TIFF: ‘A Heavy Heart’ lives up to its title

In a general sense, films are made to provoke happiness, fright, thought or sadness. As its title suggests, A Heavy Heart mostly falls into the latter category. This drama from the promising German director Thomas Stuber is real tearjerker, following a man coping with a devastating personal tragedy.

The central man in the film is Herbert, played by Peter Kurth. Herbert is a former boxing champion who has shifted his focus to coaching upcoming talent. On the side, he also works as a bouncer, as well as collecting debts (often by brute force). Herbert is essentially hustling through life, trying to gain control of his destiny in his late middle age. But his life falls into disarray when a pre-existing tremor proves to be something more serious, leaving him temporarily paralyzed in the shower one day. The subsequent diagnosis is that he suffers from ALS, without much time to live. Now in his dying days, he is forced to take stock of his life and the broken relationships which matter most to him.

As we witness Herbert’s declining health, director Thomas Stuber crafts a classic tale of tragedy and redemption. We’re introduced to the character in a darkened room, training with punching bags and weights, an intimidating tattoo across his strong back. In the next scene, he’s beating up a man for not paying a debt. Later, we see him at work in the boxing ring with his protege.

Indeed, the screenplay from Stuber and co-writer Clemens Meyer lays down a strong foundation for the drama to come. Throughout the early scenes, Herbert is confident, strong, virile. The cinematography and art direction speak to his brooding nature too, with much of the plot taking place indoors and at nighttime.

But after Herbert learns of his diagnosis, the film begins to pose the question, “What is the measure of a man?” Is it his strength and bravery, as evidenced by Herbert’s athleticism and tough guy demeanor? Or is it his compassion and humanity, as seen through his tender care for his pet fish and the love for his estranged daughter? As the film answers these questions, it treats its audience to a compellingly nuanced character study.

And Peter Kurth shines in the lead role, impressively transforming from tough and brutish, to gentle and fragile by the end. On the surface, the role seems like another showy “physical disability” performance designed for awards attention. But aside from its convincing technical aspects, Kurth’s performance also digs deep to find the character’s emotional truth. Even when his words become slurred, he conveys palpable feelings of regret, melancholy and at times, even hope. And ultimately, it’s his superlative performance which adds the grace notes to make A Heavy Heart such a beautiful cinematic elegy.