‘Sweat’ Director Magnus von Horn on Cinema, Social Media, and the Promise of Poland

Playing at Göteborg and Rotterdam this past week, Magnus von Horn’s sophomore feature “Sweat” has collected plaudits and prizes ever since it launched as part of the Cannes Festival’s 2020 official selection last summer.

Since June, the Polish language film – which offers an up-tempo character study of a twentysomething fitness influencer – has collected festival hardware across the globe, claiming prizes in Chicago, Macau, Gdynia, and Trieste. On Saturday, the Goteborg-born filmmaker was awarded the Church of Sweden Film Prize ahead of his film’s hometown premiere later that evening.

When Variety spoke with Lodz-based von Horn, he explained how his acclaimed film could only have been made outside of his native country.

Would this project be different were it set elsewhere?

The film would be very different were it set in Sweden. Poland is a great arena for this character. It doesn’t have a general consensus as to how things should be; things can be politically incorrect or chauvinistic while others are the exact opposite. There’s such a mix of points of views; it’s so polarized politically, with so many fights about everything at the moment. [The only through line is] the capitalism that was so embraced after communism, which has created a mole system and mole people that love to feed off fast food TV and culture.

If you look at the world of influencers in Poland, as opposed to Sweden, the differences are night and day in terms of what works on social media and what an influencer does. There’s a big difference, and I don’t think [the main character] Sylwia would work in Sweden.

Why’s that?

She’s the perfect person to love and hate. She’s so easy to hate, and you need to be dedicated to love her. I think many people go and look for this dedication; they want to belong to something. There are many of these influencers in Poland, and one in particular has a huge following. She’s so hated and so loved that nobody is left without a reaction. [She leaves no room for apathy] and that’s why she’s so popular. She wouldn’t be as popular if she weren’t hated!

I like the judgments…. because I had them myself when I started working on the project. For a long time I thought [these influencers] were narcissists, but then, I’m unable to post like them because I’m scared of being judged. And I think that’s more narcissistic than their behavior.

How would you describe the film’s emotional register, and its perspective on social media?

It’s more about loneliness than fitness. What’s interesting in a fitness motivator is the emotional content she uses on her social media accounts, not the training routines.

When I started following fitness motivators on Snapchat and Instagram, I found 95% of them not so interesting, but the other 5% of the time I came across some deep emotional honesty, which really fascinated me. I was fascinated to find that in the jungle of everyday Instagram content. I liked that I needed to watch the 95% of bullshit to get to the 5% of gold – it made the gold all the shinier. That emotional honesty I found on social media was better than what I watched in fiction cinema.

The film has a very particular visual aesthetic, really playing up the bright lights and artifice in a way that’s somewhat uncommon for an intimate character study.

It has the façade of something that’s very shallow, but what happened is very profound. I think that contrast creates a discomfort that I like very much. For me it was important to embrace everything that comes with the world of this fitness motivator, and everything in the environment she moves in. To not look at a shopping mall as ugly but to embrace it and love it with all the colors and music that comes with the world. There’s no point trying to remake that world with different kinds of visuals, trying to make it more ‘tasteful’ or something.

How does that tie in to your larger aims as a filmmaker?

I think it’s really strong when you have characters that you feel very far away from at first glance, and suddenly there’s a moment that connects you. That’s what cinema is. You sit with people – both next to you and onscreen – you wouldn’t normally sit next to and you watch something intimate. You get a chance to get closer to the unknown, to something you probably wouldn’t get close to otherwise.

Films shouldn’t offer a full stop. They should [end] with a comma, and then you have to bring them with you once you finish watching. Otherwise, I don’t see the point.

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