Why are Austrian films so relentlessly pessimistic? Ulrich Seidl, director of a grim new trilogy, assures Donald Clarke that it’s a legacy of the country’s past – and argues that while the truth may be miserable, facing it can lead to change
Beach blahs: Ulrich Seidl’s ironically named Paradise: Love
You couldn’t say that Austrian cinema doesn’t have an identity. Over the last decade, directors from that nation have delivered some of the grimmest, most pessimistic films of the age. The dean of the new Austrian mordancy is, of course, Michael Haneke. Nobody is likely to confuse such films as The White Ribbon, Hidden and Funny Games with the work of Norman Wisdom. Two years ago, Markus Schleinzer delivered the brilliant, but oppressively disturbing, Michael. And then there’s Ulrich Seidl.
Now 60, Mr Seidl might just be the most unforgiving member of this accidental movement. Beginning with a series of harsh documentaries, he delivered his feature debut, Dog Days, in 2001. That study of depraved goings on in suburbia was followed up by Import/Export – a diptych set around Ukraine and Vienna – in 2007. Now, he delivers a trilogy titled Paradise: Love, Paradise: Faith and Paradise: Hope. Some irony was at work in the naming of the films.
“All three films are about a woman, and all three films are about their longings,” he says in a calm, surprisingly cheery voice. “They are about corporeality. In the first film, an older woman goes to Kenya to find a man because she no longer can find one here. Because she doesn’t met the visual requirements of our society.”
That’s Paradise: Love. Initially, it seems as if the middle-aged Austrian protagonist may have found love with a younger Kenyan beach hustler. But this is an Ulrich Seidl film, so that relationship soon turns nasty. In Faith, a religious woman savagely flays her skin in front of a Christian icon before going out to minister hopelessly to drunken immigrants. It says something about the Seidl aesthetic that the most optimistic film, Hope, involves the relationship between a teenage fat camp attendee and her much, much older doctor.
“I originally wanted to shoot it all as one film with three episodes,” he explains. “I ended up with 90 hours of footage. I eventually ended up with a six-hour film. There were too many intense and strong scenes. So this looked like the best solution. Also, from a financial point of view it would have been disastrous.”
Setting all facetiousness aside, we should confirm that Seidl has one of the most interesting cinematic voices of his era. Allowing degrees of improvisation, he develops films that – though always scratching at scabs on the bourgeois body politic – never fail to tell gripping, insidious stories. His clinical mise en scène chimes with the unforgiving messages. The unremitting pessimism can, however, be exhausting. Does he recognise that in himself?
“For me, in my films, pessimism means showing the truth of the world,” he says. “We have to face up to that. We long for things. We long for dignity in the case of these films. I believe you always have to look at the dark side. Maybe people might find that difficult. But when you accept that, you have the opportunity to change. If you lie to yourself then you never have the chance to change.”
Really? As a philosophy for life, Seidl’s answer makes sense. But you will stare long and hard at one of his films before detecting any meaningful change in his characters. Their situations usually seem as ghastly at the end of the films as they were at the beginning.
“Well I do not share your view,” he says in a perfectly good-natured tone. “I hold the view that my characters always recognise something. Even if it may be a bad experience, they are aware of something. I know I cannot change anything with my films. There are some people who see my films and are happy because now they see the world from a different point of view.”
Now, what about this issue with Austrian film as a whole? Obviously, only a limited number of movies made in that country make it into our cinemas. For all we know, the nation delivers many, many knockabout comedies for the domestic market. (Though Markus Schleinzer once drily told me that they make about one such film a year.) What is going on?
Seidl is honest enough to recognise the caricature as communicating a truth.
“You are right,” he says. “We have a very critical view of social reality. And we deal with that in a very critical way. For me, the question is: why don’t other nations do that as well? The question is why don’t the French and British see this as well. Why don’t they show the world the way it is?”
With respect, I’m not sure this is the question at all. French film-makers such as Robert Guédiguian (from a neo-realist perspective) and Gaspar Noé (from a more heightened angle) revel in the wretchedness of humanity. Clio Bernard’s upcoming The Selfish Giant and Paddy Considine’s recent Tyrannosaur demonstrate that the Brits are at home to their inner pessimist. But those countries also produce comedies, thrillers and romances. The question is why – if the films that get exported are any guide – Austrian cinema seems to have only the one, sombre register.
“You also have to consider things from the historic point of view,” he says. “Because in Austria we have suppressed so much of our past. As regards the Nazis, for years we regarded ourselves as victims rather than perpetrators. We have taken years to deal with that mistake. For too long we bowed to authority – even as long ago as the Hapsburg Empire.”
Interestingly, Schleinzer made exactly the same comment about Austria’s guilty past. So there must be something in this theory. The nation has also, in recent years, had to cope with the fallout of the Fritzl case. Any hopes that Ulrich might offer the world a jolly distraction from that terrible story – in which a woman was held in a suburban basement for many years – are harboured in vain. Shortly after hearing of the case in 2008, Ulrich decided to make a documentary on the Austrian basement.
“It will be a film about men,” he says. “The basement is a male domain. If men want to be amongst men and do the things they want then they go to the basement.”
Don’t shudder. The film could be about Scalextric and train sets. Couldn’t it?
yyy Paradise: Love opens on June 14th. Paradise: Faith and Paradise Hope follow in July and August.