BY Esther Buss in Features | 02 JUN 16
Featured in
Issue 24

Credit Union

On the films of Daniel Hoesl and the European Film Conspiracy

BY Esther Buss in Features | 02 JUN 16

WINWIN (2016) begins above the clouds, where the gods live, far from the realm of facts. Exquisitely dressed investors have hardly left their private jet – a Zeptair Bombardier -Global 5000 in Piet Mondrian style – before they arrive in Austria and take their seats around a conference table. The serial negotiations in Daniel Hoesl’s WINWIN, with family businesses, art foundations and politicians, are downright monstrous. The investors, named Sandberg and Lachman, captivate with sterile smiles, first-class poise and their perfidious mixture of business and wellness rhetoric. They say things like, ‘I really think this will shine on a worldwide scale’, or, ‘I was so moved by your company’s history. Thanks for sharing that story’. There’s also ‘connecting’, ‘networking’, -‘defying’, ‘advancing’, ‘downsizing’ and ‘ex-panding’ like there’s no tomorrow.  

Basically, that’s the way the characters – or rather, models of characters – speak in Hoesl’s films. In the opening scene of his 2013 debut, Soldate Jeannette, the protagonist, Fanni, tries on a dress in a minimalist designer shop, and the salesman (played by Gerald Matt, the former director of the Kunsthalle Wien) ends his ‘consultation’ with the phrase: ‘It’s the power of being deeply moved by a beautiful object.’ Sentences in the Austrian director’s films are placed like readymade objects and are assembled into slightly modified modular chains. The language is artificial and recitative but it’s based on reality – WINWIN’s screenplay lifts material from personal conversations and YouTube clips of investors, fund managers and the superrich. You have characters like the millionaire and jetsetter, Nicolas Berggruen, who after a quick stopover in Karstadt is now working in the Santa Monica Mountains on ‘long-term thought for California.’ 

Daniel Hoesl, WINWIN, 2016. Courtesy: Gerald Kerkletz / European Film Conspiracy

WINWIN is now being haughtily promoted as ‘the Panama Papers movie’. This kind of nimble satirical manoeuvre is typical of Hoesl and the European Film Conspiracy. The production collective describes itself in its ‘company philosophy’ as, among other things, a ‘runaway entity’, ‘philosophy and conspiracy,’ ‘a vehicle, a phantom, a momentum’ and ‘a war machine that embraces anyone who makes movies without adhering to conventional parameters.’ Even when Hoesl shoots his low-budget films with public money, certain standards of film funding are bypassed. There’s no screenplay, and it’s the actors’ autobiographical experiences that really get the story going (for WINWIN they used job interviews). A lot comes out of improvisation. In public, like at film festivals, they always put special emphasis on the collaborative, hierarchy-levelling aspect of filmmaking, such as paying all participants equally, whether it’s the cook or the cameraman. At the same time, Hoesl will by all means fib about the role of the dandyesque solo artist. Labels like the ‘clown prince of Austrian cinema’ (dubbed by The Hollywood Reporter) land on the film’s website – and help with branding. 

European Film Conspiracy’s movies centre on the relationship between money, value and power – in particular, they address the roles of body language and speech acts in producing ‘business credibility’. Narrative cannot be separated from the films’ aesthetic concept, which is essentially implemented by camera-man Gerald Karkletz, with some help from other departments. Costumes and sets even up to the food design are all crucial to the art direction. Formally strict, there are few camera movements and practically no medium shots, only close-ups and long shots. The fact that Hoesl worked as an assistant director for Ulrich Seidl (on his 2012 Paradies -trilogy, among others) doesn’t fit in the picture at first glance. But precise framing and a preference for frontal views link both directors’ works. Style-mixing also has its place within these exact measurements: high-tech design and aristocratic palais architecture, empty office floors and bookshelves, electroclash and Schubert.

Soldate Jeannette is about Fanni, a Viennese aristocrat who, despite her back rent, mountains of debt and impending eviction, still eats in the city’s best restaurants and forges financial transactions on a massive scale. She wilfully wastes money that isn’t hers. And with the €600,000 that she withdraws from the account of a Swiss foundation’s president with the prospect of a promising investment (gold, South Africa, Mali, Belgium)? She burns it, stack for stack, in the Austrian forest. After fleeing the city, she gets hired to work on a farm and there infects the downtrodden farmhand, Anna, with her dissident spirit. Hoesl’s films agree with Fanni with their ideas of contradiction. Their work is not about direct political activism, getting a point across or making a racket, but about contempt for social conventions – with a poker face, a subtle joke and good manners.

Daniel Hoesl, WINWIN, 2016. Courtesy: Gerald Kerkletz / European Film Conspiracy

WINWIN is Hoesl’s answer to the deregulated world of capital. The investors glide through the business world as confidently and smoothly as their Rimowa suitcases – a business world they intend to undercut from the inside. While their performances always assume clown-like traits (literally: red noses, weird acrobatic movements, blue ‘war paint’ like in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou, 1965), the business is on autopilot – with slightly modified repetition loops and running gags, like Lachman’s bribing ritual with ‘Frau Ministerin’: always using the same yellow handbag. The film sets the dynamic, cosy relationship between finance, venture capitalism and politics against a highly artificial visual concept, which is all based on stasis and limits.

WINWIN was shot on the old TV format, 4:3. The takes are static and geometrically constructed, with the exception of a few tracking shots. Extreme depth of field and maximum flatness create a productive interrelationship. Hoesl arranges figures and objects like sculptures in a room. He models spatial axes into shots and choreographs changes in position. In contrast, the negotiation scenes are assembled out of frontal, portrait-like takes, in which the characters are completely isolated and talk directly to the viewer – a classic Brechtian distancing effect, reshaped to the max. On top of that, the images are continually dominated by a brutally vibrant yellow, which is neither a symbolic nor affected colour, but more of an abstract, toxic signal. ‘Now, our paint is money’, the president of an art foundation proclaims, thereby professing the film’s intended interpretation. What German film critic Frieda Grafe once wrote about Godard’s use of colour also applies here: ‘For Godard, colour in film is a question of morality, which is often quoted together with words like principles and idealism. Without thinking, colour stands for corruptibility, forgery, fraud, promotion.’ Hoesl openly promotes his role models anyways, but his references luckily never amount to aspirational ‘discourse cinema’. In Soldate Jeannette, Fanni goes to the movies and falls asleep during Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962), audibly snoring, while Godard’s star, Anna Karina, watches Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Le passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) on screen and cries.     

Indeed, Hoesl’s films are always closed systems as well. In Soldate Jeannette, there’s still room to breathe, at least due to the visual breaks dependent on the friction-inducing modulations from city to nature. The gendered French ‘e’ slipped into the title signals with a certain agility, even if you can’t make out any alternative to bourgeois theatre behind the farm’s unfinished walls and the dull routines of pastoral labour. By contrast, WINWIN operates within a hermetically-sealed space. Hoesl himself isn’t even able to leave the framework crafted by the film. It’s occasionally a bit frustrating, even if this consequence is completely plausible. Even if the film’s hermeticism is kind of systemic, just as its redundancies are. The title here is again the key to the system. If there’s a ‘WIN’ on both sides, it all amounts to the same thing, anyway.

Translated by Michael Ladner

WINWIN is playing at Filmfest Munich from 23 June–2 July. 

Esther Buss works as a freelance film and art critic in Berlin.