Filmmakers Talk Back – Jan Soldat
For Berlin Critics’ Week 2022, two of our artistic directors – Petra Palmer and Dennis Vetter – curated the programme LIBERTINE together with filmmaker Dea Kulumbegashvili (BEGINNING). The accompanying screening included the three films THE STONEBREAKERS by Azul Aizenberg, FRIDAY NIGHT STAND by Jan Soldat, and INU-OH by Masaaki Yuasa. Since Jan Soldat was not part of our post-screening debate, Charlie Bendisch from the Critics’ Week team sat down with him to reflect on the criticism of his films, his search for a ‘neutral’ gaze, and how he takes a stance on pornography through his framing and editing choices.
You can find a related Filmmakers Talk Back conversation with Azul Aizenberg on our YouTube channel. The post-screening debate about the LIBERTINE programme (featuring Dea Kulumbegashvili, Skadi Loist, Jasper Sharp) can also be watched in full there.
Charlie Bendisch: What went through your mind after the debate?
Jan Soldat: Your debate was focused very much on curating, so I would have liked you to further reveal your decision-making processes. It would have been interesting to hear more about your dynamic, which is of course also a sensitive topic to discuss in front of an audience. Petra Palmer, for example, mentioned that she didn’t think the program was completely successful – of course I then asked myself about alternative choices, the options you had, and why the constellation of films ultimately came about for this programme.
Charlie Bendisch: Instead we tried to discuss the connecting lines between the films.
Jan Soldat: Well, I felt that the conversation was pretty tedious. However, I only understood why I felt that way in retrospect. Skadi Loist hit the nail on the head when she described the core of the conversation through an anecdote from her school lessons: “As soon as there is a headline, everything has to have a meaning.” Actually, that doesn’t have to be the case; a film programme can be thought of more freely, both while curating it and watching it. I would have been more interested in the question of how our films actually informed each other while people were watching them together. Or maybe: What can be discovered in the individual films?
Charlie Bendisch: Then let’s talk about what can be found in your films. Dea Kulumbegashvili explained in the debate that she feels like she can approach your film Friday Night Stand so effortlessly because she doesn’t think about any kind of references while watching it, but simply feels like she’s in the room with the protagonists. In the audience, one person described how, after ten minutes, she felt like she had spent an entire evening with the protagonists. The specific sense of a cinematic encounter seems central to your work.
Jan Soldat: For this film, I find these observations fitting. However, every encounter I have while making a film is different. How intense such an encounter might be, how hard it might be, and whether I “only” talk to my protagonists is only decided on location. Accordingly, there is always a different sense of time in each work. With Friday Night Stand, I already emphasize in the title that the film is about time and about catching a specific mood. I can understand why Petra Palmer, for example, said that just catching the mood of an encounter is not enough for her. What I generally prefer in my films and find more interesting is when I get to know people even more than I did in this case. But going deeper is not what this film was about. Jasper Sharp described the simple premise of the film at some point during the debate, saying, “What you see is what you get,” or maybe, “It is what it is.” I took his choice of words as a compliment in their clarity – even if his comments were probably not meant that way.
Charlie Bendisch: Because his statements emphasize the immediacy of the film?
Jan Soldat: Exactly – I tried to convey a certain immediacy with the film. It doesn’t have a context or an explicitly political level like other works of mine. That’s why it loses impact for me when I watch it repeatedly, and it’s what Skadi Loist was referring to when she said that the effect my films usually have is not achieved in Friday Night Stand. My films have to do with surprise; with dealing with one’s own shame; with one’s own disgust; with bodily images; with intimacy and privacy – many things impress upon the audience, some seeming repulsive. In any case, there is an intensity. This time I tried to also make it a comedy. But I always work with the material and the encounter itself without scripting it – in this case sex, food, and a personal connection were central. The latter manifests itself when I start asking questions toward the end of the film. One person in the audience described it as “manipulative” that I intervene.
