‘These films aren’t for everyone. Case in point: I would call myself an admirer and I’m not sure they’re for me. With a tar-blackly comical spirit, Seidl depicts a modern universe that is bleak, crude, confrontational, mundane, explicit, and bracingly real. This content will surely be easier to swallow for some, but even taking that into account, one must give credit where credit is due. For Seidl doesn’t just blur the line between documentary and narrative. He erases it. He does this so confoundingly well, in fact, that the question of “is it fact or fiction?” becomes utterly irrelevant when discussing his work. While many filmmakers also toe this line, no one does it with nearly quite the same subtly demonic gusto.
‘Though he is greatly interested in the line between Eastern and Western Europe and how that invisible divide manages to maintain such rigid cultural differences, Seidl’s overarching directorial mission is to present a nearly hellish vision of modern life at its most grotesquely mundane. Rather than setting up more traditionally artificial climaxes and confrontations, he chooses instead to depict scenes from everyday life—some dramatic, most not—in which characters resort to depraved behavior out of what appears to be either boredom or a historically ingrained sense of purposelessness. If this all sounds pretentious and punishing, it isn’t. For Seidl’s ace in the whole is his acerbic sense of humor, which keeps his films from tumbling down a drain of complete and utter hopelessness (though for many, this splash of irreverence will only add to the distaste).
‘Taking all of that into account, it seems impossible to say this, but it’s true: Ulrich Seidl is a humanist. His work is more Dostoevsky than Von Trier. For as punishing and cruel as many of his scenes get, there exists a feeling that he isn’t out to simply punish viewers and make them feel miserable. He’s out to elicit a reaction, yes, but he appears to be more jovially amused his characters than anything else (he certainly doesn’t hate them). Watching these films, with their strange mix of the stylized and hyper-realistic, the sorrowful and the humorous, one cannot deny Seidl’s rightful place in the upper tiers of the world cinema canon.’ — Michael Tully, Hammer to Nail
Ulrich Seidl Official Website
‘Border Zones: The Films of Ulrich Seidl’
Ulrich Seidl @ Slant Magazine
Video: Ulrich Seidl Interview in English @ DShed
‘Staring into Hell: Ulrich Seidl’ @ Indiewire
Ulrich Seidl interviewed @ Little White Lies
Nine Questions for Ulrich Seidl @ Leisure Time
Introduction: Ulrich Seidl @ Mubi
Buy Ulrich Seidl’s films on DVD
Ulrich Seidl – Filmemacher, ein Portrait
Podcast US interview in English
Ulrich Seidl in Helsinki 2008
You’ve long seemed to favor tableau images, with a focus on their geometry and symmetry. Do you see a specific power or purpose in this aesthetic that has made it versatile throughout your filmmaking career?
Ulrich Seidl: Maybe my tableaux are an attempt to describe the world in one picture. Life is frozen for a few moments; the people are often frozen but breathe the pictures. It is a type of magical moment that is transferred to the viewer. The glances meet and one looks each other in the eye.
How do you find your subjects, most of whom are non-professional, and how do you work with them to get them to act so naturally in front of the camera, which often shows them in intimate and unflattering positions?
US: The search for actors starts from scratch with every new film and is a very time intensive process. I don’t distribute scripts and I don’t work from a set screen-play. The most important aspect about my work is building relationships based on mutual trust and gradually making actors develop a feeling for my ambition and the atmosphere of the film. If I succeed the actors (professional or non-professional) face the camera with an inner self-awareness that enables them to act naturally and authentically.
Just like the photographer Diane Arbus was regularly criticized, some have questioned whether you exploit your documentary subjects by depicting them in unflattering conditions. How would you react if that was brought up in regards to the elderly patients, who arguably aren’t as self-aware as the internet porn actors?
