By Pamela Cohn

On  Prison System 4614 (Haftanlage 4614, 2014) by Jan Soldat

Jan Soldat’s documentary work is the purest storytelling I’ve seen in cinema. What might blur or mar this purity, at first blush, is the subject matter he tends to choose. But like many filmmakers I’ve spoken to, he uses his craft in order to search, to seek and to satisfy his own unending curiosities about his fellow human beings. It is a method of work most find difficult to articulate, so they use a camera and a microphone as recording devices to unpack some of the mysteries of why people are the way they are. Soldat goes about this kind of work in an unflinching way, no matter the “oddities” he may encounter.

Much of his work, thus far, can be facilely viewed as documenting fetishistic behavior or “alternative” lifestyles, and the procedures inherent in that. Der UnfertigeThe Incomplete is his Diploma film from Filmuniversität Babelsberg Konrad Wolf in Berlin. The Incomplete is a documentary portrait about Klaus Johannes Wolf, a tax advisor by day, but in his private life a man who has decided to live as a slave, to become the perfect servant, naked and vulnerable, chained to his bed, awaiting whatever requests come from his masters, from domestic tasks like vacuuming to submitting to severe beatings. The film of Soldat’s that I personally found most discomfiting (as did he when first approaching the subject matter) is from 2010 called GeliebtBeloved, which portrays the emotional and sexual relationships men have with their dogs.

Continuing to work solo as his own producer, DoP, soundman and cutter, his latest project is a continuation on the theme of his film, A Weekend In Germany about the domestic life of a male couple in their 70s living in the suburbs of Berlin in domestic bliss and S&M bondage. In Haftanlage 4614, a significant aspect of couple Arved and Dennis’s world is running a mock prison out in the German countryside where men can check in for a week of lock-down in their own private cell or cage and submit to any kind of torture/sexual pleasure they request from a menu given to them when they arrive for their stay. Told in four parts, and again exploring a particular world of BDSM, men experience a prison sentence complete with torture scenarios and games involving prison role-play. The story also explores the deep and intimate relationship of the two main protagonists, the prison scenes interspersed with domestic ones and ending with a revealing and intimate interview that reminded me much of the encounter in Pietro Marcello’s La bocca del lupo. Love is love. And like Marcello’s film, much of Soldat’s portraiture turns out to be authentically and riotously funny.

Part 1, Hotel Straussberg, screened at the 52nd edition of the Viennale this past year. Part 2, Haftanlage 4614 (Prison System 4614), premiered at this year’s Berlinale in the Panorama section last month. Parts 3 and 4, Der Besuch (The Visit)a five-minute piece in which Arved’s mother and grandmother drop by after a doctor’s appointment to take a tour of the prison – and Die Sechste Jahreszeit (The Sixth Season) were shown together at this year’s Rotterdam festival. Soldat and I met shortly after the close of this year’s Berlinale in a café close to his flat in the east part of Berlin to talk about his work:

Pamela Cohn: Ongoing explorations for me in documentary filmmaking involve questions as to why certain people want to be filmed in their most intimate, most raw moments. What is that giving them and, in turn, what is that giving the filmmaker who means to make work to show before an audience?

Jan Soldat: For me, I don’t see it as another world different from mine or yours or anyone else’s. I see my subjects living in the same society I do. They practice other things I don’t, and maybe things I do in my life are not that extreme, but it’s just a different layer to an existence. I’m interested because I don’t know about something. I heard about this prison and I wanted to see it and I went to go see how they play prison, continuing this exploration into sadomasochistic relationships. I am interested in these kinds of role-playing scenarios that are part of people’s lives. But I wanted to do this in a more pure way where I am documenting something and, perhaps, then we learn about the whys of it afterwards. In other words, I don’t want to orientate a viewer immediately or present any kind of “background” before we see these worlds. It’s documenting this different reality and I wanted to see what happens when I am there with my camera, only showing this alternate world with no other context around it. That’s how I wanted to begin, to just take the viewer there without any prelude. This is not so much a series in the typical sense, but just different views on the same topic, different aspects of people’s lives who role-play.

Prison System 4614
Prison System 4614

PC: We see scenes of sexually explicit material, side by side with domestic scenes, and then a scene of violence. Even though we understand it’s voluntary and desired, it’s still hard to watch. In Haftanlage, one guy asks another if he’s ever been hit in the face and the other guy says that, no he never has, but he’d like to be. It’s a very casual conversation as they’re washing dishes, but as funny as it is, this is also something disturbing even though I know that this feels good, somehow, to some people. It makes them feel alive, this pain. But what we end up with always in your films are these completely integrated worlds where the sex life, the love life, the domestic life, family life are all integrated. And that isn’t the case in most “normal” people’s lives, is it? We have our public life and our secret life that is well hidden or buried, even from our most intimate relations oftentimes. Your cutting style, more than anything, is what expresses this – it’s very blunt the way you cut from one scenario to another.

