Magnus von Horn offers an empathetic portrait of a fitness star whose life isn’t all it seems – he discusses influencer culture in Poland, and reflects on why he could never be Instagram famous
Behind every Instagram Story is another Instagram story. In Magnus von Horn’s Sweat – a deft, empathetic portrait of a fitness influencer – Sylwia Zając (Magdalena Koleśnik) is a social media sensation who seemingly has it all: 600,000 followers, a cover feature on Women’s Health, and a physique so perfect that a female acquaintance remarks, “I’d love to have your ass”. But when the cameras are switched off, Sylwia’s mood turns dark and dim – and not in a sultry Instagram way. “I’d like to delete my Instagram account because no one would really miss me,” Sylwia whimpers. “I know it. It would take one click and everything would disappear.”
Not that Sylwia’s existential crisis is immediately obvious. In a typical workout video, the 30-year-old Polish influencer radiates so much positivity that, like the sun, it hurts your eyes. Dressed in vibrant, glow-in-the-dark colours, she cheers on exercising viewers with go-getting mantras and a gigantic, teethy grin. Even if you don’t join in with the routines, it’s exhausting. Then in a moment of possibly calculated weakness, Sylwia uploads a tearful clip in which she expresses frustration with her non-existent love life. Instead of receiving ridicule, the straight-to-camera monologue goes viral. Fans send messages of support. A media frenzy ensues. A photogenic woman crying is still a photogenic woman.
Unlike Sylwia, von Horn doesn’t allow strangers to access his Instagram profile. I know, because I tried before our Zoom call. “It’s just film stuff,” the 37-year-old Swedish director tells me vaguely, mid-June, from his home in Poland. “When I do it, maybe I’m a bit drunk.” While some movie figures like The Rock score free advertising with their substantial online following, von Horn prefers to keep his social media private. “I don’t have it in me. It’s a talent you’re born with. Some people can be influencers, others can’t.”
Information about von Horn’s background does exist online, though. After growing up in Gothenburg, he followed in the footsteps of Krzysztof Kieślowski and Andrzej Wajda by attending Poland’s prestigious Łódź Film School. As a student, his shorts often deconstructed brutal crimes, hence the only line in his IMDb trivia section: “Usually makes films based around real-life murders.” When his 14-minute student short Echo wowed crowds at Sundance in 2010, von Horn got an agent in LA and was introduced to producers around Hollywood. In hindsight, he considers this a wasted opportunity. “They’d watched my short and were very prepared. But I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t have a project. I was like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’”
Von Horn’s debut feature didn’t arrive until 2015. Premiering at Cannes, The Here After was a terrific, emotionally raw drama about a teenager returning to his Swedish hometown after a prison sentence for murder. When brainstorming ideas for a lighter follow-up, von Horn found himself hooked on Snapchat. “It was five years ago that I saw this fitness motivator. They weren’t called influencers at the time. This woman wasn’t hugely famous in Poland, but she was gaining followers and posting 70 clips per day. So much was from her everyday life. It was like a reality show. It was uncensored.”
At first, von Horn felt cynical. “I was judging her from my phone. But I couldn’t stop watching her. When I got beyond my own negativity, I felt jealous of her ability to share spontaneously. When I post, I have to think about it a lot. It’s more narcissistic to think for a day about the post you’re going to post.”
In Poland, the two biggest fitness influencers are Ewa Chodakowska (1.9 million Instagram followers) and Anna Lewandowska (3.2 million Instagram followers, and also Robert Lewandowski’s wife). Although von Horn attended one of Chodakowska’s public workout sessions, he insists that Sylwia is completely fictional. In fact, von Horn’s initial draft for Sweat was an absurd thriller. “It ended up in murder and mayhem because the influencer is trying to save her career,” he recalls. “But the more I discovered Sylwia, the less sensationalism I needed. It became three days of very realistic storytelling with a very realistic character. It was about me finding Sylwia as a fitness motivator in myself. How would I be?”
In the three days depicted in Sweat, the camera is often cold and distant in how it tracks Sylwia’s off-screen, Warsaw lifestyle. The silences are lengthy, the shots linger uncomfortably, and the sparse mise-en-scène subtly visualises her isolation. When Sweat then switches to the in-your-face hyperactivity of Sylwia’s exercise videos, the viewer recognises the struggling human being underneath. Ultimately, she has fans, not friends – the emotional toil is more tiring than her gym regiment.
