Born in 1984 in Karl-Marx-Stadt (GDR), Jan Soldat worked at Chemnitzer Filmwerkstatt from 2007-2008. From October 2008 he studied film and television at the Academy of Film and Television „Konrad Wolf“ in Potsdam-Babelsberg. Jan Soldat has been a guest of the Berlinale several times: in 2010 with „Be Loved“ in the program of the Berlinale Shorts, 2012 with „LAW and ORDER“ in the Panorama and with „CRAZY DENNIS TIGER“ in the program of Generation 14plus, where he also was a member of the International Jury. His diploma film „The Incomplete“ won the Best Short Film Award at the Rome Film Festival and was nominated for the German Film Critics‘ Award. His four-part series documenting prison-roleplays had its premieres at the Viennale 2014, Rotterdam 2015 and in the program of the Berlinale Panorama 2015. Two of his works, „Coming Of Age“ and „Happy Happy Baby„, deal with the phenomenon of adult babies. After his experimental documentary „Protocols“ in 2017 about men which want to be slaughtered and eaten, he worked mostly as editor and dramaturgical advicer. In November 2019 he started a series of „First Date Short Films“, portraits about gay men and their sexual fantasies in tension between documentary and pornography.
„Flesh and Bones to Daydreams“
by Olaf Möller (filmcritic) on the films of Jan Soldat, May 2015
Some two winters ago, Jan Soldat and I met for the first time outside a festival (which is to say: unstressed and not surrounded by the usual dozen or so nice people one may not necessarily need at exactly that point in time – the inconveniences and perils of that particular context…). We sat down in a nondescript café where two jeans-and-hoody-guys don’t look out of place, ordered something to drink, and chatted – about swinger club experiences, porn (Soldat had worked on a few productions), and the recent criminalization of zoophile sex in the FRG… At the latest then, some heads turned, for folks do listen in at café, as we all know.
Jan Soldat looks pretty good in a casual, easy-going-shy way––endearing, even seductive while never overbearing or intimidating. That’s one reason why he can make films like Geschwisterliebe (2007), Geliebt (2009), rein/raus, Endlich Urlaub (both 2010), Interim (2011), Zucht und Ordnung (2012), or Der Unfertige (2013). Another one is his melodious voice and straight-forward, polite while uninhibited manner of talking––no beating around the bush but also no prejudices, no cliché-based assumptions, no stupid cavalier jokes. Soldat doesn’t assume that he knows what zoophiles, golden shower-connoisseurs, sadomasochistic senior citizens, men who live as slaves, people who desire to be treated like convicts or love playing guards want and think. But he wants to know.
And, no, although most of his recent films portray gay men, Soldat himself is straight. Which should hint at something else: that he’s after more than the sex; recently eg. he also edited a film, Marie Wilke’s Staatsdiener (2014), which looks at the training awaiting cadets at a police academy, the way women and men get prepared to keep peace and enforce justice in the FRG. Soldat is interested in the way human relationships reflect society, and vice versa; it’s just that with sex, things get basic, to the core. And in a society as patriarchal as the FRG still is, looking at male behaviour, male rites, male bonding probably says a lot about the way our society as well as those quite like it function. Soldat’s man incorporate the FRG-way.
Arwed & Dennis, the lovely couple at the heart of Soldat’s most recent work, the tetralogy Hotel Straussberg & Haftanlage 4614 & Die sechste Jahreszeit & Der Besuch (all 2014), remembered how they met him for the first time. They had made contact via internet, exchanged e-mails; some background checks via google showed that Jan at least didn’t have a reputation as a sensation-hungry smut paddler. Finally, they arranged for an afternoon coffee with cake––cosy and a bit formal. Arwed & Dennis were still a bit worried––FRG-TV is full of “reportage” shorts about sexual behaviour deemed kinky or plainly deviant; and their facility is, well, unusual. But they soon trusted Jan: for his no-nonsense no-bullshit attitude as well as his unhurried warmth. So all three decided to give it a try, let him enter their realm, if the other players agreed; which they did, albeit sometimes conditionally––one of them eg. asked that a certain film won’t get shown in his home country, to which Soldat agreed.