Charlie Bendisch: That moment reminded me a lot of Thomas Heise’s Stau (1992), in which he also asks very spontaneous, sincere questions off-camera.
Jan Soldat: There’s an interview with him about that film in which he describes the questions as “continuity questions.” I try to ask questions only when I’m really interested in something – sometimes it takes a long time before I start asking them. It’s easier in one-to-one encounters: you get to know each other more intensely. While shooting Friday Night Stand, the protagonists talked a lot – in particular there were long monologues that would have bombed the dramaturgy of the film. In editing, I decided to leave in only short pieces of dialogue that make the situations more grounded – for example, about garlic and yoga. Mostly, I focused on the moments between conversations.
I love that the film was described as anti-porn because I was very concerned with the question of editing: How do I choose the shot when I’m filming explicit sex? I have conversations about that all the time. People tell me that my films are no longer valuable as soon as I show explicit, pornographic close-ups. Filmmaker friends, for example, tell me that they don’t find such shots cinematic enough. I am very interested in the question of how I can articulate a position via the camera angles of my films. For example, I often jump from one close-up to another – in this film, I do it when one of the men jerks off, framing that moment in a social space. I thought it was nice that this was brought up in the debate: it seems that I succeeded in creating a film that feels resistant when it comes to showing explicit sex. Through my refusal to use certain images people seemed to understand my position towards what is being shown.
Charlie Bendisch: Still, you show a lot of explicit material. In an interview about your work, you once said that you would feel like you were taking something away from the protagonists’ self-presentation by not showing explicit scenes.
Jan Soldat: Yes, leaving out sex during a sex meeting would be strange. Also, just from the angle of the framing, the audience would immediately wonder, ‘Is the director ashamed?’ You can tell from the camera’s gaze whether it’s a fascinated gaze, for example. Countless documentaries tell of the coutryside and show a slaughter scene. The ways the slaughter is filmed always raises questions: Is the person being exposed to something like this for the first time? Or for the second time? Does the director know what exactly is going to happen? Is the director fascinated by this violence? I think about such questions and film my protagonists through static shots to ‘neutralize’ the gaze, in a way. I’m not interested in intensifying the experience. By using close-ups I would make my film communicate more on a sensual level. However, I am looking for a more neutral gaze, even if that is a strange ideal. There has been a lot of discussion about my film Wohnhaft Erdgeschoss (Resident Ground Floor, 2020) as to whether such a gaze is even conceivable: a respectful, open, empathetic and yet distanced gaze, which is non-judgmental, curious and subjective, but still seem neutral.
Charlie Bendisch: You try to avoid calculation and anticipation, but of course your films have a reason for being made and you and your protagonists have concrete interests.
Jan Soldat: A friend of mine said to me that curiosity was the most important thing about my films. That was about 12 years ago. Since then, I’ve tried to maintain that curiosity and naivety. Another friend described my work as an “engagement.” I think having a position and an attitude are important, but I try to hold back my own emotions a lot – for example, when I find something disgusting or something hurts me. If someone eats shit, like in my film Florian (2021), and my body reacts with disgust, I ask myself above all: How can I still tell it cinematically? I have to show what happens, because otherwise I lose the character. Some people were irritated by the apartment I show in Wohnhaft Erdgeschoss. But there is a beauty in the very clarity of showing.
Charlie Bendisch: A critic in the context of the Duisburg Film Week questioned the connection in that film between your protagonist Heiko and the history of the GDR. It’s kept implicit, since you avoid clear causality. In Friday Night Stand, historical or political connections are hardly visible, remaining largely hidden. In the short film Dyptichon (2021), however, there is a shot of one of the protagonists from Friday Night Stand sexually satisfying himself at home under a swastika. While the symbol seems to be more associated with Hindu-inspired beliefs in his case, there’s still a swastika hanging there and you put it prominently in the shot.
