Talking with Fredi M. Murer, the director of “Vitus,” is rather like watching his fine new film. You’re so charmed by his sense of wonder that it’s easy to follow him on whatever flight of fancy strikes him next.
He’s a man teeming with enthusiasm. The Swiss director starts the interview, conducted during his recent press visit to the District, by introducing his translator and saying his English “is a little too basic” for him to express himself properly in the language. Nevertheless, he can’t resist switching to it from Swiss German now and then. It’s almost as if he’s too impatient to wait for the middleman, as able as the translator is, to communicate his thoughts.
“Vitus,” Switzerland’s entry in last year’s Oscars, is about a piano prodigy who finally gets the chance to be normal but finds it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. The film feels effortless, but the 66-year-old writer-director reveals it was years in the making.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago, I had the idea of a film that would focus on that period of childhood from about 5 to 12, from the earliest memories to puberty, because this was the time that was most important in my life,” Mr. Murer says. “What makes this time so special is that it’s really when anything can happen. You can be a da Vinci, you can be a fireman, you can be a cowboy; all of it is believable. It’s only when puberty strikes that everything starts closing in and you have a down slope to normality.”
He felt he was too young to do it properly two decades ago and waited instead until he was the age of the grandfather who provides his film’s spiritual center.
“Vitus” is a personal film. “I’ve made both documentary and fictional films, but the inspiration for them always comes from my own life,” he says. “I haven’t taken things on as a commission or done anything for television sponsors.”
Still, it’s not just autobiography.
“I always wanted to be a genius, though I was quite normal,” Mr. Murer says with a laugh. “The idea came to me to have a child who was capable of fulfilling all the unfulfilled wishes I had as a boy and what would that sort of life be like: What would his relations with other children be, what would his relations with his parents be if he could play the piano and be a math genius and all the things I wanted to be?”
Mr. Murer sounds as if he was just as inventive as his titular prodigy. “I built houses in the trees and made boats to cross the lake. I built wings like da Vinci — like Vitus.”
When he had an accident while wearing those wings, he used it as an excuse to avoid the things he had come to dislike — such as attending school — just as Vitus does. The grandfather who encourages Vitus’ flights of fancy is a portrait, the director says, of his own father.
“My conception was a fairy tale that’s grounded in reality,” he concludes of his film.
It wasn’t easy to turn that tale into reality. “My producer said, ‘You are writing an impossible screenplay because you can’t do it unless you find this boy, and this person exists only in your brain, not reality,’ ” Mr. Murer recalls. He searched all over the world for a piano prodigy around the age of 11 who also could act. It seems like a miracle that he found one, in London — star Teo Gheorghiu, who also just happened to speak Swiss German.
Mr. Murer, who says he goes more to concerts than films and agrees with Nietzsche that life without music is a mistake, is not widely known in the U.S., but he is a veteran director in Switzerland. He is happy to report that European film seems to be undergoing a renaissance.
“Swiss theaters normally show one to two percent Swiss films; now it’s 10 percent,” he says. “I knew so much about America when I came here because I’d watched so many American films. Perhaps Americans could learn about Europe by watching European films.”
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