A Heavy Heart (2015)
Dir. Thomas Stuber
Scr. Stuber, Clemens Meyer, Paul Salisbury
Starring: Peter Kurth, Lina Wendel, Lena Lauzemis, Edin Hasanovic
Review By Greg Klymkiw
WARNING: Do not attend this film without a box of Kleenex.
What is it about old boxers that gets the tear ducts flowing like Kakabeka Falls? Perhaps because it's a thankless sport which renders most of its practitioners to mincemeat and eventually forces them into poverty in their waning years. Perhaps it's their youthful devotion to a sport which estranged them from all those they loved. Perhaps it's the fear of being forgotten, or worse yet, being remembered as a great boxer who could have been a contender, but never quite assailed the heights that seemed so assured. Perhaps it's because old boxers are almost never really all that old, but their middle age resembles those years more suited to senior citizens. Perhaps it's all of the aforementioned and then some.
A Heavy Heart (I much prefer its German title Herbert) is a knockout in more ways than one. It is director Thomas Stuber's first professional feature film from a fine screenplay he wrote with Clemens Meyer and based on a Paul Salisbury story, and after several short films and an award winning student feature, he's delivered a most assured debut. He handles the tough, gritty elements of the story and its heartbreaking sentiment with equal force. Even more telling in terms of his natural filmmaking gifts is how he tempers the sentiment with a warts-and-all realism which gives it even greater power.
Herbert (Peter Kurth) is a mountainous figure, shuffling and breathing heavily through his sordid life as a bouncer and strong-arm collection agent for a gangster - still busting heads for a living, but with none of the accolades of his former life. His one and only true joy is training Eddy (Edin Hasanovic), a talented young boxer who has a very real chance to attain a title shot (something which eluded poor Herbert during his years as a pugilist in the former East Germany). Try as he might, though, Herbert's fatal flaw is pushing those people away who, for whatever reason have not given up on him and still love him. His long-suffering girlfriend (Lina Wendel) is a case in point. Even when she plans a lovely birthday celebration for him, he arrives late, drunk and in no mood to even pay attention to her.
Something is more seriously wrong with Herbert. Painful muscle spasms, fatigue and an increasing inability to perform simple tasks, all get worse by the day. Though he ignores the symptoms with even more contempt than those who love him, he's eventually forced to succumb to a battery of tests which confirm the worst possible diagnosis.
He is afflicted with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and it will kill him - quickly. All his hopes of living vicariously through his talented protégé are dashed. He reaches out to his beleaguered girlfriend who selflessly becomes his caregiver, but most importantly, he has a huge hole in his heart that he's created for himself: Sandra (Lena Lauzemis), the daughter he estranged himself from so long ago. Worse yet, he discovers he's a grandfather. Time, however is running out.
The final hour of the film is perhaps one of the more harrowing cinematic renderings of the ravages of a disease I've seen. Stuber doesn't shield us from Herbert's rapid deterioration and it's as painful an experience as anything you're likely to have in any film. Stuber is, of course blessed with the stunning performance of Peter Kurth. Anyone who has had to helplessly watch a loved one die from ALS (I have) will be faced with an on-screen realism that's seldom been matched. Kurth's often Buster-Keaton-like stone face is betrayed by his evocative eyes, all displaying a gamut of emotion - pain, sorrow, regret and yes, even happiness and love. (And just so Herbert is never too saintly, the film and Kurth don't shy away from those moments of frustration the sick and dying are wont to have which, to put a fine point on it, reveals just how much they can be all-out pricks.)
This is one great boxing picture. Stuber's work here renders a film that's as powerful and moving as some of the best like Anatole Litvak's City For Conquest, Robert Wise's The Set-Up, John Huston's Fat City and even evoking the pain and emotion of William Saroyan's great short story "Dear Baby".
But I warn you again. Do not see this film unprepared. I suggest the heavy duty triple-ply Kleenex tissue. It will serve you well whilst watching A Heavy Heart.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars
A Heavy Heart (Herbert) receives its World Premiere in the TIFF Contemporary World Cinema program at TIFF 2015. For dates, times and tix, visit the TIFF website HERE.