Cinema, for Soldat, is a chance to meet people. Sometimes again, as witnessed by a relatively little-known gem, Fragmente der Einsamkeit (2012): Soldat made this genre-wise utterly unclassifiable to get back into contact with an old friend from back home who was sentenced to 18 months of prison (for a crime whose nature is of no relevance for the film). Johannes Müller is his name. Soldat had already done a film with him, zwischen König und Bettler (2008), in which Müller talks ao. things about his will to show himself, explain himself, as he doesn’t know who he is but wants to; the credits describe the endeavour as a ’short portrait of relüme by Jan Soldat & Johannes Müller’––relüme being a warped anagram of Müller suggesting that the artist who talked all the time, the protagonist who introduced himself as Johannes Müller, is not merely a pseudonymous, but a heteronymous character. Mind the motto of Fragmente der Einsamkeit: All documentary parts of this film are fiction. All fiction is real; which paraphrases the motto of Romuald Karmakar’s Super-8-début feature Eine Freundschaft in Deutschland, made in 1984/85, around the time Soldat was born in Karl-Marx-Stadt (GDR). Doesn’t matter, maybe, whether the story of Soldat & Müller really happened like this: for the sense of desolation and destitution, forlorn- and loneliness in each and every image are very real. One might evoke here Mishima Yukio’s Kamen no kokuhaku: Confessions of a Mask (1949)…
Soldat did actually make all-out fiction shorts––Geschwisterliebe and Interim were already mentioned––but those few are overshadowed by his non-fiction films. Which is a bit unjust: Interim eg. captures a sense of fleetingness, the fundamentally unstable nature of all human relationships, the poetry of the flesh at its rawest and most disquieting; besides, it’s one of his rare works centred on a female character. Interim is certainly as edgy, unflinching and even as graphic as eg. Geliebt, rein/raus or Endlich Urlaub; and it was probably more difficult to get the actors to play masturbation or fucking in a naturalistic key. Or was it?
Direction-wise, there’s little difference between the genres and registers: Soldat tends to shoot from a tripod or at least to keep the camera very still; prefers to pack as much into one on-going take as possible; respects the unity of time and space. He abhorres artfully constructed images––the lone exception is a penchant for shooting through eg. a door ajar, or whatever puts a second frame inside the image. Whenever possible, he keeps the image flat and confrontational––it’s him and the one opposite, face to face, eye to eye. Finally, there’s a distinct preference for colloquial speech, which is especially noticeable in his fiction works––there are not that many films made in FRG that sport unforced street talk with a lot of local colour that sounds true; Soldat has a good ear for that, and a fine sense for what language does with actors, be they professionals or amateurs. And there are always exceptions to these basics––Soldat eg. never before and never again edited the way he did in rein/raus where he turns some casual sex on a sofa through terse and taut cutting into a fuck-frenzy, followed by a long, uninterrupted look at his exhausted protagonists.
To a high degree, Jan Soldat’s cinema lives on the fact that people want to be seen and heard: communicate; the will and desire to show something that’s dear while hidden plays a good part in that, no matter whether done for the purely sexual pleasure one derives from that or for reasons deemed professional. A maybe even bigger part, especially in the non-fiction works (but not only there), plays a need and will to be appreciated by society; and in some cases, maybe also to be understood––some of Soldat’s protagonists try to explain their live-style, remember past incidents and accidents, bliss and injuries, analyse it all the way they find fit. Yet the bottom line remains: Nobody needs to justify him- or herself here, anything goes (within legal limits). Soldat himself certainly is no stranger to that: He’s the lone character of yet another study in desperation and solitude, a very early short called GLV 162210 (2006) that ends with him taking a pencil and poking out one of his eyes––did it see evil, or was it just to feel something real, to hit himself as well as the viewer where it truly hurts in a film?
One can divide Soldat’s vast œuvre in roughly two parts: Chemnitzer Filmwerkstatt and Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen “Konrad Wolf ”, Potsdam. Soldat originally didn’t want to study film properly––he was quite happy doing his thing back home, for himself and his friends. But one day, the state came knocking, doesn’t matter why, nothing bad, just inconvenient, a hassle really. The important thing here is: that in 2008 Soldat enrolled at the “Konrad Wolf”. What didn’t change was his prodigious output: Soldat makes as many films per annum as he can––he actually gets restless whenever he doesn’t work; and considering that he’s doing his films for almost nothing, and usually doesn’t bother to ask for subsidies (takes too long), he can keep ‚em comin‘. What has changed is the focus of his work: Back home in Chemnitz, he talked about teenage angst, or simply goofed around, had fun with poking fun at genre tropes and other stupidities (eg. Kommissar Kresch und das zerplatzte Zirkuspferd, 2007); in Potsdam, Soldat started to focus on sex––the Chemnitzer Filmwerkstatt would probably have not been too amused if he’d done films with their resources like Geliebt (a triangle consisting of a gay couple and a dog) or Endlich Urlaub (men alone enjoying themselves in any which way); Then again: Geschwisterliebe already suggests Soldat’s fascination for sex as a catalyst, even if here it’s done in a rather Jörg Buttgereit’ian key, with eating the beloved one’s vomit and licking the gashing wound across her throat.
