"If you respect people, you have to make feminist films"

Interview
 Daniel Hoesl

The idiosyncratic, low-budget productions of Austrian filmmaker Daniel Hoesl narrate exemplary disruptions and upheavals with mischievous and post-heroic defiance of standardized milieus. Following eight shorts, Soldate Jeannette is the media arts graduate’s first feature-length film. The film, which has won international awards, revolves around two women, each running away from something, who meet at a countryside bowling alley: Fanni, who hails from the upper middle class, is broke and seeks to escape the strictures of a life ruled by money; Anna, the younger woman, can no longer bear the machismo on the farm.

THOMAS EDLINGER: Soldate Jeannette was allegedly made on a budget of € 65,000 without subsidies or a screenplay. But watching it you’d never know. How did you do that?

DANIEL HOESL: A screenplay is usually helpful when you’re trying to realize a sculpture on film. But as with all previous European Film Conspiracy films, there was a very narrow timeframe during which both my camera op Gerald Kerkletz and I were free to work on the project. So I initially cast 150 people and then used their biographies to draw up a sort of script. Fanni, one of the protagonists, is from an aristocratic background. The other got kicked out by her parents and had to work on a chicken farm for a while. Those were the elements out of which the story developed. I like to make movies the way I cook. I don’t go shopping first and then look to see what’s in the fridge – instead, I make the best of what’s there with a minimum of hassle.

EDLINGER: What happens when the fridge is empty?

HOESL: I’m not necessarily trying to make chateaubriand. If I have no money, it simply means I need to find other ways. Shooting a movie is like picking fruit. Then you just have to decide which ones will make it into the dish.

EDLINGER: Speaking of food – in his film When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (2013), the Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu …

HOESL: A friend of mine!

EDLINGER: … Porumboiu has a scene where the two main characters sit over Chinese food talking about the simplicity of chopsticks and the elaborateness of Chinese cuisine. Later on, they use a knife and fork, refined Western instruments, to pick at a comparatively crude European dish.

HOESL: At which point the conversation turns into an argument because the woman, who studied in France, doesn’t agree with the man at the table. There are highly complicated French dishes, for example. In other words: I’m a European. Gilles Deleuze’s books on the movement-image and the time-image were what first got me interested in European film history. I didn’t care for cinema at all before I read them.

EDLINGER: Deleuze detected a historical discontinuity between the early movement-image and the more modern time-image. Where does Soldate Jeannette fall on that scale?

HOESL: Yes, the sensorimotor bond is broken! Deleuze’s book only takes us up to the 80s, and it’s not like film hasn’t evolved since then. I also don’t see it as a recipe; I read it for inspiration – it marks out a horizon for pictures that will make you think. As the preface to Mille Plateaux already suggests, you have to read this sort of book as a kind of science fiction.

EDLINGER: Basing their argument on the example of Franz Kafka, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have also championed the idea of a Minor Literature. To what degree do you feel an affinity with the idea of a minor cinema?

HOESL: The title of my final-year thesis was »For a Minoritarian Cinema«. I studied the oeuvres of filmmakers like James Benning, Alain Resnais, and Harun Farocki. I’m also trying to drive the dominant cinematic language towards absurdity. My Fanni character speaks a language of power, but that language leads her into the void. And our camera, too, refuses to resolve spaces in the conventional sense.

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EDLINGER: Fanni gradually breaks free from her old upper-middle-class life. She breaks free from money, which is in itself regarded as a symbol of freedom, and burns it. Money no longer holds any promise.

HOESL: Money is a curse for her. To use Deleuze’s terms again: we live in a capitalist society in which schizophrenia is the norm. Fanni has a face that’s no longer anything but a mask. A very successful investor once told me that his entire business is basically »lie management«. It’s a game that’s fairly easy to join, if you can get others to accept you as a player.

EDLINGER: Fanni plays the game until it crushes her.

