Ulrich Seidl shows (allegedly) the dark side of suburbia
The newest film of the notorious Austrian film director Ulrich Seidl is a great collection of unusual images, impressions from the private lives of ordinary people. If only such thing existed. The film actually proves that even the most (allegedly) normal, average and not-outstanding people have their secrets, their parallel lives. And in the case of impressive documentary Im Keller (IN the Basement), they are willing to share their intimacy and privacy with the others. The audience therefore automatically becomes a voyeuristic.
Im Keller shows unconventional hobbies and practices that people of Austria (and probably elsewhere too) perform in their basements (Keller). Basement is thus a metaphor for the hidden and unspoken. Based on the recent local history and the scandal with Josef Fritzl who was holding his daughter and four of her incestuous children hostages in the basement of his house for twenty four years a basement is a metaphor for hiding and pretending. Fritzl was a prominent member of local community before the day when his long-time captive daughter managed to escape.
But the characters of Seidl’s documentary are (mostly) much more benign. But at the same time absurd, contradictory and (very often) homophobic. We see a guy who turned his basement to the shooting gallery, who posses a huge arsenal of weapons, who claims he is being monitored by secret service (I wonder why) and who discusses with his friends how the Muslims are genetically mentally inferior and illogical. There is a couple who practice extremely brutal SM sex practices. There is a hunter who collects exotic trophies and who claims he never ever missed a single shot in his life. There is a delusional woman who keeps life-size puppets of infants in the basement. And ultimately, there is a man who worships (or as he says, collects) Nazi items and Adolf Hitler’s pictures. He was the one who actually caused scandal in Austria where authorities still (fairly) unsuccessfully battle with the Nazi heritage. However, his story is rather tragic. He lives in a basement, he does not communicate with his wife, he is a self-declared alcoholic and he is a very bad though very ambitious and diligent musician.
So, after I saw the film, somebody asked me what is the point or what is the message of such film? And the truth is, that is very relevant question. The point of the film is, in my opinion, the straight naturalism of the society and putting the viewer in the position of the voyeur. It is about suburban society that is very often moralistic and utterly conventional. Furthermore, it is a mirror of that society. Seidl does not accuse, does not moralise and does not draw conclusions. He is invisible in the film (we can’t see or hear him). He made a film about suburbia, about weirdness (in terms of our widely accepted social norms) and about the hidden places, physical and metaphorical places. His characters often retreat to the basements for various reasons but mostly because their actions would not be socially accepted (understandable thing is that the person with Nazi emblems and ideology can not show his collection in public; however, the other question is whether he should be permitted to do that in his privacy). Seidl therefore raises significant questions for which there are (most often) no single answers.
© Miha Colner, 19 November 2014