Ulrich Seidl’s Austrian Underground Freak Show In the Basement

Still from Ulrich Seidl's IN THE BASEMENT

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In the Basement
Directed by Ulrich Seidl
November 6-12 at Anthology Film Archives

The architectural equivalent of the subconscious, the basement functions as a private, subterranean space where the darkest and strangest activities unfold beneath a respectable public façade. Such is the thesis of In the Basement, Austrian documentary filmmaker Ulrich Seidl’s latest exploration of transcending the everyday through perversity. Even when venturing into fiction (as he last did in the Paradise Trilogy) Seidl uses fixed shots and uncomfortably symmetrical compositions to record his subjects struggling against hostile socio-economic circumstances (Import Export) or fashioning insulated, self-imposed hells (Models). The physical and psychological dimension of the basement would thus seem the ideal Seidl-esque topic, almost too good to be true.

And indeed it frequently is.

Seidl remains so intent on evoking the hermetically sealed headspace of fellow countrymen and women through claustrophobic renderings of their environs that any connection between that headspace and the outside world remains obscure and elusive. Only a man operating an underground firing range receives a detailed portrait—he bursts into opera, sensibly imparts instruction on handgun safety, and challenges his friends’ racist attitudes toward Muslims. But the elderly woman who houses a collection of lifelike dolls that she coddles and talks to as if they were her own children is never depicted in any other context (what has led her to this?), while the horn-playing janitor who possesses a Hitler-shrine-as-man-cave is never questioned about his Nazi politics. For Seidl they are mere freaks, their oddities dramatically pronounced amidst mundane settings and through clinical cinematography. By now I’ve probably seen too many Seidl films—or too many films in general—to be shocked by this technique, which more often than not disguises voyeuristic gawking as journalistic “objectivity.” Seidl appeared to move away from this tendency with humanistic efforts like Jesus, You Know and Import Export, but now he’s returned full force: most of the last half of In the Basement is predictably and dully devoted to the dungeons of S&M enthusiasts, all presented as possessing interchangeable identities as well as predilections.