"but i still haven’t figured out the meaning of life." Notes on Jan Peters’ Cycle of Short Films I Am...

By Claus Löser


When Jan Peters shot his first roll of Super-8 film in 1990, he did not suspect that it was the beginning of an extensive biographical cycle. One day the film returned from the laboratory, was put in the projector, and embarrassed the viewer/filmmaker. It was the well-known media feed- back shock effect: Just as children blush at hearing a recording of their own voice for the first time, unable to believe they sound that way when speaking, 24-year-old art student Peters was literally embarrassed by his film self-portrait. He consigned the roll of film to the back of a drawer, and nearly forgot about it. Not until a beer-soaked party one night at which a number of different films were shown did he think of it. And to his great surprise it worked excellently – as a party gag at first, and later in a university seminar: Ich bin 24 had been released for the world to see. About a year later his professor stopped him and asked when Ich bin 25 would be finished. Peters acted on the suggestion: From that point on he shot another roll of film each year, their titles numbered in series. This cycle, which is still being added to as a work in progress, represents a highly original contribution to the body of German-language experimental film.  

The serial method corresponds to the formal approach of Peters' two 16mm full-length films, November, 1 – 30 (1998) and Dezember, 1 – 31 (1999): Technical and temporal limitations outline a grid for a growing apparatus of discourse and reflection. More than anything else the creation of rules and obstructions, in a surprising reverse conclusion, have resulted in productive freedom. These self-imposed rules serve as a kind of accumulator of creativity. Jan Peters' dogmatism equals that of Lars von Trier: Like the Danish filmmaker he subjects himself to external coordinates for the privilege of potentially violating these very rules. Of course, the accountants and overambitious imitators misinterpret this game. Profound analyses are not necessary to find evidence that Jan Peters violates his own standards. The individual films are neither of the same length, nor have they all been shot on Super 8. The rolls of film are never exposed on the same day of the year, as many assume – and not on his birthday, which has also been claimed. In addition this collection contains a few works which stray from the pattern completely: Two of them are not even by Peters. This undermining of the guidelines is the most important source of originality, resulting in an anarchic charm and gentle self-irony. Jan Peters can certainly not be categorized as a purist. His manner, which is both stable and spontaneous, gratifyingly sets all his films apart from products of the often anemic and technologically fixated style of other experimental film works. This self-image becomes increasingly obvious upon more careful viewing of the Ich bin... cycle.  

Ich bin 24 portrays Jan Peters as an "up-and-coming young filmmaker" (his own description) in his university student room. He sits under a poster for Jean-Luc Godard's À bout de souffle, smoking a cigarette. And talks incessantly. The text revolves around existential questions, evoking the questionable nature of the artist's life and addressing a lack of orientation. The small, closed space resembles a cave or an island threatened by a wave of chaos. All alone with his camera, the filmmaker makes a start at securing precisely two minutes and 48 seconds of his existence. The monologue serves as an anchor chain surrounded by constantly growing entropy. This first film contains all significant creative forces of the cycle of works which will grow over the coming years, in spite of various metamorphoses. They appear here in their prototype, at the very edge of the naïve. And at the same time it is not yet clear whether the humor is always intentional. The fact that Ich bin 24 cannot be dismissed as a teenager's technically clumsy attempt at self-promotion is a result primarily of the material's unequivocal nature. Because of the aggressive way in which inadequacies are dealt with, the constellation's potentially embarrassing elements are swiftly transferred to an artificial level. The technical errors and their instrumentalization provide Jan Peters with an effective tool for this transcendence.  

This method becomes even more clear in Peters' next film, Ich bin 25 (1991). The filmmaker worked with an underdeveloped by-product of amateur film technology, Super-8 sound film stock. While a magnetic soundtrack was formerly attached to the stock when developed, in this case the unexposed film came from the factory with an extremely narrow soundtrack which was recorded in the camera simultaneously with the images. This was a wonderful idea which anticipated the subsequent autonomy provided by video technology, though it also had numerous faults. The many dropouts, flashes of light and other errors in the second film of the cycle were due to this innovation. At the same time they structure the film formally and also correspond to its message: The fragility of existence addressed in the first part is presented here in an aesthetically appropriate manner. In line with his monologue on the struggle for the greatest possible degree of honesty in artistic expression, Peters chooses to expose himself. He sits in front of the camera, completely naked, intending to continue with the text. As he had no experience with making proper use of the time available to him, this image of a naked artist is merely touched upon, and then the roll of film comes to an end. Once again, the intentional and accidental is combined in a stocktaking made extremely effective by its irony.  

