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Cellar Cinéthnography: Ulrich Seidl at Work Surveying the Basements of Austria

The Austrian filmmaker studies the repressions of the Austrian national-social psyche into the underworld of their basements.

Director Ulrich Seidl (left) in the documentary Ulrich Seidl – A Director at Work

Ascent is a passage towards holiness, and descent, towards darkness and fear. Although phenomenological experience takes place on the horizontal plane, the spiritual experience, wishing to mimic heavenly life, is ordered on the vertical one. Even when this spirituality is secularized into psychology, this vertical arrangement of space remains unchanged—the enlightened self sits aflame atop the mountain, and down below in the bowels of obscurity the impenetrable subconscious hangs heavy like a black mist.

This dense opacity is a great temptation to cinema which has always yearned to seize the unfilmable (be it violence, love, god, terror). And what better place to hunt for this unfilmable than in the gloom of cellars, both symbol and representation of repressed desire? The true darkness which exists only in the most horrific of basements, where actual enslavement, rape, murder are carried out repel representation. The very nature of these acts of evil does not allow them to be seen.  There is no recording, thankfully, of the notorious Joseph Fritzl’s enslavement, rape and manslaughter. His darkness is that one which cannot be penetrated. Yet, the temptation is no less grand, and although this near-tangible evil must remain obscure, perhaps the hidden can be hinted at by the proxy of that which can be penetrated—the normal, sometimes even banal darknesses of basements.

As we learn in the documentary about Ulrich Seidl’s filmmaking “Ulrich Seidl und die bösen Buben” (poorly translated as “Ulrich Seidl – A Director at Work”), Seidl departed on a five-year survey of Austrian basements to discover what other secrets they might hide. He undertook a sort of ethnographic experiment, studying not so much each basement for itself, but rather the repressions of the Austrian national-social psyche into the underworld. Seidl’s survey in his new documentary In the Basement (Im Keller) is no neutral one, forgoing the conventional basements, to undertake a sort of cinematic study of the cas limite, as if perhaps one could reach an understanding of hidden fantasies through their filmable counterparts.

These Austrian basements harbor relatively normal aberrations—from workout rooms to model train collections; rehearsal studios to shooting ranges; party rooms to swimming pools. Some aberrations seem, at least at first, to be more extreme than others—the Nazi treasure room stuffed with paraphernalia, the S&M chambers, the Jagdzimmer  (trophy room) crammed with hunting trophies of rare African mammals—but after accompanying Seidl on all these composed descents, one begins to wonder which aberrations are more frightening.

The living room, as Seidl mentions in A Director at Work, is nothing more than a place for show—a space offering the spectacle most necessary to the bourgeois ritual of order and comfort: that of properness.  It is a room designed to be shown more than used, filled with pristine couches and never-used China; a place which evokes politeness and ennui, rather than passion or desire. Which explains the basements—liberated from social affectation, private individuals may, as Seidl puts it, “withdraw”—as if one must descend into the underground chambers, where the light is dim and the clarity of the heavenly regard is clouded over to allow the liberal reign of pleasure.

Mostly, there is nothing unexpected in these basements. