It’s been ten years since Peter Schonau Fog made The Art of Crying and now he’s back. In You Disappear, Fog breaks with Hollywood convention and gives us a challenging narrative, opting for a scientific framework to reflect upon the neuroscientific research he conducted for personal reasons. Adapting Christian Jungersen’s novel and getting it to the screen took him over four years, but the end result is unique. Fredrik is a school headmaster accused of embezzling. He has been involved in an automobile accident. Is Fredrick behaving of his own free will, or is the brain tumor he’s suffering from affecting his ability and personality? His wife Mia has theories but can her explanations be trusted?
I caught up with Fog to talk about the process of making a film that breaks with convention and challenges the viewer to think about what they’re seeing on screen. You Disappear is Denmark’s official submission in the Best Foreign Language film category.
What I loved about the film is you break the Hollywood narrative structure of film that we are used to. What made you decide that this is the way you wanted to tell the story?
Originally, when I read the novel that the film is based on, the reason I did that was my father died and this novel dealt with the topic in a way that I could stand to read about. Not only is the story about a person who suffers from a brain tumor and the effect it has on the family. The author sets out to address the very question which comes out of defining what a human being is.
We have biological systems and those systems are completely different ways to view what a human being is. Normally, we see ourselves as strong-willed characters who do what we want. We have a responsibility and all these ideas are challenged by the biological system of thinking and that also goes for telling stories and film. This is not a film with a classic structure and narrative.
The main reason was I wanted to tell a story about this different perception of what a human being is and how our brains work.
The thing is, our brains don’t always work in that logical and rigid manner, and that’s what the story shows.
Absolutely. Your mind wanders even when you’re trying to focus. That’s one thing. The other thing is how memories are formed in the brain and how we perceive the world. The brain decides what is important to us to store and what is important for our memory. The way it stores that information is also fragmented, it’s defined by the active neurons. It’s like the Big Dipper is one memory and another is another constellation.
In the film, the character of Mia is talking about this triangle and that is a simple way to explain how the brain pieces those fragments together to make it coherent and the way the brain works is what inspired the film. Having seen the film, you know what I’m talking about, but a lot of thought went into the structure.
You challenge the viewer with the structure, but what was it like for the actors working with this material?
It was quite an interesting process. I really wanted them to be as true storytellers as possible. So, I arranged some schooling with them about how the brain works. I also encouraged them to think about the fact that we are not really who we are and what we are is not set in stone, and I mean that through our personalities. In film, we establish the character in the first few minutes of the film and then we try to stay true to that character. In this film, thanks to the fragmented way of telling the story, it is possible to combine different traits of a character against the character they were playing. The headmaster in Spain is one person when he’s driving recklessly, he’s another person when he sees the kids after school, and when he’s in a court of law he’s yet another person, and so those personalities are not set in stone.
What did you want to say about the character of Mia and how we start feeling sympathetic to her? The same with the husband?
I think with all of them, they are their brain. They have specific ways of dealing with the world. As I said, you establish characters and stay true to them, but in this, they become the main question of “Who are these people?” That’s the driving question throughout the film and you see it in the court of law. Did he do it with his mind intact? Or did he do it because of the tumor? How was his moral fiber and who was he? It’s really one big search into who these characters really are. Things about Mia are revealed at the end which makes you question who she really is? Once in a while, I’ll ask myself who I am and this fundamental search of “Who are we?” is the main topic.
How has the audience reacted to the film?
I guess you can say there are two reactions. One says, “This is not a normal film and I don’t want to buy into it.” Those people are not open-minded to it and the idea that films can be something else other than what we are used to. They get stuck in that idea.
The rest take the puzzle in and they’re working throughout the film to put the pieces together. People get different things from the film and when they start talking about it, they realize that the person they’re talking to has taken away something different and they add more pieces together and that is reflective of how the brain works.
We work with ambiguity and it provokes that first group of people who are not open to that.
Read Peter Fog’s statement on the film below:
YOU DISAPPEAR isn’t a movie in the traditional sense. It is a collage of experiences dealing with
the challenges we face as neuroscience forces us to rethink what we are as human beings. If we’re
simply biological systems with unreliable brains, being flung through our chaotic and fragmented
lives, then none of the traditional tools of storytelling will apply to filmmaking anymore.
For example, the linear causality of Aristotle, character development via Freud’s thoughts on
realisation, rigid genres, and the backbone of mainstream cinema; that we are all strong-willed
heroes in a meaningful world consisting of obstacles that are only meant to shape us into better
people. All of that stuff will be obsolete.
Cinema as a medium is based on the ability of the human brain to piece together fragments into
meaningful wholes. YOU DISAPPEAR uses disjointed fragments of fiction, facts, memories and
imagination, which will prompt both curiosity and confusion, empathy and emotional detachment.
And that’s fine. Our brains are all different; they shape the way we experience the world around us.
As such, we want to allow the experiences and narrative connections to form in the mind of each
It is probably fair to say that YOU DISAPPEAR is a demanding movie. It demands of its audience
that they let go of conventional ideas of what a movie should be and instead view it with no
preconceived notions – welcoming YOU DISAPPEAR as a life experience.
Kick back and enjoy the ride.
PETER SCHØNAU FOG
Director and screenwriter