Without a Recipe

in 6th OFF PLUS CAMERA International Festival of Independent Cinema

by Susanne Schuetz

“I have a yearning for the next catastrophe”, sings a young woman in a lighthearted, sweet and optimistic voice, while we see the protagonist gracefully stepping out of her formerly privileged life. “Let all the cities crumble, I never want to see the sun again”, continues Austrian chanteuse Eva Jantschitsch, better known as Gustav, in this waltz ballad that is infused with an uplifting feel despite the apocalyptic lyrics. A stark contrast, a seductive irritation: the song Alles renkt sich wieder ein (Everything will fall back into place) orchestrates the central moment in Daniel Hoesl’s beautifully shot Austrian competition entry Soldate Jeannette, a resolute film pleading for radical changes — with lots of irony.

Capitalism is at its end — but retreating back to nature is also not an option as long as there are patriarchal structures even there. The film’s core message might sound like a bleak vision, but Daniel Hoesl is no pessimist. Soldate Jeannette is an allegory dressed up as a modern fairytale, with its two determined women breaking up old structures and daring to go where no man has gone before.

The title of Hoesl’s film is a reference to another song — Beck’s Soldier Jane (you might also want to think about Joan of Arc), firstly follows the aristocratic-looking Fanni (Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg) through little subversive moments in her upper-class Viennese life. The statuesque woman in her mid-forties buys an expensive new dress in an upscale boutique, after the attendant himself skilfully praises it. But she immediately dumps her purchase in a clothes container collecting donations for poor people. Then Fanni talks a rich Swiss friend into giving her a large sum of money that she promises to invest. After this she goes to karate practise, and a day later is evicted from her luxurious apartment — Fanni hasn’t paid rent in years, we learn. She nonchalantly turns down an offer to work in an exclusive fashion boutique herself. Instead, she takes her Swiss friend’s money out of the bank, borrows a classy car for a “test drive” — we see that she owns a diplomat’s pass — and prepares for a new start. But she is not rebuilding her privileged life: Fanni buys outdoor equipment, dumps the car, goes on a long hike and builds a campfire where she unflinchingly burns all the money.

We then see her with Anna (Christina Reichsthaler), who works on a secluded farm and introduces Fanni to how the farm is organized and where she is to sleep. Fanni now works on the farm with Anna, who she maybe knows from before. But the simple life is no bliss either, as Anna is unhappy about how she is treated by the other farm resident Ernst, a former policemen. So Fanni and Anna decide to leave the farm, but the police are on Fanni’s heels.

While the conclusion of the film is not the strongest, this debut of 30-year-old Viennese filmmaker Daniel Hoesl, who has been working for the past eight years as Ulrich Seidl’s assistant director, is highly promising. Soldate Jeannette manages to surprise with every turn, is exquisitely shot and precisely edited. Additionally, Hoesl uses a strong score that also includes work by German musician Bettina Koester from the experimental, all-female new wave band Malaria as its own character, evoking a mysterious, luminous atmosphere. This is heightened by the intriguing casting: acclaimed theatre actress Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg is a member of the higher nobility herself (and apparently played Joan of Arc when she was ten), while Christina Reichsthaler used to work on an eco-farm herself. Though being playful, Soldate Jeannette — which had its premiere in Sundance and won a prestigious Tiger award at the 2013 Rotterdam Film Festival — raises important questions about the role of money and hierarchy in our society. Hoesl, who made the film for only €65,000 with promisingly named production team European Film Conspiracy, addresses fundamental issues without being a morose or jaded activist, preferring a humorous approach to a radical appeal for change.

Humor and unexpected turns are also at the heart of Ramon Zuercher’s The Strange Little Cat (Das merkwuerdige Kaetzchen), a little German experimental study of behavioral structures and family dynamics. The Swiss-born and Berlin-based director focuses especially on language and rituals. His film shows a middle-class Berlin family preparing for a large dinner at a Saturday get-together in autumn. Zuercher questions conventions and asks what accepted behavior is. The film is loosely inspired by Kafka’s Metamorphosis and is the fruit of a workshop with Bela Tarr at Zuercher’s film school, the Deutsche Film — und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb). The Strange Little Cat premiered in the Forum section of this year’s Berlinale and is almost completely set in a kitchen. Seemingly the film shows an ordinary day with breakfast, washing up, preparing dinner and repairing a washing machine. But the members of this large family, whose relation to each other can only be partly pieced together, are quite erratic. The mother (Jenny Schily) is not very motherly, the young daughter (Mia Kasalo) likes to scream, and only when a toy helicopter is flown around does the visiting older daughter (Anjorka Strechel) get intrigued by everyday mysteries such as the question of why orange peels always have the white side up. A dog and a cat are also part of the set-up, barking at a door or climbing a table. “Is he/she allowed to do that?”, is the question that the children keep asking, to which the stoic mother only replies: “Yes, he/she is allowed to.”

Zuercher thus shows life’s little oddities through his focus on the mechanisms of conversation and interactions: Every word seems loaded. And in-between the routine some characters recall a random anecdote each, mostly recited in a literary tone using the past tense instead of the present perfect that is usually used for spoken German. These little studies in linguistics and language levels might lose some of their impact for viewers that have to rely on subtitles. But Zuercher also experiments with semantic issues that are translatable: “Cats are my onions” is one of the absurd mantras that raise eyebrows. And while the washing machine is being repaired the quality of the tools is discussed: “To touch cheap tools is as bad as smoking 10,000 cigarettes” — a statement criticizing how often we rely on statistics and exaggerated research reports. The beauty of everyday physics is also highlighted in scenes where a bottle that is kept in a pot filled with boiling water dances around. Another frustration is the way Zuercher shot the scenes: Often the heads of the characters are not in the frame, with the viewer just seeing parts of their bodies. The Strange Little Cat defies expectations and feels like a skillfully choreographed ballet piece or a performed art installation (Zuercher has an art degree from the Hochschule der Kuenste Bern). The running time of 72 minutes though is almost too long as after a while the rhythm becomes a little repetitive. Still, many moments stay with the viewer — as does the title: after all, the only character that is not strange at all is the little cat.

Edited by Carmen Gray