Sex, for Soldat, is something like theatre in which we’re actors and playwrites at the same time. In English, to perform is used to describe what actors as well as lovers do. Filming his extroverts of passion often results in films that feel like a piece––Geliebt is maybe a kammerspiel, Der Unfertige has the flow of a monologue, Zucht und Ordnung (2012) sports the charms of a good comedy, while Haftanlage 4614 is best enjoyed as a playful version of the Living Theater-classic The Brig (1963) But Soldat also wants to know things, refuses to remain a mere viewer, voyeur, and therefore asks his players to talk about themselves, put flesh and bone to the daydreams they’re living right at that moment. Normally, he wants to know some biographical details, to put things into perspective. In all that, one usually doesn’t see Soldat, only hears his wonderful voice that carries so much curiosity and solidarity. He’s one of them and with them. Always.
„Jan Soldat shows“
by Dennis Vetter (for AG Kurzfilm/www.shortfilm.de/en/ ), May 2016
When writing about the depiction of pain in the world, Susan Sontag once spoke about “regarding”. In “Regarding the Pain of Others”, she focused thematically on reactions to images, the responsibility when seeing, as well as on philosophical positions on a realpolitik geographical map. For we are all also part of that which we regard. Regarding something or someone concerns a concept that relates seeing and understanding directly with each other. While showing something or someone constitutes a similarly interesting concept. “Jan Soldat Shows” has developed to become a recurring invitation to view the filmmaker’s decade of work by now. And Jan Soldat shows how it feels to look attentively, to see in a certain way, and to view people in their humanity beyond categories.
Jan Soldat’s films negotiate the incomplete promises of truth in the photographic image at lived realities, as well as in the uniqueness of individual cases and characters: What we do not see we can only recognise with difficulty. And what we recognise is already a truth as such. One truth of many. Which makes a conversation with Jan Soldat quite a pleasant experience: A shared, tentative recognising, questioning and mutual curiosity. An attitude as such to people that reveals an unpretentious view: Of togetherness. Curiosity. Being. Beyond doubt, these represent cornerstones of his documentaries, which have become a uniquely visible aspect of his life and work over the last few years. In more than 40 short films and documentaries, the filmmaker has sharpened his focus progressively, shooting and editing with ever increasing clarity. Already at an early stage, static framings of the image represented an important element of Jan Soldat’s arrangements, provoking an air of concentrated seeing, and thus doubtlessly becoming a feature of identification. In the process, the fictional enactments have progressively slipped more and more into the background. And yet, all of the traces in Jan Soldat’s works seem to complement each other, marking stages in a journey, approaches to a modus.
For the Chemnitzer Filmwerkstatt, two films were made from 2006 that featured the eccentric Commissar Kresch who, in DER FUCHS VOM POSTHOF (THE FOX FROM THE POST YARD, 2007) as well as in DAS ZERPLATZTE ZIRKUSPFERD (THE BURST CIRCUS HORSE, 2007), dealt in a highly noncommittal manner with cases that were not especially controversial. In the films, he talks a lot while nothing happens as such. And yet crime is lurking there somewhere. One is often reminded of the German entertainer Helge Schneider when considering Peter Hungar, Soldat’s main actor at that time. With laughter being permitted, even if the setting seems so dreary. Hungar soon returned after his roles as the commissar, when he performed a Hitler pastiche in KEIN DEUTSCHMEHRLAND (NO (MORE) GERMANY, 2008). And already here, it seems that Jan Soldat’s scripted enactments with a documentary air work very well. As though it all has been lifted from everyday life: A reclusive, aging dictator being observed in his two-room flat in Chemnitz while he speaks somewhat strangely about cooking and the usual concerns. The film stages the encounter as an awkward conversation with the director – because conducting interviews is just not that easy. And conducting a direct dialogue with off-screen protagonists has become a recurring motif in Jan Soldat’s self-confident documentary form.