HOESL: Yes. The circumstances force her to call the system in which she lives into question. When she makes off for the woods, that is, in my view, nothing more than romantic escapism – it’s cold there and you’ll get bitten by ticks. Many viewers see a positive energy in the film, which I’m happy to hear, but it still makes me wonder. I myself don’t know where the two heroines will wind up, but it’s clear their journey has no happy ending.

EDLINGER: There are a few very funny scenes in the film as well – the chatter of the people in Fanni’s milieu, for example, which is stilted and at once completely vacuous.

HOESL: The word »expert« always makes me smile. Even just their language! Aurelia, the president of a Swiss foundation, is also the film’s expert on the world of pearl necklaces and multilingual parenting.

EDLINGER: Like Melville’s hero Bartleby, Fanni is a heroine of refusal. Bartleby »would prefer not to«, but it remains unclear why, or what else he’d prefer. Is Fanni a reincarnation of Bartleby?

HOESL: Fanni longs for an alternative, but she can’t find one. You’re either inside a system that brings you to heel, or you’re just a ne’er-do-well and that’s what you’re good at.

EDLINGER: But »Of the Life of a Good-for-Nothing« wouldn’t have been a suitable title for the film?

HOESL: No. The good-for-nothing has fortune on his side.

EDLINGER: The film is about two women, and the soundtrack is rich with female artists as well. Does one have to be a feminist today?

HOESL: If you respect people, you have to make feminist films.

EDLINGER: In two scenes, Soldate Jeanette quotes two heroines from movie history: Joan of Arc from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s picture, and Nana Kleinfrankenheim from Godard’s Vivre sa vie. On the phone with Aurelia, Fanni also mentions Chantal Akerman’s film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. All three are tragic characters: Joan of Arc gets burned at the stake, the prostitute Nana dies, and the widow and occasional prostitute Jeanne Dielman eventually stabs a john to death. And yet Fanni calls it a »funny movie«. Why?

HOESL: Fanni is a highly tragic figure herself. In a schizophrenic society, we smile and are sad at the same time. She’s being ironic with her comment about Dielman because the film exposes her own situation.

EDLINGER: Can a contemporary Soldate Jeannette, whoever that might be in the movie, still act with the heroism of a Joan of Arc?

HOESL: No. The state and the church have lost all power. Today whoever pays wins the debate.

EDLINGER: In a slim volume – a minor work, really, but it’s become quite influential – your philosophical guide Deleuze also described the demise of the disciplinary society, or its transition into a society of control. People today don’t need police orders anymore because they have an inner policeman to enforce order in their minds. But in Fanni’s case, this self-regulation starts to grate.

HOESL: Yes, because she retains a longing for a society that cares and an economy focused on the common good. It makes you sick when all your life is about is controlling others and making profits. Polls show that Wall Street traders are highly unhappy people because they have to generate greater and greater profits while also shouldering a great deal of responsibility. Millionaires are the new slaves, whereas a farmer who harvests the fruits of his land can be quite content. As long as he doesn’t wish for a Mercedes or that kind of bullshit. You don’t need to eat oysters in fucking Montauk. Although, to be honest, they’re not bad at all!

EDLINGER: To come back to Fanni’s relation to the three quoted movie heroines – unlike them, Fanni isn’t stuck in a dead-end situation; a new perspective opens up for her.

HOESL: There are paths that have yet to be beaten out. I’m not a fatalist, and unlike some other directors, I’m not disappointed over 1968 and the revolution that never happened. When the state loses influence, it opens the possibility, at least, for us to take our lives in our own hands. Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent (1989), after all, is the opposite paradigm.

EDLINGER: Because it freezes everything?

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HOESL: Yes. And because they all kill themselves in the end. But that’s not the sort of resolution I want to send my viewers out into the night with. I don’t think that it sets a transmission of energy in motion that helps people change their lives. Unless you teach a child how to sing in a choir, it’s unlikely it will just start singing.

EDLINGER: Haneke, especially in his early movies, knows everything better than his characters; as a director, he’s a puppeteer who stages their failure.

HOESL: I think Haneke is disappointed over 1968. The revolution didn’t happen. I was born in the 80s. I always had the support of my parents and didn’t face any of those problems. I’m unquestionably in the world, with time on my hands, and I want to use it. And I want things to be better not just for myself but for others as well.