JS: It’s not just an instinctual thing, the way I cut, although that’s part of it. It’s hard to explain because I cut my own material so I don’t have to communicate. I’m in a situation where I don’t have to talk about my cutting choices with anyone else. I think I’m very strict and clear on what I want to show but there are these different aspects you mention when I choose a certain scene and where it goes into the overall piece. How useful is the scene for the film? I feel my cutting is honest because it’s quite transparent.

PC: Why is transparency important to you?

JS: It’s important because you can see it; you don’t have the feeling there’s manipulation. It’s important that it’s pure for the viewer. You should be able to see quite easily what is a bit staged for the camera or where the camera is placed – one can easily see why it is placed a certain way. My aim is to reveal things, not hide them. With these topics, especially, it’s important that you see this integration and so that’s how I express this.

PC: Oftentimes, in documentary, the “expert” appears in the midst of everything to explain things to us about the psychological aspects of what we’re seeing. Audiences have this expectation that the filmmaker is obligated to explain clearly why these people do what they do, what is the motivation, what happened in their childhood to cause this behavior? Answers to these kinds of questions neatly parsed and served up. In your work, there is this strict discipline to not do that at all. You allow your protagonists eventually to tell us a bit of their story, but in a pretty straightforward way. In the case of Arved and Dennis’s interview at the end of two of the sections, you use the same interview. But one is after we see Arved only as the dominator, and the other more expanded one is where we really learn about how tender and intimate this relationship is after we’ve seen him spend a week in his own prison as a submissive. His partner, Dennis, gifts him with this “vacation”. It also made me realize what hard work being the dominator can be. [laughter]

JS: Arved wanted to have this film where he is a captive. After having done the Prison System film, I thought I had done that. I misunderstood what he really wanted. We had only met once before I started to shoot with them and I missed the part, I guess, where he meant that he wanted to be filmed as a prisoner himself. It was only afterwards that I realized he wanted something different and so that’s why I shot the second film, The Sixth Season, because I had to cut out the deeper aspects of the relationship between Arved and Dennis from the Prison System film. It was difficult to understand that the relationship, the love story, cannot be a part of the role-play because it’s a different style of filming the story and shows a different connection between them and the viewer. So I put away this more intimate aspect and mostly cut it out of the Prison System film because it would have taken away from this pure observational way I wanted to film the role-play and the space where it goes on. I like this switch because Arved says at the end of Prison System that everything he does is based on his own experience, his need for wanting to be caught and imprisoned and this enables him to understand what these other men want. And you are right. It is exhausting for him and sometimes quite boring, actually. You have this moment at the end of Prison System when he does talk about how hard it is and that it’s not that fun for either him or Dennis, really. And it was boring for all of us during the shoot to have to wait sometimes hours to shoot a scene until a prisoner had had enough of being chained to the wall. [laughter]

With the relationship, as well, it’s stressful because they do it together. Arved is the head warden of the prison and Dennis is his assistant. It’s not like a hotel or anything; it’s a private event that people learn about. They pay a bit of money to be fed and housed. Arved has to pay rent on the place. They provide customers with sheets of questions so it is up to the men who come to say, I want this and this and this; I don’t want this; I don’t want electroshock, or waterboarding, etc. So they are limited to what they can do and it’s not always what brings Arved or Dennis pleasure. They actually get annoyed sometimes.

PC: I mean, to me, the real subversive quality to all this is hardly the sexual pleasure aspect of it, but shooting torture scenarios as role-play. There were several times I kept thinking of Guantanamo and Syria and other footage I’ve seen on YouTube and in other films of torturers filming themselves torturing people who are true prisoners, people whom they might end up killing or maiming for life, the psychological trauma and all that.

JS: To be honest, I wasn’t interested in knowing their motives or the psychological reasons why these men want to be in these torture scenarios. I did ask some about when they realized they loved this idea of being held captive or loving bondage. I just wanted to see it, to observe it, how it happens and then build the experience in my film. My films are not meant to explain the psychology of what’s happening. Like all of us, I am very analytical about myself, my own relationships and actions, and the reason why I do or don’t do things. But with these topics, it’s very difficult because I already know how much viewers want to psychoanalyze these people. I want images that push against that because it’s something that distances you from these people you see in my films. You must rely on your emotions and take your own position and have your own experience. The viewer will have a more authentic reaction that way to this material I’m presenting. It’s too easy to take a story that someone tells you about their childhood or whatever and conclude that that’s the reason it turns them on to be whipped. And then it can be put away as something resolved, somehow. I can understand how that can really irritate people, not having that resolution. You can also see there is no danger there; these people are not mentally ill. There are moments of tenderness and moments of humor that you can see in any context you want. In the very short film, The Visit, Arved’s mother and grandmother know the house is there and what goes on. That day I was shooting there they had come by to eat something after the grandmother’s doctor’s appointment nearby. And then after lunch, he gave them a tour.

