Anyone familiar with the films of Mike Leigh knows that, in the right hands, the seed of a story—a lovable abortionist plying her trade in ultra-conservative 1950’s England; a successful black woman discovering that her mother is not only poor, but white—is sufficient fodder to attract actors and mount rehearsals.
But when the young Austrian filmmaker Daniel Hoesl began casting his first feature film, not only hadn’t he written a script, he didn’t know what story he planned to tell. And this was by design.
Working on a budget of $60,000, Hoesl recognized that by pre-determining his narrative, he was severely limiting the scope of his film. So he announced an open call and began “auditioning” actresses. But rather than looking for women who exhibited the traits of some preconceived character, he interviewed everyone who showed up, looking for compelling—and juxtaposing—biographies. Of the nearly 100 actresses who applied, two women interested him the most: Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg, a woman of aristocratic stock who’d grown up in a castle; and Christina Reichsthaler, who’d grown up on a farm.
The contrast between Reichsthaler’s and Orsini-Rosenberg’s personal histories became the core narrative of Soldate Jeannette—which premiered this January at Sundance before winning the much-coveted Hivos Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. This reverse-engineered, data-driven approach to filmmaking is as gorgeously simple as an algebraic formula. There is a traditionally under-heated, Northern European pall draped over the film, but Soldate Jeannette is nowhere near as cold and analytical as the early work of that other Austrian auteur, Michael Haneke. As in Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, Hoesl has Fanni (Orsini-Rosenburg) burn money—but the ritual, as depicted in Soldate Jeannette, is cleansing rather than nihilistic. This is, as Hoesl told me, “Feel-bad cinema with a feel-good ending,” where the variable in the unsolved equation is a striving for freedom and joy, not a tragic capitulation to the oppression of capitalism.
I had a chance to talk with Hoesl back in January, and Matthew Yake filmed the conversation. The following is an excerpt of our talk. Soldate Jeannette, shot by the brilliantly reserved Gerald Kerkletz (Michael), is a masterclass in low-budget filmmaking. Rarely has $60,000 produced a film with such assured acting and virtuosic composition. You can see the trailer here.