US: Allegations of this kind have accompanied my entire filmmaking carrier to date. But who wants to determine what is permitted, what is not and who wants to set the limits? I know that as a director I take and accept responsibility for how I portray people. The question is whether I portray people in a way that allows them to keep their dignity. I think that I have accomplished that and have even given some of it back to them through my portrayal. Or are moribund people not worthy of portrayal? Are they too ugly and/or miserable? Those that think like this apparently have a bad conscience, are aware of the fact that they are responsible for it. What I showed in geriatrics, namely that all these people finally end up perishing alone and very lonely is a responsibility of society and therefore, the responsibility of us all.
When the recent imprisonment cases of Natascha Kampusch and the Fritzl family came to light, Austrians were quoted as saying that it is a particularly Austrian trait to turn a blind eye to what’s going on next door, to keep things functioning on the surface. You’ve been identifying this social disconnection in your films for quite some time, and as a result they’ve been quite provocative in Austria. Do you agree that this is an Austrian phenomenon, or are you finding this is the case elsewhere as you make films on a more international scale?
US: You have a point there. However, I am not sure if the tendency to turn a blind eye to certain issues can’t be found just as often in other countries. By the way, I am just preparing for a film with the title Im Keller (In the Basement) which will deal with this subject and with the attitude of Austrians towards their cellars.
What films or filmmakers have influenced your practice? And what outside of film influences you?
US: Regarding film, I have probably been influenced heavily by Jean Eustache, Luis Bunuel, P.P.Pasolini, Werner Herzog, John Cassavetes and also Erich von Stroheim. Regarding painting, I could name Hieronymus Bosch, Francisco Goya, Alfred Kubin, the Austrian sculptor Fritz Wotruba and the British artist David Hockney as influences. When it comes to photography, it’s mostly Diane Arbus’s work that has fascinated me for a long time.
Is there such a thing as “too provocative,” an artistic boundary that shouldn’t be crossed?
US: I confront the viewer with certain realities, also or exactly because they are unpleasant. The viewers are responsible and I don’t want to keep certain truths from them. I do not want to make things appear nicer than they are in order to make it easier for the viewer. Fomenting unrest is sometimes the task of an artist. But apart from this, naturally boundaries exist for me. Boundaries for what and how I want to show something (there are some things that I am unsure I want to show). However, this is based on my own convictions and feelings regarding something and not consideration towards the viewer.
12 of Ulrich Seidl’s 23 films
‘Once you become accustomed to the icily grotesque world summoned up by the Austrian film-maker Ulrich Seidl, it is rare to feel anything other than a kind of jaded, subdued horror. But I felt something real in the course of this documentary about Austrian big-game tourists at a Namibian hunting lodge: unselfconscious rage and disgust. The sheer smugness and chilling lack of imagination of these people playing the Great White Hunter is mind boggling as they slay Impala and zebras with deafeningly loud and powerful hunting rifles – in controlled conditions which effectively disguise the fish-in-a-barrel nature of the experience they’re buying.’ — Peter Bradshaw
In the Basement (2014)
‘“Fassbinder died, so God gave us Ulrich Seidl,” wrote John Waters in Artforum in 2012. You can find obvious parallels between the directors; both are German-speaking iconoclasts (Seidl is Austrian; Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who died in 1982, was from Bavaria), whose precisely arranged and shot films cloak worlds of odd and over-the-top individuals with a patina of intense, self-conscious color, supplemented with frequently incongruous, unanticipated music. At the beginning of In the Basement, a nearly catatonic man sits waiting next to a glass aquarium containing a tiny, frightened guinea pig and a thick, long snake that leers at its upcoming meal. As predictable as it is, the rapid-fire climax jolts the viewer out of passive mode. Completing the bracketing is one of the final scenes, which features a thick-torsoed, skimpily clad prostitute locked in a cage, attempting to free herself from captivity. It’s insignificant whether this depiction is documentary in the conventional sense or fully simulated — what Seidl terms staged reality.’ — Howard Feinstein, Filmmaker Magazine