As well, with the men who come there, I always ask beforehand what they are okay for me to show. Do they want to hide their face? Do they not want me to film them, or is it okay? I tell them my films will be seen at festivals and that there will be stills from the film so that they know it will be seen. I give them the feeling of safety that they can decide. This also goes for being anonymous with their name and how it goes in the credits, if it’s okay for them to be in the trailers, which are public on the Internet. In the case of Prison System, no faces are shown or names printed anywhere on the Internet. These films are shown only in cinemas. There are no DVD, VOD or anything online. But once they tell me what goes or doesn’t go, then I can do anything I want with that material. I need my freedom too to create my films the way I want. In the title I use the number 4614 to represent that this is one man’s role-play experience – Arved’s. It’s not meant to stand in for just anyone that’s into this thing.

There are times in the edit room that even though they had said it was okay at the time of filming, I do see in the footage that they leave the frame. And I never follow someone who leaves the frame because I understand it’s because they are no longer wishing to be filmed. I don’t always have this sensitivity when I’m shooting but when I’m sitting with the material, I can see it there and I don’t use it. It’s quite easy to see that they are either comfortable with the camera there or they aren’t. I want to give my protagonists a kind of sovereignty and that it is clear that they know what they are doing and what they are saying is being recorded. The relationships I have with them are when I’m filming them and that’s really it, so there has to be a way of communicating there that we both understand in that context. I’m there to film, not make friends, or become part of their community, do you understand? I mean, Arved and Dennis and I like each other and we have built something outside of the filming, so I can talk to them about my girlfriend or whatever, but this is rare.

You joked on Facebook that there should be an instant remake of Fifty Shades of Grey and I should direct it. [laughter] I saw the film and it’s not about BDSM in any way. The problem is not the way it’s filmed or marketed to appeal to a mass audience at all. The problem is that it just builds more misunderstanding about these relationships around BDSM. The two characters aren’t playing together. It’s more about a misunderstood relationship because she’s dreaming of something else altogether. These are two people who are both completely not aware of who or what they are. They don’t connect and BDSM has nothing to do with that. I mean, at the beginning, she’s a little happy but her problems come because she is ignoring her true emotions. She isn’t crying because of the pain. It’s because she’s sad about the relationship and she’s staying with someone doing things she doesn’t like.

Prison System 4614
Prison System 4614

PC: Well, these are actors saying scripted lines written by someone making a film for mass appeal based on a bestselling book and I think it’s understood by people who see it, people who either loathe it or love it or something in between, realize that on some level. Critics have been having a field day just because they can easily make fun of something. You let your subjects speak for themselves and so again, as we mentioned before, this level of understanding is very clean and pure, unsullied, let’s say, by commercial imperatives. But we see in these two men a committed, monogamous relationship and we also learn a lot about who they are, particularly Arved.

JS: I have to say that the thing that surprised me the most is that deep tenderness they display and have for one another, the way they touch each other and how cute they are together. And when I saw that, I knew the movie would function because of that tenderness. The violence didn’t surprise me because I knew I was going to a torture prison and I knew that it would be hard for some to watch. It’s very intense. But it’s in those softer moments and what they say to one another. There’s also the fact that Arved is a man closing in on 50, and this relationship with Dennis is the first intimate relationship he’s ever had. That took me by surprise, too. I always hope for these surprising moments. But the neutralization of the more violent moments or stranger moments is important, as well, and that’s why, as you mentioned before, I also want to include the scenes where they’re having lunch or doing laundry or watching an action movie together in their living room. And then I cut to a scene where they’re whipping someone who’s handcuffed to the wall. [laughter]

The amounts of humor and pathos and all that shift from film to film because it depends on the protagonists. Sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it’s not. Arved and Dennis are very funny people. I am just always looking for that closeness. I don’t care that much about narrative as much as I care about that and how a viewer can relate to the protagonist in my film. In the editing process, I work step by step towards that goal. That’s why I chose to have them speak about themselves only after you’ve seen them in this role-play scenario. I don’t want you to have the explanation beforehand. You can have your own experience and then compare that to what they tell you their experience is. I don’t want to give the viewer that upper hand that you think you know who you are looking at. I want to feel like my films can help take fear or prejudice away because it works that way for me also, these encounters. I mean in the case of the film on zoophilia, I did it because that idea was deeply disturbing to me. It doesn’t mean I have to accept it or like it, but then you have a real experience that overcomes your own imagined horror at the idea or how it terrifies you.

It’s incredible to see someone like Klaus, the slave, looking straight into the camera and saying yes, I am different or society says I’m different, but I like myself and I find myself beautiful. Men who look and act “normal” or are like everyone else do not feel this way about themselves. You can see this. Most heterosexual men I know including my close friends have a very strange view of their own sexuality. It’s strict and closed and hidden, and they struggle with the fantasies they have that they think are abnormal but they’re too afraid to act out on. These prisoners go ahead and try what they think they want for this kind of sexual release. And then they can really decide for sure whether it’s for them, or not. They put their fantasies and their realities face to face so they can really see how it feels.