Pursuing the Accidental Storyline
Jan Peters is a central figure on the German Super 8 film scene – even though, unlike many other cine-film enthusiasts, he is no purist when it comes to his film stock. For some time now he has been shooting films in formats other than just Super 8, making use of a wide variety of other media, from the video camera to Mini-DV to the simple video function built into digital cameras.
Nevertheless, his oeuvre would be inconceivable without Super 8. This goes especially for his autobiographical diary films (“Ich bin 24”, etc.), which he has been producing once a year since 1990 in the form of a cinematic annual report. These films are shaped to a great extent by the technical and formal idiosyncrasies of what today can almost be called an historical amateur film format. For this series, still today a “work in progress”, he uses a whole range of different Super 8 cameras both with and without sound, loaded with both new Super 8 film and old stock he finds on the flea market, multiply exposed, self-developed and in some cases with elaborately edited audio and video tracks. Particularly in recent years, he has increasingly combined and edited the capricious negative film stock using digital materials and methods.
When in 1990 Peters first spontaneously stepped in front of a Super 8 camera in his early days as a film student at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg, “to take stock of my life”, it was not yet foreseeable that this stocktaking would turn into a long-term project. The author bashfully relegated the first film in what would become the “Ich bin…” series, “Ich bin 24”, to a dark drawer. The “up and coming young filmmaker” (in his own words) found his film much too private, dramaturgically immature and technically deficient, embarrassed at the way he – standing in front of a poster for Godard’s “? bout du souffle” of all things – philosophizes about his fragmented existence and the arduousness of artistic (and personal) development – while continually colliding with the microphone that conspicuously protrudes into the frame above his head.
It was not until a party where various films were shown in the wee hours that “Ich bin 24” had its unplanned public premiere. Peters was astonished to realize how well the film worked in front of an audience. Surprisingly enough, its very lack of perfection was what amused viewers the most. The dynamic that develops in the gap between intention and accident, the private and the public, has fascinated the filmmaker ever since. His more or less spontaneous monologues, spoken directly into the camera, still appear today to have surfaced in public “by accident”, representing in reality a private filmed journal for the author’s eyes only.
This impression is further underscored by the various technical mishaps from which hardly any of the “Ich bin…” films is spared. Sometimes there’s a break in the sound, and sometimes the picture is framed wrong so that the important action takes place outside the field of vision. The camera(s) wobble, fall down and are picked up again; the lenses fog up and are wiped clean, and with predictable regularity the sudden end of the Super 8 reel interrupts Peters in the midst of a heated monologue.
Peters, who cites American experimental film maker Anne Charlotte Robertson, who has been keeping a diary on Super 8 for more than 20 years, as an important role model, thus made a virtue of necessity and began to deliberately use the random and hardly avoidable technical slip-ups as dramaturgical elements. This includes on the one hand making the most of the actual “accidents” that occur and not simply smoothing them out in the cutting room, while on the other hand Peters also began to intervene in the material as editor of the accidental storyline. The line between surrender to the unavoidable and joy in wilful manipulation is by nature a fluid one, and a distinction that is difficult to discern in the finished product. What at first glance seems to be a spontaneously created amateur film only reveals itself on closer scrutiny to be an ingeniously staged poem on film about the meaning of life and art, about the transience of the material and the (futile) desire for authenticity.
Jan Peters has today achieved the status in the German-speaking world of a genuine authority on Super 8 technology with regard to both recording and developing the film, post-production and editing. In his workshops and seminars he familiarizes his students with the virtually unlimited possibilities offered by this almost forgotten type of film stock. But at the same time he tries to show them how the very technical deficiencies of this material (as well as their own shortcomings as craftsmen) can sometimes be decidedly productive for the development of their work. Not infrequently it is precisely the small mistakes, Peters says, that make a film interesting and set it apart from the others.
As an example, he uses his film “Ich bin 26” (1992), in which he presents four pictures to the camera (which he has set up himself) as a summation of the past year of his life, but accidentally doesn’t hold them up high enough, so that only their upper edges can be seen on film. As you see, you see nothing. At first “Ich bin 26” seems so utterly and absurdly a failure due to this miscalculation that one might almost think it must have been done on purpose. But in fact the film – Peters assures us – is absolutely authentic, and the problem can be traced solely to the fact that he, as is so often the case, does not work with a team but all by himself. With the assistance of a cameraman, or by using the preview function offered by a digital camera, the error would have been obvious during shooting and the scene could have been repeated. But whether this would have produced a better film is doubtful, because the comedy potential in this kind of unwitting slapstick is not to be underestimated. And a more laconic commentary on the impossibility of making one’s private life and experiences public and palpable to the viewer can hardly be imagined. It is not least for this reason that Peters has made the special features and supposed weaknesses of Super 8 film his trademark, which he very consciously deploys for his own dramaturgical ends.
