Having worked in the independent film scene for over a decade, Austrian director Daniel Hoesl knows the ins and outs of the system and the demands of making a feature-length film. But being a very thoughtful, avant-garde thinker with a vision that differs from the current European status quo, his challenge to make Soldate Jeannette was exacerbated. Working with actor biographies to create a collaborative, organic film, this work of social significance comes from structured improvisation framed with a keen and deliberate photographic eye. The end result premieres at the Sundance Film Festival.
So, what is the European Film Conspiracy?
DH: In Europe, we have a strong film funding system but it's all based on screenplay. Since there are few other ways to get funding for a film, I needed to find people that would work with me and "conspire" to make a movie like this. Ultimately, it was Gerald Kerkletz (DoP), Katharina Posch (producer) and Eva Hausberger (production manager/AD) and myself working on this film. We've been working in the independent film industry for about ten years, so creating an alternate movement where we work with actor biographies and take an improvisational approach came as an experiential response of sorts. What's interesting about making art is that you find out that your own way of thinking and refusal to adjust for others can be problematic, but also a driving force.
How did the collaboration with the writers and actresses, Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg and Christina Reichsthaler, work?
DH: At first, we didn't have a screenplay or any intentions. What we did is decide that this movie would be about women. The first thing that we did was the casting. I met about a hundred people and wrote down their biographies. Normally, you would write the screenplay and cast from that but as previously mentioned, we wanted to create a narrative from natural life experience. And with such a tiny budget and a different approach to filmmaking, we really needed to find actors with biographies that would create a dynamic story worth telling.
Fanni's character lives in a world of money and material goods. Can you discuss how money drives this story and what it means to the characters?
DH: Fanni lives in a money-driven world. In real life, Johanna comes from an old aristocratic family growing up on a castle. When you have money, you always fear that you might lose it. It can be like the wind; it comes and goes. In her position, if you don't have any money, you might become a conman, to keep up the facade. She's cursed by money and a materialistic society where money is ultimately a religion, and at some point she realizes her value in this world is elsewhere. At the mid-way point, when she burns her money, that's a point of relief. Money is a curse of our society. It needs regulation. To contextualize, we might think of debt as a man who comes and gets you, whereas money is like a motherly women trying to help everyone to buy food and get educated and get the stuff they need. But the thing about money is that there are too many men out there that try to trick and abuse the woman (money). When you get rid of materialistic values you regain the values of being.
I noticed a lot of duality throughout Soldate Jeannette, such as town and country, rich and poor, etc. Are you drawing divides or opposites in society as far as values go?
DH: As far as town and country goes, the position of Christina's character (Anna) on the farm was necessary. It came from her biography and worked as a natural juxtaposition. Stepping back, there's a survivalist element missing from (Fanni's) privileged modern life. I'm currently in midtown Manhattan, surrounded by diamonds and tall buildings and endless material goods, but there are no mountains around, no vegetables or animals that you can eat. That's a big problem. If left to their own devices, what would these people eat? In our society, people value proprietorship, but neither can nor actually care to feed each other and survive in a capacity like we did before in communities. In life, we don't want to pay for the most important things, but must own the newest electronic gadgets. Farm work on the other hand, the profession that feeds us, is absolutely underrated.
Fanni seems, in part, to be a heroine for Anna. Can you talk about their relationship?
DH: Both women are cursed. One is cursed by money; the other is cursed by a society that neglects her. When Fanni realizes that it is possible to live an alternative way, she finds a movement and acts on it, which leads to her taking the hand of Anna, so that together, they can feel the peace of liberty. Sometimes, in life, you meet somebody that pushes you and motivates you. That's actually one of the main problems in life: it's hard to take a position or stance on something when you're trapped in a routine. This movie is about finding alternatives to the routine and doing what you want to do. The crucial question is: what is my desire?
Do you feel their collective rejection of society is a feminist statement, or is more about inciting social change?
DH: From a feminist point of view, Soldate Jeannette is like a GI Jane Soldier type that isn't afraid to take her heart out of her shell. Their action is about standing up and doing what they have to when they realize they're trapped in a state of inertia, like the majority of our society is. And inside every woman or man there is a soldier Jeanette. There are so many things that women need to stand up against in life, being implicitly dominated by men and the structure of a society designed by men. And thank God that women are here, because without them men would have created an endless stream of conflict.
Your style seemed very calculated and storyboarded. Can you talk about how you approached the aesthetic of the film?
DH: I have a photography background. At a certain point, I became interested in time; in particular when I read Gilles Deleuze's, "The Time Image." It taught the rigidity of telling time and relating it to an image, pointing out that time is not necessarily about a plotline or a story, which I found interesting. It also helps that I have the best cinematographer in the world in Gerald Kerkletz. He brought movies like Michael to the Cannes Film Festival. He makes other similarly rigid, minimalist films. He's a very progressive thinking and an artist of minimal aesthetics. With Soldate Jeannette, we shot no coverage. What you see in the movie is what we planned in advance. We only had sixty-thousand Euro and a time period of seven weeks, so we had to know exactly what was going on at all times. We didn't have an ending of the film until about halfway through, which made things very stressful and challenging, since we had no screenplay dialogues and acting still remains improvised. This is very different than my experience working with Ulrich Seidl, who would shoot movies for years and shoot every scene several times.
From the opening of Soldate Jeannette, the electronic soundtrack suggests that there is more going on than meets the eye. Can you talk about how the soundtrack was developed?
DH: It is the music of Fanni's interior. Like I said, we start out with casting, think about the narrative and then we start thinking about the music. We think about what sort of music would fit the actors in relation to what the film is all about. I listened to a lot of music and thought that Bettina Köster would be appropriate, but wasn't sure she would be interested. So, I wrote her an email and she actually responded within a few seconds. She actually paid for the trip to work with us herself and didn't take payment for the music. Bettina was perfect for this, being a rebel and feminist lesbian personality that was a member of "Malaria," which was a very influential punk bank in 1980s Berlin and New York. Once we started editing, we found other ways of editing, such as the extended scene on the couch. Originally, the scene worked fine without the music, but when we randomly decided to put it in there, it added something to the scene that just worked. It felt concrete. To draw a parallel, she was like the perfect musical ingredient to make the entire recipe come together.
Describe your ideal society. Would it be run by women?
DH: It would be a borderless community where gender and race does not matter. Think about elephants. I'm really astonished by how elephants live together. They never let a child starve to death. They all look after each other and ensure that everyone is taken care of. Right now, I'm in Manhattan surrounded by money, but the elephants here can't afford to pay for the homeless people on the streets, even though they're surrounded by excess. If it's women or men, it doesn't matter. The problem is with society. If people would care more for each other instead of being selfish, obviously, things would be better.
To read our review of Soldate Jeannette, click here.