In addition to the humorous barbs, impressions of transgressing borders, severity and rage, as well as recurring moments of isolation, uncertainty and fear can be found in many of the early films by Jan Soldat. With people being incapable of speaking to each other (VERBAL TRANSFER), injuring themselves or throwing up (SANDWEG 80, 2008), and killing themselves or each other (RUNTER/DOWN and GESCHWISTERLIEBE/LOVE AMONG SIBLINGS, both 2007). In 3 (2007), the director jovially roasted a brain. Frequently, sex and corporeality are central motifs and become entangled with the sensitivities of characters alienated from each other (MUTTER/MOTHER, 2009). During his career, Jan Soldat has tried his hand at directing, screenwriting, camera, sound, editing and production. A diversity that has had a fundamental impact on his subsequent working method. In an early monologue, he even exposed himself to the camera, playing a young filmmaker with his uncertainties (WAHRSCHEINLICH, VIELLEICHT AUCH NICHT/PROBABLY, MAYBE NOT, 2008).
In 2008, Jan Soldat began studying at the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF (formerly the Film and Television Academy “Konrad Wolf” Potsdam-Babelsberg). With REIN/RAUS (IN/OUT, 2010), he made his first film there which showed sex explicitly and negotiated an indefinable interface between fiction and documentation. ENDLICH URLAUB (FINALLY HOLIDAYS, 2010) was produced independently parallel to his studies and works in a similar manner: With the body becoming its own reality above and beyond the logics of enactments. Yet what is shown in both of the short films shapes a social constellation as well. How one deals on an intimate level with others and with oneself opens up a space for reflection when viewed. A short time later, INTERIM (2011) condensed the motifs from earlier short fiction films into a claustrophobic portrait of a young woman who is perhaps a nymphomaniac. Rigorous, psychologically charged visual compositions dominate here, as well as impressions of isolation and voyeurism, dreariness and obsession. The body and its gender becoming a focal point of our gaze and a landscape of an analytical negotiation shot in close-ups. The staged sobriety and clear framing do not convey a distanced regarding, but rather a revelatory sharpness, candour and lack of fear when viewing. In his work with young lay actors, in CRAZY DENNIS TIGER (2012) and DANN IST ES HALT SO (THAT’S HOW IT IS, 2013), Jan Soldat found an additional facet of the fictional and enacted attentive, tenderly friendly observations here which work at the same time as milieu studies and coming-of-age stories. In this regard, CRAZY DENNIS TIGER, a coproduction with the TV broadcaster rbb, is his most narrative and conventional work to date as it reveals the clear story of a youth who wants to stand up for his brother and cross those who are close to him.
Following his first formulated documentary GELIEBT (BE LOVED, 2010), which was made with a small team at the film school, with ZUCHT UND ORDNUNG (LAW AND ORDER, 2012) Jan Soldat found a way to enact encounters without a film team, by permitting himself and the camera to engage with images of people and situations. The open approach taken at that time with ZUCHT UND ORDNUNG, without any funding or institutional framework, would become a work practice that has accompanied the filmmaker to the present day and which underscores his life and creative output. And “Jan Soldat Shows” also conveys the film production realities in Germany, where courageous material has a hard time, especially if there is no screenplay. The result of these first two short documentaries represents a record of getting to know and trust oneself, of revelation and revealing oneself. Of films which follow a logic of consensus and approach people on the basis of consent and a mutual, direct curiosity about each other. And this directness occurs because it is clear that the relationship with the filmmaker represents a necessity here. In addition to direct conversations, looks and gestures underscore that an awareness of the filmic arrangement exists among all of the participants here. GELIEBT is a portrait of Jens and Pascal, who live together with their two dogs and maintain a deep and even physical relationship with them. ZUCHT UND ORDNUNG shows Manfred and Jürgen during their BDSM games at home.
Already the films which were made at the film school and while studying met with a clear response. GELIEBT was screened in 2010 at the Berlinale Shorts section. That same year, ENDLICH URLAUB (FINALLY HOLIDAYS) went on to win the main prize for the best short film at the Pornfilmfestival Berlin. In 2012, ZUCHT UND ORDNUNG was invited to the Berlinale Panorama section, while its Generation 14plus section presented CRAZY DENNIS TIGER. Also at the short film festival in Oberhausen, ZUCHT UND ORDNUNG was screened in its German competition. Subsequently, the film was invited to more than 100 festivals. All in a single year that generated unique interest in the film and gave the filmmaker an international profile at 26.