“You can tell from my camerawork that the one narrating the film is also operating the camera. That means that the camera – as long as it’s not turned on me – is a handheld camera; it’s usually very erratic, superficial and it works a lot with making sure that the camera switching off, the film running out, looking to see if the film has been put in the camera correctly, the turning red of the film stock and the blurriness are all in there, perhaps even that the camera falls down at some point or the tripod tilts – all of this is worked into the film in order to maintain the immediacy I need for my kind of storytelling. That’s my way of saying ‘me’ with form as well as content.”
Although in his most recent films Peters has increasingly begun to work in parallel with digital cameras as well, he still has yet to make a film that is not at least partially based on Super 8 or 16mm images. These sprinklings of celluloid imagery, i.e. the creative handling of various materials, is also an important means Peters uses to distinguish his work from the great masses of amateur videos, from the banality of the purely videotaped image. He’s not interested in standing out as an artist from other, amateur, filmmakers, but rather – on the contrary – in deliberately mixing up the authenticity and privacy of an amateur film with the artistic means at his disposal.
Since 1998 he has been doing so not in the form of further editions of his annual Super 8 chronicle, but rather in his first longer films. In the over 90-minute film “November, 9 (Ende)-13”, Peters remains true to his classical auteur style, in which his own life dictates the storyline and the sequence of scenes is determined by the length of the Super 8 reels. Out of chronologically arranged Super 8 reels he mounts a kind of philosophically garnished and yet very humorous road movie, taking place between Hamburg and Paris. In his monologue, which as always spews forth from his lips like a waterfall, he interprets from off stage the encounters and observations he makes during a car trip to France as a Kafkaesque kaleidoscope of randomness, the only meaning and focus of which is that he himself connects all these moments and posthumously lends them what is at least a filmic significance.
“On the ninth day I made a coincidental observation at a motorway service area in Belgium: a man stuffing a plastic bag into a rubbish bin. The remarkable thing about this sight was the rubber gloves he was wearing, which he then likewise threw into the bin. I was so curious that I retrieved the plastic sack from the bin. It was a rubbish bag from the municipal disposal service in Eupen, containing a rug (without blood stains). I set off for Eupen, now stopping to collect finds at all car parks and service areas along the way. On the soundtrack I record my personal ponderings on the ‘child molester’ affair in Belgium, and finally arrive in Eupen, where in the northern part of the city innumerable rubbish sacks are stacked in front of the houses, awaiting disposal …” Excerpt from “November, 9 (Ende)-13”
Following this first extended attempt to emancipate himself temporally from the 3-minute rhythm dictated by Super 8 film, Peters – whose “Ich bin…” films already enjoyed cult status at the major German short film festivals at the time – was given the opportunity to produce another feature-length film, for “Das kleine Fernsehspiel” on the ZDF public television station. By contrast with “November, 9 (Ende)-13”, he did not need to spend much time looking for a theme this time: the sudden death of the best friend of a filmmaker who has a penchant for putting his own life and experiences on film offers a perfect, if sad, occasion to indulge in extended filmic associations and ruminations. “Dezember, 1-31” (1999) was Peters’ way of working through his grief – in his usual self-ironic, radically subjective way. The film centres on his quest for the hidden meaning behind the events. Peters himself compared his inability to comprehend the nothingness of death, which he articulated in the film, with a thought loop one might get caught up in as part of a fevered dream (“That you, when you think you are thinking of nothing are actually thinking of something: you are thinking that you are thinking of nothing, and so on …”) in which the unthinkable is repeatedly circled again and again (and with no result). Fortunately, these tautological elements are lacking completely in the finished film. Instead, Peters has created in “Dezember, 1-31” a contemplative, witty, and in formal terms extraordinarily inventive documentary. Despite (or precisely because of) its sophisticated dramaturgy, “Dezember, 1-31” has the effect of a light-footed chronology of accident. The film garnered Peters the 3sat Documentary Film Award at the Duisburg Film Festival, among other honours.
In parallel with his feature-length films (in 2004 he made “Bye, Bye Tiger”, an almost 90-minute Super 8 road movie), Jan Peters naturally continued to annually produce a further instalment in his “Ich bin…” cycle. The last film in this series shot exclusively on Super 8 was “Ich bin 33” from 1999/2000. Afterward, Peters began to experiment more intensely with new media and formats, and he now works frequently with digital cameras. Notable here is that he by no means always chooses the latest or most technically advanced models.
“My idea is that there is a right format for every project. For me, this has recently meant moving toward new formats. I frequently use digital photo cameras now, i.e. cameras with video function. This is a medium relatively close to Super 8: it has limited storage capacity and breaks off after a certain amount of time. It has a low image frequency and a low resolution, just like Super 8 does compared with other formats.”
