All photos by Piotr Sokul
If you have a soft spot for dark documentaries and the quirky side of human-interest stories (and I'm talking about the side that involves animal love), chances are you already stumbled upon Ulrich Seidl's oeuvre. In his home country of Austria, people were quite sceptical about his art and — as is mostly the case in Austria — only started to accept him once he became famous overseas. Now, with his non-documentary Paradise trilogy still resonating with most of the art-house crowd, Seidl has become sort of a star at home, too.
The director of Dog Days and Animal Love, Seidl is known to be straight-forward, but at the same time poetic – he laughs, because the world is ridiculous at times and, most importantly, he has honest compassion for the people around him. Actually, the director is sort of what Austria wants to be – and what it can be when it channels Seidl.
In his latest movie, In the Basement, Seidl goes exactly there and explores Austria's darkest spare-time paradises. As usual, his protagonists are not always at their best, but real. A little less usual are the Austrians he portrays: self-confident, articulate and proud of their inner abyss. The film is a semi-documentary about people who have, in one form or another, a very special sort of (or relationship to their) basement — either because they work in an underground shooting range, or have an S&M studio where they get hung up by their balls or because they love to collect vintage Nazi merchandise and can't rightfully do so overground.
John Waters – who voted Seidl's Paradise: Love and Paradise: Faith among his top three movies of 2012 – once said: "Fassbinder died, so God gave us Ulrich Seidl." There really is nothing to add here. Except maybe for the fact that Ulrich Seidl has the best mad professor-type office in the world and giggles like a child when you point at the red Grim Reaper statue on his desk.
VICE: People often accuse you of cynicism and irony – at least in your work. Is that really how you see the world?
Ulrich Seidl: Well, luckily this doesn't happen too often anymore. Journalists and people who are familiar with my whole body of work don't state those allegations at all. This kind of sentiment only comes from people who don't really know my work and haven't evolved personally. When I started out, I was antagonised for quite a while – probably until Animal Love. Everything changed with Dog Days, of course. Now, such accusations only happen sporadically. It tells me a lot about the cynicism of the people themselves.
I watched your recent film In the Basementat a press screening, where the audience tends to be quite detached, too.
Yes, journalists and doctors, both types tend towards cynicism.
However, in this case, people were laughing really hard – until the were almost choking, because your takes always take that wee bit too long and it makes people uncomfortable.
Yeah, I like that. I like it when people laugh – the interesting thing about people watching my movies has always been that the audience never laughs or cries altogether. I'm not fishing for emotions and I'm not catering to reflexes such as "And now laugh!" Instead, one might laugh while the other might be annoyed, because he or she doesn't think it's funny at all. I think life is absurd and ridiculous at times, so why wouldn't we laugh? But if people just go for making fun of the people on the screen, that's their problem
This is the most distinct difference between your films and that's what people call social pornography. You don't let us look away once it becomes unfunny.
I'm definitely not a Peeping Tom. People might think they recognise a certain milieu that they can point their fingers at, but actually, I'm really spending time with my protagonists, getting to know them, building trust, a relationship. I portray my protagonists just like they are. I'm not judging them. This is why they never have any problem with me after the film's been released.
It takes a lot of trust for a couple to let you film the woman hang 1kg weights on her husband's balls. Can you describe the process of getting to know your protagonists?
I just have a good sense for that. I treat people the way I want to be treated. It's one of my talents to give people the impression that I really care about them – which is true, for that matter. You can almost always tell if a certain relationship will make for good movie material or not. But of course, there's a lot of luck involved, too. Take Mr. Ochs, for example. We only met him by chance, by word on the street.
Speaking of Mr. Ochs, the guy with the Nazi paraphernalia in his basement. With his story, I had the impression that you were using elements of classic fiction story telling.
Yes, that's right. After all, everything's set up. Nothing is captured by surprise in my movies. Everything is manufactured and even when we use hand-held cameras, every scene is choreographed and exercised. There's always feature filmmaking involved – that's my take on cinema. I always draw my material from reality, but in the end, it's never just documentary filmmaking. There are some completely made-up stories in In the Basement, too.
Which scenes are fictional in In the Basement?
Well, take a guess!
I found the story about the woman who treats dolls like real babies hard to believe, because it was missing background information more than others. Maybe I'm wrong though.
No, you're right, that one's completely staged. Many journalists are especially surprised here, but the story still works.
To me, this story shows that you have a really humanist view of your characters: At first glance, the woman is totally scary, but then you realise that this may only be because she doesn't seek her luck in traditional ways and values. If we look closer, she seems really happy.
On the other hand it tells us something about the isolation of man, too. It's a story like many stories out there. It's the same as with the pets in Animal Love, which are fulfilling the same kind of need for their holders – back then, I was already dealing with this theme of sublimation, this people not getting what they need in terms of satisfaction or power play.
When Austrians think of basements these days, we think of Josef Fritzl and Natascha Kampusch – the dungeon torturer and his victim. You decided not to go there.
That case was not really my interest when I wanted to make the movie. The idea of this project goes way back. Initially, I was fascinated by the fact that most homes have extensive cellars and people love to go to the basements in their spare-time, while leaving their living rooms mostly untouched. Down there, they have all the freedom to be whatever they want to be. I'd say that's pretty universal, too. But I don't want to judge. I'd rather show real desire and real sorrow.
This notion of not judging your protagonists is sometimes seen critically. After all, you portray Mr. Ochs as a real and ambivalent human being, not a monster – despite his being a Nazi.
That is what interests me. Movies are not a means of convicting people. Besides, Mr. Ochs is not a neo-Nazi. He doesn't commit any crimes. I find the normality behind his life and the lives of the people around him fascinating. And one more thing: Mr. Ochs is a very nice guy. That's just the way it is. And that's what makes it even harder. It would be a piece of cake if we could just scream, "You dirty pig!" at him.
What's your take on Austrian film in general? What do you think about the current state of filmmaking in your country?
Actually, we can be really grateful. Austrian film has evolved into something exceptional over the last two decades. It wasn't always like this. When I studied film, nobody was exactly waiting for movies from Austria. Now, other European countries like Poland, Denmark or Spain envy us. We show things how they really are.
With your movies, this is especially true for sexuality. It's so authentic that your display of sex feels almost like the truth pill in The Matrix.
I try to picture the human body just the way it actually is. It's not about the specific actor; it's about all our bodies. After all, we live in a completely artificial world full of idealised images. If you go home after watching my movies and look at the mirror, you'll discover that you don't look that different.
Also, I heard that you are a huge admirer of Erich von Stroheim. What connects him and you?
Even though it was a totally different world, I'm still fascinated by his films. He had similar themes as me – desire, death and private life. Even his perfectionism is probably not too different from mine – even though his may have been more radical. I guess Stroheim also created this gimmick for himself, with his Imperial uniform and his military behaviour.
Is there something similar with your public persona? Like an Ulrich Seidl gimmick you're cultivating?
You need to ask others about that. But I think you'd probably find a few such elements, if you wanted to make a movie about me.
More interviews with people we like:
WATCH - VICE MEETS: Slavoj Zisek