent are his acts of violence about his masculinity?

I must say that we started working on this film six years ago and weren't able to aim at currently essential debates such as #MeToo. But one thing is clear: a connecting between violence and images of masculinity exists. Jonas moves within this context.

Jonas does portray an image of strong masculinity to the outside…

…absolutely. Especially as a top athlete, and particularly in an unusual sport such as the Swiss Army Run where a shotgun is carried on the back, even though it is never employed. As a top athlete, Jonas can thus embody a powerful image of masculinity. He has the will to endure and win and receives recognition for it. In his private life and in his work environment, he complements his public image by embodying the dutiful and humble young man. His whole power is assembled in the outer appearance and stands in strong contrast to his inside: there seems to be no connection between outer and inner Jonas.

And the women in his life?

On the outside, he is connected with them, for example with his adopted mother and his girlfriend. But to his innermost human experience women don’t have access. Only one person knows his innermost being: his brother Philipp. The two of them share the childhood trauma, the early struggle for survival. The neglect suffered on the hands of the biological parents was so severe that Jonas still couldn’t walk at four years old, while Philipp wasn’t speaking at six. This creates a fundamental disconnect from the world. Both brothers react with aggression and violence in the end. The older one directs it at himself and takes his own life. The younger one – Jonas – aims it to the outside and eventually kills a woman who was unknown to him.

Why did he only attack women?

I'm not a psychologist. But during the research and the writing stages, I have intensely studied the character. I think that Jonas's quest to escape from his inner emptiness and torture is connected to a woman – albeit diffusely. She embodies 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 a relationship level in his environment and to whom he attempts to open up. Men are charged entirely differently to him: with them, he competes athletically. In his inflated expectation of a woman saving him, Jonas approaches women increasingly more direct and random. However, since he isn't sure how women 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.

To what extent has the current feminist wave been changing ideologies of masculinity and the construction of male gender identity?

This movement has caused a new significant wave of discussions. Many men, however, reflexively reject this discussion. I think we should enter it. Especially from our film’s vantage point, a conversation amongst men is necessary. Mainly to accept and understand that to find your male identity, you need to confront your own weaknesses. If the film could contribute anything to this discourse, I would more than welcome it.

Why do young men often have difficulties to communicate and control their emotions?

Upbringing and education as well as social context and norms play a vital role. How do I learn to deal with emotions? What role models do I have? In my private life, I still come across men who fear losing face in an open conversation about themselves. In the film, we tried to show a person with a fragile sense of self who is continuously looking for recognition and hardly can 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 to murder over the course of the film.