In the Basement: notes from the Austrian underground
by Camillo de Marco
- VENICE 2014: In the wake of his Paradise trilogy, Ulrich Seidl descends into Viennese basements to discover the special places where passions and obsessions are nurtured
The idea of taking a peek into the secret world of Austrian basements came to Ulrich Seidl in 2000, while he was doing the location scouting for Dog Days, the film that brought him to the public's attention. While exploring the outskirts, the deserted urban spaces consisting of thousands of buildings, the cottages in the countryside and the ghettos crammed with single-family houses, the director realised that his compatriots thought of their basements as special places where they could comfortably spend more of their time than they did in their living rooms. Over ten years later, with the Paradise trilogy done and dusted, Seidl has fine-tuned this revelation of an idea and has transformed it into his new movie, In the Basement (Im Keller) [+see also:
film profile], which was selected out of competition at the Venice Film Festival.
With In the Basement, Seidl has basically made a return to the documentary form, which characterised many of his early works, unlike his recent trilogy. In the Basement is nothing short of an array of characters, who could be described as bizarre to the say the least, filmed in their basements as they immerse themselves in their favourite hobby, whether it be something completely innocuous or something that should be hidden from the gaze of others. Because the basement is undoubtedly the place where people can hide things, or indeed themselves, away, and lose themselves in whatever passions they may have.
So, for example, we see a lady called Alfreda, who every day descends time and again into the bowels of the grand building in which she lives in order to pluck her dolls out of various boxes. These dolls are uncanny reproductions of real newborn babies, complete with fine wrinkles on their faces, and she gets them out to give them a little cuddle, as if they were alive. And then there's Mr Lang, who wanted to be a tenor, but is now content with teaching his friends how to shoot guns in the firing range that he has set up in his garage. You just never know – there are so many Turkish people out and about in the city, and dormant Islamic cells everywhere. There are so many big-game hunting weapons hanging up in Manfred and Inge's basement, next to thousands of hunting trophies of animals slain in Africa, ranging from impala to warthogs; that's how the lady of the house cooks such delicious schnitzel. And there's even Josef, who plays the trombone and invites his brass-band mates to come and get drunk in his enormous basement, decorated like a Nazi memorabilia museum, featuring portraits of Hitler and mannequins in SS uniforms.
There is certainly no lack of sexual pastimes, including both perverse ones and exhibitionism. For instance, we see the pale man who satisfies women with his record-breaking performances and the ex-supermarket checkout lady who has taken to subterranean prostitution. The most difficult individuals to watch without feeling a shudder are the Ducheks, a couple in which she is a dominatrix and he is a masochist who cleans the bathroom with his tongue and strings himself up from the ceiling of the basement, dangling from his genitals. On the other hand, Sabine gives the audience food for thought as this masochistic lady recounts her misadventures with various men and explains how she works for Caritas, coming to the aid of women who have been subjected to domestic abuse.
Though they may resemble freaks to be put on show as if in a 19th-century circus, these people are actually overflowing with a disconcerting but tangible humanity. And Seidl, far from judging them, instead turns them into the sole main characters of his tableaux vivants, infusing them with a twisted type of humour. They may well provoke feelings of repulsion, but they are our neighbours, and perhaps they are actually us, with our obsessions that we lock away down in the basement.
(Translated from Italian)