Published Sep 11, 2015With A Heavy Heart, Thomas Stuber's second feature (his first if we use SAG rules), the German director has demonstrated a technical aptitude for the cinematic form but only a partial understanding of audience engagement and reaction. Like James Marsh's surprisingly effective Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything, Heart tackles the subject of ALS and its devastating effects, but this is a grittier work with a less sympathetic protagonist. It's not a story about defying the odds or the influence hope has on overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles; this is a story about regret and fighting a losing battle.
Herbert (Peter Kurth), a former East German boxing champion, still relies on his physical presence to survive in the world. He works as a bouncer, trains aspiring boxers and moonlights as the muscle for a loan shark, kicking the shit out of strangers when not manipulating the emotions of Marlene (Lina Wendel) for an occasional booty call. Being a stoic brute living for the moment, presumably defeated by past failures (he obsessively watches George Forman boxing matches, particularly those in his later years), he's left only with his boxing protégé Eddy (Edin Hasanovic) and his tattoo artist to talk to when his legs and hand start failing him at inexplicable moments.
Stuber's style is unembellished. It's loose and often handheld, but not accidental; there's a definite stark winter colour scheme and a consistent aesthetic trajectory for framing our brooding protagonist in the shadows (like his identity and his emotions, we struggle to catch a full glimpse). This style definitely matches the content, which is mostly a rather brutal depiction of a very proud and stubborn man refusing aid — often violently — from those around him while he deteriorates. Kurth, while not always consistent in demonstrating his symptoms, embodies the role effectively in a physical capacity, gradually allowing his shoulders to slump and his body to loosen, having a less foreboding presence the more his disease eats away at him.
While this setup and the initial depiction of an unlikeable man struggling to come to terms with losing independence is quite effective, A Heavy Heart struggles once it starts to chip away at Herbert's façade. We learn shortly after he's diagnosed that he has a daughter — Sandra (Lena Lauzemis) — and a granddaughter that he's estranged from. His daughter hates him and wants nothing to do with him, but Herbert is persistent, having nowhere else to turn after he alienates even Marlene, who only puts up with his shit out of sheer loneliness. What Stuber is saying is quite vital: he's noting, mainly, that no man is an island and pointing out the importance of treating others with a bit of compassion and respect, lest you wind up alone and helpless. Where he falters is in his assumption that the audience will eventually grow to root for Herbert's success.
Since A Heavy Heart builds its momentum as a no-nonsense depiction of illness and the sort of depression and existential woe associated with it, the eventual use of heavy-handed emotional techniques (a recording Herbert makes for his daughter, for example) doesn't quite fit. They're not distracting and don't ultimately derail the film, but there's a question mark towards the end about where our investment and our feelings are supposed to lie. Stuber, in trying to be sympathetic towards the central issue, has a hard time deciding if this is supposed to be unsentimental or touching. His style suggests the former, but the narrative progression suggests the latter.
Still, until this awkward crossroads, this feature debut (technically) is quite assured and well styled. Thomas Stuber is a director to keep an eye on.