Paradise: Hope (2013)
‘You can tell an Ulrich Seidl film by its rigorous form and seemingly digressive improvisations. It’s like a corral with mathematically precise iron gates that herd a human menagerie into striking configurations. The previous two sentences are the high-toned kinds of things critics have been writing about Seidl’s work since his early breakthroughs “Models” (1999) and “Dog Days” (2001), so I figured I’d get it out of the way. “Paradise: Hope” is the final film in Seidl’s “Paradise” trilogy, after the blindingly beautiful, wise “Love” and the quiet storm of “Faith.” The subject of “Hope” is Melanie (Melanie Lenz), the 13-year-old daughter of the first film’s protagonist and niece of the second film’s subject. All three episodes are about an Austrian woman (in this case a budding woman), seeking fulfillment in a partner. Melanie’s mother sought affection and appreciation from Kenyan boy toys. Her aunt sought it in the arms of Jesus. And now Melanie seeks an outlet for her surging sexual curiosity, finding a candidate even less appropriate than impoverished Africans or a Christ statue: The director of her weight loss camp, a doctor at least 40 years her senior.’ — Steven Boone
Ulrich Seidl about Paradise Hope
Paradise: Faith (2012)
‘Faith is taking a perverted form here. Over the course of centuries, Catholicism has suppressed sexuality, and of course, this triggered a counter-movement. While the Church is creating a taboo around sexuality, we all know about the terrible abusive things that are happening behind the walls. That is very scandalous, but it is as well a logic consequence. By oppressing sexuality, you cause the erosion of moral ethics. Besides, Anna-Maria is convinced that the media and the public are addicted to sexuality, and she castigates herself in the name of the people to do away with this malady. This, in turn, provides her with satisfaction. It is a thin line between pain and lust.’ — US
Paradise: Love (2012)
‘In its subject matter, though not its treatment, Paradise: Love is similar to Laurent Cantet’s 2005 movie Heading South: the well-off middle-aged white women who go on sex-tourist jaunts to developing countries to be with young men. Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) visits Kenya in search of wonderful sex and she meets Munga (Peter Kazungu); things proceed well enough, and poor Teresa even starts to think feelings might be involved – but the upshot of course is humiliation for everyone, especially during an unwatchably horrible and extended hotel-room scene in which a young man is derided by a group of women for failing to get an erection. Does this film tell us anything we didn’t already know about prostitution and globalisation? Arguably, yes: maybe the role-reversal aspect defamiliarises it, makes you see it afresh, and Seidl has formidable technique and compositional sense.’ — Peter Bradshaw
‘Near the start of Import Export, an unflinching, at times almost unbearably hard yet moral look at human exploitation, a woman trudges through a snowy landscape, a cluster of nuclear reactors belching steam behind her. The exactingly framed tableau, at once horrific and yet somehow spookily beautiful, looks so unreal that you might try to persuade yourself that this is science fiction, a vision of some imaginary hell, an aesthetic indulgence. No one lives like this, you find yourself hoping, even though you know otherwise. This kind of struggle to accept what you’re seeing is part of the price of watching Import Export, the second fiction feature from the Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl. It is a price worth paying. A ferocious talent.’ — Manohla Dargis, NYT
Jesus, You Know (2003)
‘Jesus, You Know again mines the “insanity of normality“. The concept is brilliantly simple: film six God-fearing Viennese alone in a church praying. There is only one condition: the pious Austrians must say out loud that which they usually direct towards God in silent prayer. The results are astounding. Jesus, You Know – like Seidl’s previous films – puts the spectator in a bind. On one the hand, the “characters” in the documentary are genuinely ridiculous. On the other, one feels guilty for laughing at such vulnerable creatures. This is again a boundary that Seidl attempts to blur: “the border between something being funny and the moment in which laughing completely escapes us”.’ — Heaven & Hell