A further advantage of small digital cameras is their ease of handling and the fact that they are hardly perceived as “real” film cameras and can thus be used more inconspicuously. This latter point is a crucial one for Peters, especially in cases where his approach is more documentary or at least purports to be so – most recently in “Wie ich ein freier Reisebegleiter wurde” (“How I Became a Freelance Travel Companion”, 2007).
In actuality, this film is more of a staged than an observed documentary. Here Peters takes up in his usual humorous fashion a thoroughly serious theme that has repeatedly preoccupied him in his “Ich bin…” films as well: the proliferation of precarious earning situations in general, and specifically – a topic close to his own heart – the harsh realities of life as an artist in Germany. In his proven filmed diary style, Peters “documents” his venture into the world of business and self-employment, where early pensioners keep their heads above water by purchasing a group ticket for the subway at Frankfurt Airport and then offering to accompany other travellers to their destination – for a small fee, of course.
The piece was Peters’ entry in a competition seeking films dealing with our changing concept of work, and it won the German Film Critics’ Award and various other festival prizes. By mixing documentary elements with satire, performance and fiction, and then seasoning the concoction with his typical monologue, Peters succeeds in commenting on the social reality of so-called “mini jobs” in a way that is at once comical and profound, laying bare their problematic nature.
Jan Peters’ oeuvre has on the whole grown more diverse of late – in terms of both content and form. Since 2001 he has written several radio plays and created installations that have been displayed in exhibitions. Peters himself, or rather his artistic alter ego, still always plays the leading role in his films, but the thematic scope has broadened considerably. This goes along with a fundamental tendency to take more time in presenting his themes – which in this special case means the inclination to use films that go far beyond the capacity of a Super 8 reel.
In keeping with this trend, Peters is currently working with his partner, Marie-Catherine Theiler, on a film about time management and our perception of time that is to be about 30 minutes long. At least this is the intention at the moment, but it could of course change at any time – depending on which planned or unplanned accidents intervene in the couple’s work.
Jan Peters was born in 1966 in Hanover. He studied at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg (HfbK) and is co-founder of the filmmakers’ collective “Abbildungszentrum” (founded 1994). Peters lives and works as a filmmaker, radio play author and video artist in Berlin.
2008 2 ODER 3VERSUCHE, EINE IDEE UMZUSETZEN, Videoexperiment, DV, 6min, gemeinsam mit Marie-Catherine Theiler, 2008
2007 ROADMOVIE, Experimentalfilm, 16mm, 5min, gemeinsam mit Marie-Catherine Theiler, für das gleichnamige Theaterstück von G. Hamilton, Regie M. Brawand, Théâtre les Salons, Genf
2007 WIE ICH BESONDERS WERTVOLL WURDE, Reportage, DV, 6min, gemeinsam mit Marie-Catherine Theiler, für Kurzfilmmagazin Arte
2007 WIE ICH EIN FREIER REISEBEGLEITER WURDE, 15 min, 35mm
1990-2006 ABER DEN SINN DES LEBENS HAB’ ICH IMMER NOCH NICHT RAUSGEFUNDEN, 52 min, S-8+16mm+video
2004 13 ODER 14 (13 ou 14), 22 min, video
2004 BYE BYE TIGER, 86 min, 35mm, gemeinsam mit Hél?na Villovitch
2001 WIE ICH EIN HÖHLENMALER WURDE, 38 min, 16mm
2000 ICH BIN 33, 3 min, 16 mm
1999 DEZEMBER, 1-31, 97 min, 16mm
1998 NOVEMBER, 1-30, 86 min, 16mm
2006 MEINE KLEINEN KORREKTUREN, 54 min, Produktion: Bayerischer Rundfunk, Ausstrahlungen: Bayern 2, WDR, DLR
2001 SIE HABEN 25 NACHRICHTEN,53 min, gemeinsam mit Johannes Matern, Produktion: Bayerischer Rundfunk, Ausstrahlungen: Bayern 2, WDR3, WDR1LIVE, DLR
2001 A TERRIBLE JOURNEY, EXPANDED CINEMA PERFORMANCE 20 min, gemeinsam mit Hél?na Villovitch, Produktion: Bayerischer Rundfunk für Intermedium 2, ZKM, Karlsruhe, Ausstrahlungen: Bayern2, hr2, WDR3, Ö1, Deutschland Radio
2008 EGO DOCUMENTS – DAS AUTOBIOGRAFISCHE IN DER GEGENWARTSKUNST > Kunstmuseum Bern
2007 HOPE & DESPAIR > Cell Project Space, London
2006 WILDWECHSEL > Hilvaria Studios, Hilvarenbeek (Niederlande)
2004 FOLLOW ME, I AM LOST > Centre d’art contemporain Chapelle Saint-Jacques, Saint Gaudens (Frankreich)
2003 AUSLAND > Galerie Domo Baal, London
2001 TRAVERSÉES > Musee d’art moderne de la ville de Paris