EDLINGER: You worked with Ulrich Seidl for a long time, most recently as his assistant director. What did you learn from him?

HOESL: That you make an effort to get protagonists who stand out. The set designers Andreas Donhauser and Renate Martin also taught me a lot. They’d take a room, remove everything in it, and hang up new things – we did the same thing with the farmhouse for Soldate Jeannette. And we learned that the wine must be chilled to 4ºC. Plus I now know what I don’t want to do. We were very efficient when we made our film – Seidl would spend years shooting. I couldn’t stand it!

EDLINGER: Where does this commitment to a constructed anti-realism stem from?

HOESL: I’m not interested in authenticity. Stylized representation might allow another truth to emerge. Our film is very different from Seidl’s work in that the language is extremely stylized as well. For example, the artificial pauses. Needless to say, that’s also a nice way to approach something like sculpture.

EDLINGER: This is the second time you’ve mentioned sculpture when we’re talking about filmmaking. Why?

HOESL: You look for the implements, the material. Chiseling happens in several stages: shooting, editing, and then the fine-tuning.

EDLINGER: Does filmmaking work like a kind of social sculpture?

HOESL: That’s why we teamed up with the nonprofit association European Film Conspiracy. There’s a completely flat hierarchy. As the director, I’m paid the same daily rate as everyone else, including the cook.

EDLINGER: But what’s so astonishing about this semi-improvised meal is that the final film still tastes like you worked from a good recipe.

HOESL: We just let the autopoiesis happen. The wonderful thing is that everyone is intelligent.

EDLINGER: If you just let them be.

HOESL: Exactly. The costume designer is much more intelligent than I am when it comes to costumes.

EDLINGER: Soldate Jeannette is structured by dislocations of perspective. The pile of potatoes on the farm, for example, becomes recognizable as such only when the camera zooms away from the pattern of what look like abstract spheres. The close-ups and detail shots don’t immediately reveal the bodies or objects they refer to.

HOESL: As a filmmaker and even as a viewer, I like to be challenged. Otherwise I fall asleep. In purely photographic terms, I’m interested in what you can’t quite see with the naked eye.

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EDLINGER: In addition to the original score by Peter Kutin, there are two songs donated by musicians: the Berlin-based, ex-punk turned electronic artist Bettina Köster, and Eva Jantschitsch aka Gustav, whose song Alles renkt sich wieder ein makes a grand appearance in the forest.

HOESL: Köster really suits us because she doesn’t play the game. She’s a paradigmatic strong woman, but not in the patriarchal sense. The same goes for Gustav, except her song isn’t used as part of the score but actually serves as authorial commentary.

EDLINGER: Gustav’s song – the title means »Everything’s Going to Sort Itself Out« – is very ambivalent, a blend of spiritual and chanson, of brass band with a touch of jazz and wicked lyrics. What makes the song so appealing to you?

HOESL: There’s a line in it, » I wish for a catastrophe«, and at the same time, or because of that wish, everything’s going to sort itself out. I think that’s what I wish for too. And then the film happens to be set in Austria, where brass band music is a marker of rural life.

Thomas Edlinger: What you call catastrophe presumably used to be called revolution. Why do you prefer »catastrophe«?

HOESL: We can’t stop the giant machine that rules us. But we can open a bottle of whiskey and watch as the machine digs itself into a hole.

EDLINGER: So what’s the wine that must be chilled to 4ºC?

HOESL: Grüner Veltliner. —

Translated by Gerrit Jackson

Daniel Hoesl born 1982 in St. Pölten. Lives in Vienna. Soldate Jeannette (2013) was awarded the Tiger Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival, and shown in the competition of Sundance Film Festival in Utah. The film subsequently toured numerous festivals including Sarajevo Film Festival, Sevilla European Film Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival, Sydney Film Festival, and Göteborg International Film Festival. 

Thomas Edlinger is a journalist, author and curator. He lives in Vienna.

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