Monday, April 27, 2015

In the Basement (Im Keller)

Director Ulrich Seidl

IN THE BASEMENT (Im Keller)                 B-              
Austria  (81 mi)  2014  d:  Ulrich Seidl                      Official Site of director Ulrich Seidl

The basement in Austria is a place of free time and the private sphere.  Many Austrians spend more time in the basement of their home than in their living room, which often is only for show.  In the basement they actually indulge their needs, their hobbies, passions and obsessions.  But in our unconscious, the basement is also a place of darkness, a place of fear, a place of human abysses. 
─Director’s statement, Ulrich Seidl

Ulrich Seidl likes to go where no other man dares to go, exploring what might be called the “living curiosities” of the world, like specimens from off-road museums that aren’t listed in the travel brochures.  The Austrian master of a cinema of disturbance rose to international prominence with his film DOG DAYS (2001), a relentlessly disturbing look at graphic depictions of human cruelty happening within the milieu of the Austrian middle class, a glimpse into the grotesque, described by John Waters as “The most humiliating film ever made (for both actors and audience).  Astonishingly hateful and original.  Vienna never looked so depressing.”  Earlier in his career, he filmed ANIMAL LOVE (1995), a voyeuristic documentary showing how household pets are used as sex objects by their reclusive owners who are little more than pathetic human outcasts, where we wonder just how much of this has been staged for the public benefit?  Often blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, Seidl has refused to call his films documentaries, specializing in a theater of humiliation where extraordinary incidents of human degradation are far more disturbing by their everyday commonplace and ordinariness.  Without providing context, Seidl offers no explanation for why Austrian citizens behave so indecently to one another or act in such bizarre fashion, where his cast of non-professionals often seem like they’re delving into a shock cinema showcase of the weird and the grotesque, which for some viewers can feel like endless torture.  While he’s shown signs of mellowing with age, where bleak and humorless portraits have evolved into something more sympathetic, he’s returned to a subject that captured his attention more than a decade ago while doing location scouting for DOG DAYS when he became aware of a secret world hidden in Austrian basements.  Immediately high profile cases come to mind, like Josef Fritzl (Fritzl case - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) who held female members of his own family captive as sexual slaves in the basement of his home for more than two decades, or Wolfgang Přiklopil (Wolfgang Přiklopil - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) who kidnapped a ten-year old girl and sexually abused her in captivity for eight years.  This basement syndrome was also brought to light by Markus Schleinzer, another Austrian director, in a similar fictionalized depiction of child pedophilia in Michael (2011), a film made even more fascinating by the meticulous precision of such austere stylization.  While it’s hard to minimize the damage accumulated by these highly publicized traumatic incidents, Seidl has a more benign interest, though clearly he still cherishes his role as a provocateur that continues to shock his audiences.

Once more, Seidl takes us into the meticulously clean environment of middle class Austrian homes where the streets are scrupulously clean, not a blade of grass is unkempt and everything is perfectly in place.  As the cameras follow the household residents down the stairs into their basements, we see a variety of mystifyingly strange and bizarre examples of human interests on display, all shown in medium shots composed in a portrait like tableaux setting where the subjects are situated in the dead center of the picture, often staring listlessly at the camera, showing no emotion whatsoever.  From the retired couple who have transformed their basement into their favorite pub, with every glass and liquor bottle perfectly in place, where the entire room reeks of symmetry, where you can imagine them always cleaning up immediately afterwards, as they’d be embarrassed if anyone found a speck of dirt down there, to another couple who have transformed their basement into a gaming room filled with the taxidermy-stuffed heads of literally dozens of wild game animals, where the husband can remember the details of each shoot, lining the walls with tribal masks, while the counter space is filled with authentic carvings brought home from Africa, where it may as well be a replica of a wing from a natural history museum.  We also hear a singing pistol shooter, a failed opera singer than enjoys singing opera at the top of his lungs while spending time at his own converted shooting gallery, a concrete bunker where he can blast away at various targets at different ranges, but also play a simulated life-sized video game where an entire wall is a glass screen that produces images of would-be intruders or criminals that need to be blown away, where these pop-up images challenge the speed and dexterity of the shooter.  Making little sense are the laundry women that disappear into the basement and stand inertly staring at the camera listening intently while their laundry runs through the various cycles.  Apparently these women have no inclination whatsoever to leave the room in the basement and return back upstairs and get on with the rest of their lives until the entire process is completed.  Another woman returns periodically to a locked storage room where various items or boxes are placed neatly on shelves, picking out a particular box at each visit, where inside are tissue-wrapped lifesized dolls of creepily realistic babies that she cradles in her arms, reminding them she’s their “Mommy” who will never leave them, promising unconditional love, a ritual seemingly sparked by pronounced maternal instincts that linger well after menopause.  Some men are so wrapped up with this virtual world in the basement that they barely even communicate with their wives in the upstairs world, preferring to live in two separate realms, seen occasionally yelling up the staircase or sending messages on their cellphones, receiving meals left for them on the stairs, where they barely ever leave the subterranean paradise they’ve created for themselves. 