Dog Days (2001)
‘Dog Days, Seidl’s feature film debut, represents much less a departure than a continuation of his narrative strategies, formal shapes and stylistic emphases. The film unfolds in a Vienna suburb over two hot, sticky days. The characters and their isolated, lonely lives are introduced much in the same way Seidl presents the characters in his documentaries: with a focus on daily, mundane activities that simultaneously lays bare the “insanity of normality”. There is the insanely jealous boyfriend and his meek lover juxtaposed with the retiree who spends his time tending to his immaculate lawn and weighing packages of sugar to ensure he hasn’t been swindled. Then there is the woman who walks from a session of rough sex at a swinger club directly into the main halls of the mall where children play. She lives in a huge house with her alienated husband; both mourn the death of their child, yet Seidl never betrays the details of this history. Dog Days is a disturbing suburban story told with irony, but it never pulls punches nor does it offer final redemption.’ — Film Comment
‘Models examines the hopes, fantasies, and finally the realities of young models. Although supermodels often figure as the heroines or at least vaunted objects of desire in our society, Seidl fixes on the rather banal everyday tics and predicaments from which the women suffer: cellulite, breast problems, the inability to be alone and the catty competition among them. With his unique blend of documentation and stylisation, Models portrays the models’ daily life and the monotonous application of make-up and hair gel that commodifies the body. It is a world of glamour whose shine and lustre Seidl rubs away.’ — CineGreen
excerpt (English subtitles)
Animal Love (1995)
‘Fellow fiction/nonfiction line mutilator Werner Herzog is famously quoted on the DVD box cover for this film saying: “Never have I looked so directly into hell.” He’s right. Animal Love features Seidl’s now signature style of inserting portraiture-like chapter breaks of subjects staring into the camera within his film’s casually unfolding “narrative”. In Animal Love, that narrative consists of watching several different pet owners trudge through their increasingly dour daily lives. At the beginning, even for someone familiar with Seidl’s work, one might innocently mistake this for a sweet-natured tribute to humans and their pets. Yeah, right. It isn’t long before Seidl’s disturbing reality emerges.’ — TFoUS
Loss Is to Be Expected (1992)
‘Loss Is to Be Expected begins with an arresting image: a village idiot undresses in front of the camera and performs a strip-tease to the barely audible static from a Czech radio station. Seidl maintains that this behaviour and the tolerant attitude with which the Czech villagers regard it are meant to serve as a contrast to Austria. There, just a few kilometres over the border, such a man would be locked away on the basis that he is disturbing the “image” of the community. This is an example of a tactic central to Seidl’s works: mapping two worlds that although located geographically close together are totally different from one another.’ — SoC
Good News (1990)
‘Good News is a dialectic essay in which the squalid conditions of South Asian immigrants who sell newspapers in Vienna’s outer districts are juxtaposed with observations of well-to-do Viennese tabloid readers. Seidl’s camera captures the pathetic subjects in stylised tableaux, lingering within static frames for uncomfortable lengths of time. This technique, although still evolving in this film, marks Seidl’s later documentaries with ever greater effectiveness. Its roots are essentially twofold: (i) Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, a theatrical device in which an irritating distance between the actors and the audience creates a critical space and (ii) a tradition of “painterly” cinema, critically articulated in various forms from Münsterberg and Balázs to Bazin, which emphasises long takes and deep focus.’ — SoC
