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Magnus von Horn • Director of Sweat

“We all want a platform to express ourselves”


- CANNES 2020: We talked about Sweat with Warsaw-based director Magnus von Horn, who, despite focusing on a social media celebrity, has only ever posted one Instagram Story – by mistake

Magnus von Horn  • Director of Sweat
(© Nicolas Villegas)

In Sweat [+see also:
film review
interview: Magnus von Horn
film profile
, granted the Cannes label following the festival’s cancellation owing to the coronavirus pandemic, Magnus von Horn turns his attention to aspiring fitness guru Sylwia (Magdalena Koleśnik), already on her way up thanks to her social media following. But she feels lonely sometimes – and she is not afraid to post it. We chatted to von Horn about the film.

Cineuropa: Fitness gurus are bigger than ever, but in Sweat, you show that it’s not just about the body; it’s about the emotional connection.
Magnus von Horn: When I started to follow these “fitness motivators”, I just couldn’t stop watching. It was like a reality show with just one participant: it provoked me and pissed me off; I was judgemental, but I also liked it. I couldn’t figure out what made me connect with it in such a way. We are talking about 20 videos of someone playing with their dog, followed by an emotional confession or tips on how to make a protein shake. It’s not about changing the world or “using your platform” – they provide content. And yet it’s so strong, so real. At first, I thought they were narcissists, but it might be more narcissistic not to do it, just because of this fear of being judged. I became jealous of their ability to share. Deep down, we are all the same: we all want a platform to express ourselves. For me, it’s filmmaking; for others, it’s social media. You need a place where you can be honest.

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Celebrities like Sylwia encourage people to “become the best version of themselves”, but also to “accept who they are”. When thinking about her posts, how did you want them to feel?
This emotional intimacy – that’s what it’s really about. People find this connection very attractive. The training, fitness, it’s just a façade. It takes time, but after a while, you stop noticing it and start looking at the person. It’s about feeling part of something, being noticed. If you write to these celebrities on Instagram, they will reply. They didn’t to me, but that’s probably because I was telling them I was working on a film and I wanted to ask them some questions [laughs]. I am very happy it didn’t happen, because I am not interested in copying somebody’s life – I am interested in my own fantasy.

Once you’d decided to show this woman’s vulnerability, weren’t you afraid of repeating the “poor little rich girl” trope?
It’s a cliché, but it’s also true – it’s just a matter of how you portray it. I wasn’t interested in showing her as a victim. She has created her own personality, so whatever makes her a victim, the negativity, the stalker, is also a part of her. With Magdalena, we prepared for one-and-a-half years – that’s the time it took from when she was cast to when we started shooting. She didn’t even have Instagram, but I wanted a good actress to create this person, not bring in someone who would just play herself. It was all very intense: diet, training and so on. Then our DoP became very nosy, running after her and always standing a bit too close. Sylwia wasn’t “finished” when I stopped writing – she was a blueprint. By the end of it all, we both spoke her language.

If such a big part of your life is about, as you said, providing content, no wonder Sylwia tries to do it in real-life interactions as well, like her mother’s birthday party.
It’s the perfect setting for her to be her celebrity avatar and make a big entrance. And when she doesn’t get the attention she wants, she tries to create it. She goes where her “content intuition” tells her to go. That’s what this film is partly about: knowing who you are and who your audience is. There is really no difference between me, making the films I want to make, and Sylwia figuring out what she wants to share and accepting the audience that’s attracted to that, who are more accepting and loving than the people she meets. This love is real, no matter how much we may want to criticise it. And if we are calling it empty, that’s our problem and our cynicism. I think we are becoming better at sensing what’s emotionally true. When someone is real, we are like moths drawn to the light – we just want to get closer. We feed off these public breakdowns, and it’s cruel, but there is empathy in it, too.

But isn’t such “honesty” also part of the strategy?
When I was following fitness motivators, it became clear they are not interested in being fun or perfect all the time. We don’t want to watch someone who goes: “Hello, how are you, are you great as well?” We want to watch people who lie on their sofa without any make-up on, saying they are bored. It’s perfect: you can be true to yourself and it’s great for business. With these confessions, there is always going to be one that’s true. You just have to watch a lot of bad stuff to get to the good stuff. That’s what I like: you can have this artificial packaging, but there is truth inside.

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