However, Sylwia also experiences other side-effects of online fame – mostly negative. Her parasocial relationship with followers means that someone will stop her in a shopping centre, unload their traumatic problems (in one example, a miscarriage), and then request a selfie. More worryingly, a man parks his car outside Sylwia’s flat; when she asks him to leave, he begins masturbating in her direction. The stalker later sends a video apology. The character was, in part, inspired by Ricardo López, a man who obsessed over Björk and filmed himself in 1996 posting her a letter bomb. That same day, López killed himself, leaving behind 23 hours of video diaries that later found their way online.
“During the writing, I was watching the Björk stalker’s tapes,” von Horn says. “I found the material so disturbing – it scared me. But at times, it moved me, the way that he was recording himself, even though he had no followers. I don’t know if Björk watched it. But there was something very similar to the way that influencer culture works today.” In one scene, Sylwia shares a tiny, emotional bond (nothing sexual) with her stalker. I admit to von Horn that it made me feel uneasy. However, the director argues that Sylwia recognises aspects of herself in her friendless tormentor. “She’s a good-looking, blonde woman, but she’s also lonely and wants someone to hug her and say everything’s going to be OK.”
“The more I discovered Sylwia, the less sensationalism I needed. It was about me finding Sylwia as a fitness motivator in myself. How would I be?” – Magnus von Horn
According to von Horn, Sweat had to be set in Poland, not Sweden. “Influencer culture in Poland is allowed to be quite vulgar and full of contrasts, especially for fitness influencers,” he explains. “On one hand, you have pop feminism – you know, girl power, body positivism, ‘accept yourself’ – which is great, but they’re also slogans used to sell t-shirts. You question how much of the real ideas are at the core. The other thing in Poland is that it’s contrasting with the male gaze. A Playboy aesthetic runs the fitness culture. But it’s also hijacked by women who say, ‘We use it because we want it’. But how much of that is true? How many of the viewers are really just men watching their hot bodies, or stalkers jerking off in their car? How important is that to keep up the follower base?
“Also, Poland is a country that went from communism to capitalism, and, like in many Eastern European countries, that extreme change is still felt strongly in society, like the clashes between the Church and liberal politics. Here in Poland, abortion laws are constantly being restricted by the leading party, and the LGBTQ+ community is being attacked. It’s a really polarised country. So all those tensions are reflected in the influencers – that extremeness. But Sweden doesn’t have that same extreme society. It depends on the country. It’s going to look different for influencers in the UK.”
My question on Poland’s influencer culture actually prompts a rant from von Horn about the country’s sexist advertising campaigns. “You can’t escape the male gaze in Poland. You have beautiful landscapes that are ruined by fucking billboards.” He complains about gigantic posters that mimic Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction” music video (nearly naked women operating power drills), or others that shamelessly parade a bikini-clad woman – but just the breasts and hips, not the face. “That would never happen in Sweden. It’s impossible.”
He continues: “Poland’s also a country where you have big billboards with a foetus in its sixth month, with an arm and head and human features. Anti-abortion activists are not an underground organisation. They have a lot of money connected to the Church and foundations. You have trucks driving around the city with that posted on the back and they park in front of schools. I pass them with my daughter, who’s six, who asks me what it is. It’s really frustrating. So that’s the country you’re in.”
If it weren’t for COVID, Sweat would have had its world premiere at Cannes in 2020. A year later, it’s opening in various cinemas (and online cinemas) with the “Cannes Label”. In Poland, von Horn is also preparing for the theatrical release – a handful of influencers will watch it for the first time and join him for a post-screening Q&A. Otherwise, he’s writing a Danish “horror-drama” that takes place just after the First World War, but will be shot in Poland. He emphasises that it won’t be a typical horror, but a dark drama that achieves the feeling of a horror. “The horror films I like I can count on one hand.”
Before we log out of Zoom and return to our lonely lives, I suggest to von Horn that he, as a filmmaker doing interviews, is to some extent an influencer. However, he disagrees and points to the fake viral video created by Ruben Östlund to promote Force Majeure as a marketing technique he could never pull off. Ultimately, von Horn says, only a handful of people can be influencers, and even fewer can execute it successfully like Sylwia. “There’s an intuition in people where they feel, ‘This one touches me. I can connect for some reason’. It’s like the magic of cinema – you don’t know why you’re moved by certain things. And when you start analysing it, it kind of dies.”
Sweat opens in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema June 25