I see people as tragicomic beings — including myself

His work still has something magical for him: director and screenwriter Jan-Eric Mack, the recipient of the Prix Netzhdk. Photograph: Marko Mijatović

Between Rosa Wilder, Netflix and the Oscars: the work of director and screenwriter Jan-Eric Mack is richly faceted. The ZHdK alumnus has been awarded the 2022 Prix Netzhdk for his work. A close-up.


“I didn’t expect this and was speechless,” says Prix-Netzhdk laureate Jan-Eric Mack. And yet, the director and screenwriter has already made several award-winning short films, which have screened at over a hundred festivals worldwide. His master’s film “Facing Mecca” is also available on Netflix. In 2017, it won him a Student Oscar, and a year later he was shortlisted for the 90th Academy Awards in the “Live Action Shorts” category and received the Swiss Film Award. “I always find receiving an award a privilege and a sign of appreciation,” Mack explains, adding that “the Prix Netzhdk is especially pleasing because the jury members come from different disciplines and focus on artistic quality.” Awards also mean financial recognition for the effort and energy expended, and very frequently open doors for future projects. This also happened with Mack: in 2018, he co-directed the second season of “Wilder,” the successful SRF crime series, and directed the third season in 2020.

Between absurdity and bitter reality

While shooting “Wilder,” Mack also worked on “Zivilisten,” a coscripted feature-length tragicomedy about a long-term job seeker who works as an extra in a Nato war simulation. He is ordered to the set by the employment office or risks losing his unemployment benefit. The story is absurd, even grotesque and raises the question: “How do people from which backgrounds end up in such situations?” Soon afterwards fiction became bitter reality: “Our screenplay included an attack on a Ukrainian village, only for history to catch up with us when Russia attacked Ukraine in February 2022.” It was long unclear, he says, whether the script could be filmed; ultimately, Mack and his team decided to pursue the project and rewrote certain scenes. Now the fourth version is on the table, with shooting due to begin start next autumn at the earliest.
Until mid-March, Mack will be busy shooting “Davos,” a six-episode SRF espionage story set during the First World War. The series is a Swiss-German co-production involving Contrast Film and Letterbox Filmproduktion, Swiss Radio and Television SRF and ARD Degeto. Mack is co-directing the film with Anca Miruna Lăzărescu and will be shuttling between Graubünden, South Tyrol and Hamburg. Post-production is scheduled to be completed by October.

Finding a visual form

But what led Mack to the film industry? He has always been passionate about visual work. He first trained as a graphic designer and worked at an agency for several years. At the age of 26, he faced a crucial decision: take over the agency or wipe the slate clean? He decided to make a fresh start and enrolled in film studies at ZHdK. “I’d always been interested in film, had watched a lot of classics and was in a youth theatre group.” At ZHdK, he really caught the film bug: “I probably made the most short films in our class. I just couldn’t stop.” Mack felt privileged to simply try things out, without financial pressure. Then, in his master’s, he relocated to the Toni-Areal; suddenly, exchanging ideas and experiences directly with other disciplines became possible. “I worked with production designers, sound and music professionals and dancers — that was extremely important,” Mack is convinced.

The prismatic moment on set

For Mack, filmmaking enables thinking about a subject in all its complexity and working through it from start to finish. Engaging in this process, he feels the urge to want to find out everything about a subject. “If something won’t let go of me, I have to pursue it. I become driven.” At the same time, he says, people fascinate him with all their desires, dreams, inabilities, flaws and abysses — and adds: “I see people as tragiccomic beings — including myself.” For him, tragicomedy is a way of approaching the world, of understanding things without taking them too seriously. Because despite all the tragedy, there is always a lot of comedy, too.
Things get really exciting on set when everything comes together: “As a director, I need to let things flow, yet remain focused on the here and now so that I don’t miss anything. At the same time, I’m already thinking about editing. Which involves a lot of concentration and pressure.” But when you can watch how everything works together, when mental images begin moving and characters become real, “that’s magical!”

The Prix Netzhdk is awarded once a year by Netzhdk, ZHdK’s alumni organization. Awarded to students graduating from ZHdK’s bachelor’s and master’s programmes, the prize is endowed with 10,000 Swiss francs. www.netzhdk.ch
Gianna Bärtsch is a freelance author and copywriter.
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