Further documentary observations followed. WIELANDSTRAßE 20, 3. OG LINKS (WIELANDSTRAßE 20, 3rd FLOOR LEFT, 2012) shows Jörg and Karsten having sex and ends with silent shots of their apartment. EIN WOCHENENDE IN DEUTSCHLAND (A WEEKEND IN GERMANY, 2013) sees a return to Manfred and Jürgen, who have invited a playmate over for the weekend. BEZIEHUNGSWEISE (RESPECTIVELY, 2013) appears to be a panorama of Jan Soldat’s first documentaries, in which he places people from earlier films together again visually for several moments. As a look at familiar faces and a few new ones, all colourfully mixed together in their life stories and generations, and all united by the impression of a fragmented reality that is playing out somewhere alongside the German society – on a random weekend and in random homes. Jan Soldat himself becomes the connecting line, even if he constantly rejects out of hand overhasty conclusions about the commonalities in his films and the philosophies of his protagonists. That which is separate may remain so. And yet they have become placed next to each other – in relation to each other – within a filmography.
DER UNFERTIGE (THE IMCOMPLETE, 2013) was awarded best short film at the film festival in Rome. This changed how Jan Soldat’s work was perceived both in Germany and internationally, with him being nominated for instance for the German Critics Prize that same year. And with the approach taken to his films becoming more precise. It became clearer that drawing hasty conclusions about being provocative, spectacular or an outsider now represented the wrong track. Instead, his documentaries especially consist of a careful weighting of the means and the purpose for exploring a suitable gesture and air of showing. DER UNFERTIGE begins only with looks. While he is sitting in his slave gear on his bed, the protagonist of the film introduces himself as, “the Odenwald gay… or Gollum… or Klaus. 60 years old… gay… slave.” Jan Soldat’s longest film to date then follows, taking its time as it looks behind these categories, behind a body image, behind a self-image and its forms of enactment. The first silent moment in the film is already reminiscent of a break between two sentences. With this structure having previously permeated several of Soldat’s prior documentaries: Of waiting, considering, orienting oneself, unfinished. There always seems to be potential in his excerpts of reality for the first still-budding gestures, feelings and thoughts. Yet it remains open which position that statement possesses within a whole, as indeed what a whole could be, despite the closed visual framing, thus becoming “incomplete”. Just like in his earlier works, we are experiencing the documentary enactment of an encounter, one which also always illustrates – shows – an authentic encounter within the enactment.
Following his success in Rome, in 2014 Jan Soldat was a member of the international jury in the Generation 14plus section of the Berlinale. The Berlin Pornfilmfestival devoted a focal programme to his portrait films. And by now, his works are represented to an equal extent in film festivals with a thematic direction and at central hubs of the international festival industry. His most recent stops have been at the 2014 Viennale (HOTEL STRAUSSBERG), Rotterdam in 2015 (DIE SECHSTE JAHRESZEIT/THE SIXTH SEASON + DER BESUCH/THE VISIT), the 2015 Berlinale Panorama (HAFTANLAGE 4614/PRISON SYSTEM 4614), as well as once again in the German competition section at Oberhausen (COMING OF AGE) in 2016.
Most recently, the director can be seen with two cycles of films. Currently, the screening venue is a BDSM prison near Berlin. Male customers can have themselves locked up there for a while and be treated as prisoners by strict guards. The actual process of exploring the spaces and the alternating inmates there takes them to the three mid-length films HOTEL STRAUSSBERG (2014), HAFTANLAGE 4614 (2015) and DIE SECHSTE JAHRESZEIT (2015), as well as to the short episode DER BESUCH (2015). Arwed and Dennis are the couple who run the facility together and accompany the stories as a leitmotif. And ultimately, their story is also told in the various encounters there, with it being progressively revealed to be a microcosm with its own inner logic, through to its conception and origin. After that, COMING OF AGE and HAPPY HAPPY BABY (both 2016) are devoted to the phenomenon of adult babies, showing adults living out their desires for genuine closeness and sanctuary. In their games, it quickly becomes clear that sex is increasingly unimportant here, with a journey of exploration and the revelation of corporeality leading to a return to childishness for now, through to asexuality. In the end, two protagonists are together in a park somewhere in Berlin. Out on a photo excursion, with them posing for each other:
“Take some pictures?”
“Yo, wanna see?”