p.s. Hey. ** Bill, Hi. I managed to make a Molinaro post, but I had to use basically every little thing out there to do it, but it’s done. Ostensibly spotlighting her book ‘Thirteen: Stories’, one of my favorites of hers. I met her but I think only once and briefly at a party through Bruce Benderson, who I believe is now her literary executor. She seemed cool, but it was literally just a ‘hi, nice to meet you’ thing. Upcoming gig: great news! Are you performing new work or … ? ** Sypha, Hey, James. ** Tosh Berman, Hi, Tosh. ** Ileton, GhostRadar, wow, don’t know it, but will, cool. Does Danzig do movie scores or video game scores? It seems like he would. Embracing gifs is better than having sex. Good move. Not a bad weekend, bud. So much motion. I want to tear around the place. I haven’t in ages. Fuck writing. Maybe. Oh my God, it’s almost Halloween. And it doesn’t feel like it. I have to do something quick. Greatest Monday. Yours, mine won’t be. ** Steve Erickson, Good you nailed that evasive ending. Have you honed in on the build up? Yes, you make ‘The Fog’ sound very revistable. I think I must have been looking for the visceral at the time or something. I think ‘In the Mouth of Madness’ is his masterpiece. ** Paul Curran, Hi, Paul! Love back from what barely tenable Halloween season there is here. ** James Nulick, Hi, J. This morning! Or I mean yesterday morning! Fuck, feel my tsunami of envy. The nice kind of envy, the wistful kind. Oh, man, yeah, have an absolute blast, which you are guaranteed to have. Take notes. Hit us/me up if the WiFi and downtime accords. Bunch of love to you too. ** Misanthrope, Hellacious doesn’t sound good, even at Halloween. Speaking of, you haven’t gone to a single haunted house, have you. You have two nights left to correct that gross injustice to your pleasure centers. Take that steering wheel, type ‘nearest haunted house’ into your GPS, and commute yourself hellaciously to a haunted house, man. Or don’t, of course. I saw TC walking down the sidewalk here in Paris a couple of times, as I think I told you, and he looked pretty good for a real person. Sweet, yeah, Pynchon has a laugh riot lurking down in his prose. That forcible keeping of the mouth shut in the face of passionate, grotesquely misplaced praise for a piece of garbage happened to me just yesterday. Hard as it was, it was the right thing to do. Peace prevailing is good. ** Jamie, Hi, J-ster! I’m good enough, and my weekend was fair to middling, I suppose, but it traveled on the course on which it was appropriately set. Cool about the excellent Tramway shebang. I’ll look up Erica Scourti. Yep, I think you got it right on ‘Halloween’. It’s like a slow leak of half-baked everything. People are liking it. People are desperate, I think, or too many of them actually don’t know shit from shinola or really do want movies to just drift past their faces familiarly and unobtrusively. Everyone needs to start taking LSD again. No Halloween pastries out there were of sufficient cleverness or beauty to warrant purchase, but I am going to give it the last vestiges of an old college try today. May your Monday be bedazzled by the incredibly great costume that my Monday will be sporting. Korn has no need of entering either the ears or eyes portions of your head love, Dennis. ** _Black_Acrylic, Howdy, Ben. Welcome home! Nice leaf. That’s a helluva title. How do you plan to live up to such a promising moniker? ** Jeff J, Hey, hey, Jeff! Welcome back from the sunny lands. Michael does have a dizzying effect, which I think he loves producing. Traffic aside, it sounds like a perfectly swell trip! I’m so happy you liked the B. Wurtz show. I think he’s one the truly great under-sung genius artists. The Jacques Tati of contemporary art in a way. I’ve been a massive, massive fan since the early 80s, and that he’s starting to get appreciated and widely shown is a joy. And I’m not surprised the Pat O’Neill show is a sweetie, of course. Awesome, Jeff! I’m good. The ARTE script is happening, getting there slowly, and is a massive drag to write, but oh well. Still waiting to polish off the funding proposal docs for the new film and get them translated. We have some initial funding now, which is great. Happy Halloween! You doing anything scary? ** Kyler, Hi, K! Yes, I saw your book announcement on FB. Man, that is sudden and fast. Crazy that things can happen so fast. Very, very into knowing I can read it so soon. I’ll send you my mailing address via email or FB. Thank you! Everyone, So guess what? Jeff isn’t the only member of this blog’s family unit to have a novel hitting the world circa now. Maestro Kyler’s new novel, ‘Mercury’s Choice’, lands in the world and eventually in your lap on November 6th. For now you can pre-order it and/or gawk at its cover right here. ** Right. I’m giving the blog’s face over to the films of the somewhat divisive, love- or ‘hm’- or hate- inspiring director Ulrich Seidl today because I felt like it and because I’m curious what if anything will result. See you tomorrow.