The amateur constantly strives to improve the tools he works with. The ideal is imitating professionally made films as nearly as possible with simple technical means. The experimental filmmaker who employs amateur technology proceeds in precisely the opposite direction. He fights against perfection incessantly, as nothing is less desirable to him than the slickness of commercial film. An unconscious learning process cannot be suppressed in its entirety, and strategies must be developed to counteract it. Seen in the context of films such as As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty by Jonas Mekas (2000) or the works of German filmmaker Peter Sempel, this almost obsessive flight from clean and "right" images is extremely tangible. Achieving this perfect imperfection requires years of experience. But Jan Peters took a different path: He forced himself to use new technologies that he did not entirely master. For the first time he developed the film for Ich bin 27 (1993) by himself, which lead to interesting new errors, specifically attractive flicker effects. For Ich bin 29 (1995) he experimented with an inadequate postdubbing process and the odd audiovisual phase shifts which resulted. In 1997 the camera he had used for seven years began to approach the end of its service life. Ich bin 31 (1997) and Ich bin 32 (1998) contain more and more dropouts that turn the filmmaker's statements into a mixture of slapstick and gags. Ich bin 33 (1999) represents the conclusion of the classic Super-8 phase. It was made with a borrowed camera that shot 18 rather than 24 frames per second, and a roll of film yielded three minutes and 33 seconds, which reflects the film's title and the occasion for its production.  

In the year 2000 Peters began to use other forms and mediums. The structure, which had been mostly homogeneous up to that point, began to fray. He worked with a video camera (Ich bin 34) or the camera on his cellphone (Ich bin 36). Before that, in Ich bin 29, the filmmaker permitted and even encouraged the intrusion of foreign material into his œuvre: The actual name of this film is toi et moi – tu es 29 ans (you and I – you're 29), and it was made by a Paris artist who calls himself David TV. Peters' relationship with Hélèna Villovitch, which began in 1994, marked a geographic and mental turn toward Paris. David TV, like Villovitch, belongs to the artist collective MOLOKINO, which employs Super-8 film for multimedia concepts in the tradition of Expanded Cinema. The film can be understood as a welcome for and homage to the German colleague. It seems somewhat curious and a little metaphysical that, long before meeting her partner Jan Peters and working with him on his cycle, Villovitch made a Super-8 film called J'ai 20 ans (I'm 20) in 1984. That film followed an identical pattern, edition's beginning.  

Additional distinct inconsistencies in the structure first employed in 1990 can be found in the parts that leave familiar indoor spaces. In Ich bin 30 (1996) Peters ventures out of doors for the first time, in a car – as an interim of a rolling cave made of tin – and drives through a field of rapeseed, all the while singing along to the Velvet Underground's Venus in Furs. Three years later (Ich bin 33) he poses in an open field to capture the solar eclipse of August 11, 1999. Stylistically, this paraphrase of TV reports was already laid out in the two bonus films Ich habe einen Lincoln (1992) and Ich bin in Chicago (1992). The latter, inspired by a photograph taken by Jeff Wall ("The Storyteller"), shows an excited speaker whose text is lost in the general noise of traffic. The digression which is most extreme in a temporal sense appears in the 20-minute Wie ich ein Höhlenmaler wurde, made in 2001 while Peters was doing an internship at Hamburg's Schauspielhaus and screened there several times in a version twice as long.

After 19 films by and about Jan Peters, one would assume a certain familiarity with him. His euphoric moments and lows have been shared, viewers know all about his love of Hélèna and the death of his best friend Grobi, the details of his childhood and youth in Lower Saxony, and have become familiar with manias, obsessions and fears. A path can be drawn over the years which traces the metamorphoses of a student's naivety to a nervous search for orientation and finally artistic and personal maturity. After completion of this journey the viewer almost feels like a part of the Jan Peters universe, in which "narcissistic input is juxtaposed with maximum humor output in an uncommon way" (TIP-Magazin). This view of his work suggests itself, and then succumbs to a feint. Of course Peters the filmmaker blurs the individual of the same name with his dense textual and visual system of symbols to create something else: Jan Peters the fictional character. If it were any different, total transparency would have ensued after two or three short films and all interest in additional sequels would have soon been lost. To the viewer's surprise the opposite happens: The deeper he or she explores this stranger's system of references, the more profound facets are revealed. The secret of this reverse conclusion is Jan Peters' ability to turn his own microcosm into a projection screen for the viewer, thereby expanding it into a macrocosm. This shows that he is a true artist.

Republished with kind permission from Index DVD