What basement excursion would be complete without an X-rated adventure?  While this section might have been entitled Into the Dungeon, as the area is typically used for what might be considered unacceptable practices if performed anywhere else, there are several variations on a similar theme (with an emphasis on S/M), where easily the most risqué aspect of the film are the hard corps sadomasochistic practitioners who practice a form of deviant sexual behavior that is not for the uninitiated, as they take their views to such an extreme that it’s often painful to watch.  One married couple expresses a dominatrix-slave relationship where the husband performs all the housework completely in the nude wearing a dog collar, often with his genitals restricted to an extreme degree, including even more unimaginable contortions, where he must obey all her commands, which includes licking her clean after urination.  Another woman, nude and bound, informs us she worked in a supermarket before becoming a prostitute, where her Catholic history of abuse may have led to her masochistic desires to be punished, where controlled sadomasochism offers her a distinction between the fantasy aspect and real inflicted violence, having evolved to the point where she now considers herself a feminist, ironically counseling abused women at a battered women’s center.  The film takes a warped turn into historical amnesia when a trombone player likes to gather with other members of a brass band playing drinking songs commemorating Adolf Hitler and the heralded Nazi past, where the basement is decorated like a Nazi memorabilia museum, featuring his most prized possession, an oil painting of Hitler in uniform that was a wedding gift, but also other portraits of Hitler (who was born in Austria) and decorated mannequins in Nazi uniforms.  While they drink heavily and tell stories, proudly showing off emblematic swastikas, surrounded by the military hardware of guns, knives, and swords, they display a reverence for the Third Reich, where the nostalgia craze has taken a strange twist into the perverted minds of Holocaust deniers who continue to honor and adore their deranged leader as if the unopposed order of German Fascism was the Austrian ideal of perfection.   While Neo-Nazi lovers are hardly a novelty, it’s important to remember the enthusiastic welcome Hitler received when he annexed Austria in 1938, where it’s a historical anomaly for even a small contingency to continue to worship him today, as the nation’s official position is that they were Hitler’s first military victim.  Two men in the picture apologized afterwards and were subsequently forced to resign their official posts after extensive media coverage in Austria following the film’s release (Austrian town officials resign after Nazi basement film ...), where they were elected members of a town council.  Expressing sympathy for Nazism violates Austrian law, which prohibits any form of re-engagement with National Socialism, propagation of Nazi propaganda, or denial of the Holocaust under Verbotsgesetz 1947 and has been a crime in Austria since 1947.  Between 1999 and 2004 there were 158 cases sentenced under this law.  None of this is mentioned in the film, where Seidl treats the love affair with hateful ideology as little more than a harmless hobby.  Perhaps more than other Seidl films, his intentions are markedly clear, exposing the moral hypocrisy of a middle class that hides its dirty little secrets while exhibiting some kind of moral and economic superiority that hides their real inclinations.  “Humanity exposed” might be a legitimate aim, but the director’s fascination with lower base instincts never fully connects with a larger societal view, as it’s not exactly the damaged or wounded psyche of a repressed nation, becoming more of a theatrical showpiece for the prurient and the outlandishly bizarre, leaving the audience at the end as uncomfortable as the caged figure viewed onscreen.  

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