In the Swiss German drama Vitus, a child prodigy named Vitus von Holzen is torn between his full potential as a genius pianist and an innate desire to be a normal boy. Preferring to idle away the day in the workshop of his eccentric grandfather, his dreams are of flying more than they are of performing in concert halls.
For writer/director Fredi Murer, the story had its roots in his own years as a young boy, though not in the way many would suspect. "A lot of scenes are inspired by my own childhood, but I was the opposite of a prodigy child. I always wished to be a genius. I was so terribly normal," Murer says. This longing for pre-adolescent brilliance proved to be the seed for not only the basic groundwork of Vitus, but for the film's slightly fairy tale tone.
Murer's own childhood was not without its challenges. His dyslexia caused many mistakes in his early writings, which in turn made him averse to school altogether. Still, he turned in lengthy essays, and though riddled with errors, they suggested his potential as a storyteller. It was not until he took up drawing that he found his preferred means of communication. He remembers a particular moment when he laid out a narrative as a storyboard, prompting his teacher to have him present it to the class. It was the first time he garnered the applause of his peers--a new response for a child who constantly struggled with academic shortcomings. And in retrospect, he sees it as his first movie.
Vitus' dreams of flying also have their origins in Murer's childhood experiences. Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's drawings of a flying machine, Murer built a similar contraption of his own and made himself the test pilot. The daring, if not sensible, undertaking had less romantic results than anything portrayed in the movie--Murer wound up unconscious in a hospital for five days and awoke to a skull fracture.
As an adult, Murer's work has demonstrated a duality, as he has gone between filming documentaries and dramas--the former, he says, fulfills his desire to voice his political views, while the latter fulfills his dreams of storytelling. With Vitus in particular, he was afforded the opportunity to focus on a period that he jokingly refers to as "the darkest time" in his life: "Vitus goes, actually, back to my wish to make a film about that childhood, between 5 and 12, between the first real memory I had, and before puberty begins."
In casting the critical title role of Vitus, it was important to Murer that the music be authentic. To these ends, he searched for a genuine musical prodigy who could be taught to act, rather than an actor who would be recruited to simulate the piano playing. The casting process led him to the Purcell School just outside of London, a private institute specializing in the training of gifted young musicians from the world over, where he ultimately found his Vitus in Teo Gheorghiu.
Born in Switzerland to parents who emigrated from Romania to Canada, Teo proved to be the real deal and had an ear for music and languages, speaking English, French, and, of course, Swiss German. He learned to read and write at the age of 3 and play piano at 5. By the time he was 6, he was outperforming his teacher, who said that he had already learned everything he could teach him. When Teo did a piano audition for Murer, the director was moved to tears. He was perfect for the part. "It was really like a gift from heaven," Murer recalls.
Despite his musical gifts, Teo was not immune to the excitement of being part of a feature film. Murer says that he was very excited to take up acting, although his school and his mother had the natural concerns of how his studies might suffer from a two month stint filming. But after a discussion with Murer, all involved were convinced that it could work out, and in no time, Teo was juggling his concert performances with his new life in front of the camera. Since then, he has become like an adopted grandson for the director, who has no grandchildren of his own.
Considering how central the music is to Vitus, it is surprising that the movie wasn't always envisioned with its hero being a gifted pianist. Murer had a lingering bit of the acting bug inside him, and originally conceived of Vitus as an aspiring actor. But he eventually found scenes of a character performing in front of a mirror to be boring on film, and ultimately got the idea of the piano as a dramatic vehicle. It was a revision that served him well.
Vitus is a deft blend of drama and childhood flights of fancy, and effectively captures the theme of the unlimited potential of untarnished youth. Murer describes the routine of growing up as something that diminishes that potential. "You get born as an original, and most of us are dying as a copy," he laughs. But Vitus is a bit of storytelling that reminds us of the gifts of childhood, if only for a moment.