The Vulnerability of Human Existence

INTERVIEW. Peter Schønau Fog tackles fundamental questions about human existence in his second feature, "You Disappear." Ten years after his highly successful debut, "The Art of Crying," the director once again challenges his audience with an unsettling narrative that steers clear of the most familiar cinematic conventions. International premiere at Toronto Film Festival 2017.

Do humans have a free will, or are we essentially controlled by our biology and the processes in our brain? 

It's a film that raises more questions than it answers. That's important, I think. People experience things differently. Our brains are not alike.

Peter Schønau Fog's "You Disappear" is based on Danish writer Christian Jungersen's bestselling novel about the challenges we face as neuroscience forces us to rethink what we are as human beings:

Mia is married to the successful headmaster Frederik who is caught embezzling from his own school. But did he do this of his own free will – or has his personality been altered by the tumour lurking in his brain? Mia is desperate to uncover what kind of man she is actually married to.

Here, the director talks about his film and the task of turning the novel into a film that stays true to its topic.

What was it about the book that made you want to make a film?

"Originally, I just started reading Christian's novel as a close family member of a person who died of a neurological disease. But as I was reading it, it occurred to me that, if we are just our brains, we will have to rewrite the whole concept of what it means to be human. Which will lead to a comprehensive reconception of who our loved ones are, who we are, how law is structured and, ultimately, how we tell stories in film. In other words, a wide-ranging but interesting challenge as a filmmaker."

"Your Disappear" by Peter Schønau Fog. Photo: Martin Dam Kristensen 

How did you approach that challenge?

"For me, as a relative, neurological disorders are difficult to relate to in films or other media, if I find that all the storytellers want to do is to lay out a story of suffering. While some fine films have been made using that move, they are just too much for me. They don't let you breathe. I just feel manipulated into deep pain, but I have no use for it and it doesn't deepen my understanding."

Then why adapt the novel?

"Back when I was reading Christian's novel, I saw that he had made some choices that enabled me to deal with the issue emotionally, because it also piqued my curiosity about what our brains are. And I was unsettled by the questions growing out of this idea that we are our brains. In other words, as with my previous film 'The Art of Crying,' I saw that there was something important to tell and a way of doing it that made it bearable."

How did you plan to make the film?

"From seeing the potential in an adaptation to working out how to do it, it was a long way. Over the almost four and a half years that it took to write and shoot the film, I dug into everything I could find about brain disorders, treatments, neuropsychology, the legal system and so on.

"Apart from gaining a broader understanding of the direct issues of the story, I wanted to find a cinematic form that mirrors the image of humanity as transformed by neuroscience, just as Christian's novel does on novelistic terms. So, I investigated how we neurally experience all the elements that make up a cinematic narrative to come up with a cinematic form of storytelling that is grounded in neuroscience rather than film-school learning – all to ultimately make a film whose most important participant is the person experiencing the film at the cinema."

"Your Disappear" by Peter Schønau Fog. Photo: Martin Dam Kristensen 

What did you do to put your cast and crew up to the challenge?

"Before we started shooting, we organised what we called 'brain-workshop days' for the cast and crew to make them the best possible co-storytellers. But I had to realise that people don't change how they think just because you explain something to them. It was a huge challenge to implement the knowledge I had gained into the actual production of the film, because it's anxiety-provoking for most people to have to reinvent their craft."

What kind of film came out of that?

"It's a film that raises more questions than it answers. That's important, I think. People experience things differently. Our brains are not alike. But when the film is over, I hope the questions and individual experiences will lay the groundwork for a meaningful and productive discussion with the people you watched the film with. If you watch it alone, you only experience half the movie. If you watch the film more than once, your brain will have changed and you'll get a new and different experience."

What would you call this type of film?

"You could call it a kind of anti-film. It's definitely a film that avoids using the most familiar cinematic conventions and creates its own instead. It's a film that challenges its audience by having a fragmented form. There are elements we can mirror ourselves in. There are elements that touch us. There are elements that make us smarter. There are elements we perhaps don't even understand. There are elements we overlook or that provoke us. 

"But to quote Christian Jungersen, this way of telling the story you could say is mirroring "the unmerciful randomness, the immense chaos, and the constant biological vulnerability that constitutes the essence of human existence" •

"Your Disappear" by Peter Schønau Fog. Photo: Martin Dam Kristensen 

The article is an edited version of an interview by Susan Søgaard originally published in Hjerneskadet, the magazine of the Danish brain injury association.

About the film

"You Disappear" is directed and written by Peter Schønau Fog. Louise Vesth produced for Zentropa with support from the Danish Film Institute. Trustnordisk is handling international sales.

The film is Schønau Fog's second film after his critically acclaimed feature debut "The Art of Crying" (2007), based upon an autobiographical novel by Erling Jepsen.

Festival premiere

"You Disappear" is making its international premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in the Special Presentation programme (7-17 September).

Watch trailer