Jan Soldat: At that moment, it actually wasn’t a Nazi symbol to me. I understand that it triggers certain thoughts, but the film doesn’t work with that. In Wohnhaft Erdgeschoss, on the other hand, I found it legitimate to open up a political thought-space. With Heiko, I found the entanglement interesting: between his violent, abusive childhood, his GDR history – he’s been unemployed since the fall of the Wall – and his piss fetish. I found the connecting lines within this triangle exciting. He also felt that it was important to share his story with me. I grew up in the GDR too, and his story reminds me of my home in Chemnitz; of a feeling of, ‘There is nothing. We are nothing. I am nothing.’ I found these feelings very sad when I met him.
I made slave fetish films in a former prison, in reference to which I was accused of relativizing the events in Guantanamo. I don’t see it that way. The film is about a specific desire for loss of control and violence based on consensus. When people explore a space of experience in their bodies, I think it’s wrong to condemn that morally. But of course the images trigger something in the audience and can seem disrespectful. During your debate at Critics’ Week, I thought it was nice that there was so much talk about feelings, and that the question of what a film can trigger in the audience kept coming up, rather than anyone imposing a reading on the films of the night.
Charlie Bendisch: While we’re exploring the subject of criticism: What do you think about the accusation that you expose misery? Or that you make films that exploit voyeurism, or involve the audience in your personal voyeurism by tapping into people’s life stories or by exoticizing your protagonists? Strong criticism can often be encountered when it comes to a cinema which enters intimate spheres, like yours. Do such reactions bother you?
Jan Soldat: I encounter this kind of criticism now much less than I did years ago, because people know my cinema much better today. But I also see that some of my films are unfortunately more exoticizing than they should be. I made a film about people with a diaper fetish (Coming of Age, 2016) and one about adult babies (Happy Happy Baby, 2017). I liked the first one, but the second one lacked a clear focus on a person or situation. Of course, I don’t frame protagonists like zoo animals doing tricks in front of the camera – but I can already feel that I like some of my films less today because they don’t transcend a certain notion of ‘craziness.’ I would say that this is not true when considering my body of work as a whole. Mostly, the harsh kind of criticism towards my films has to do with people feeling attacked. Friday Night Stand is supposed to be funny, but there are also movies where people laugh for 40 minutes even though the movies themselves might not suggest a humorous reading at all. Some people laugh when they repress or devalue something because it hurts too much.
Charlie Bendisch: In your films there is a kind of strategy to create acceptance or tolerance. Skadi Loist described during our debate that Friday Night Stand shows “the beauty or horror of ordinariness.” This idea of ordinariness is articulated very strongly through your aesthetic and seems to be important to you. Also I see that you are interested in a certain neutrality.
Jan Soldat: Yes, but too much withdrawal makes the films boring for me – I tried that. Contact is important to me. I am present during the shoot, trying to be transparent and yet perceptible at the same time. There are filmmakers who seem to be in contact but are actually interested in something else; in rising above people, and trying to make films which are entertaining or intellectual. Festivals show many such films and they disgust me – not because someone takes a shit, but because the camera doesn’t approach them on eye level. Often films are made this way because there is an assumption that the audience is stupid, but there is no such thing as a stupid audience. There is perhaps a non-knowing audience, and I see myself as a part of this audience. I don’t understand many films, even in your programme. I remain on the outside, because they don’t open up to me. I don’t claim to be an elitist, as either a director or a viewer. But many people woul prefer to see elitism in my work and in my self-definition as a filmmaker. There is the insinuation that only elitist events and films are really interested in cinema.
Charlie Bendisch: Was there anything in our debate that bothered you?
Jan Soldat: No, I just would have liked more criticism – especially because I heard that one panel guest didn’t like my film. I wondered why. Most guests don’t talk about that on stage. Sometimes I would be pleased about getting into polemics, but since queerness and political correctness have become publicly important, many hold back. They would otherwise have to let their prejudices show. In such an intellectualized context, panel guests rarely do this. That’s an assumption, but I do wonder why people don’t speak their minds. I always say I’m homophobic too, just because I’m socialized that way, even though I’ve probably seen a lot more than the people who present themselves as tolerant.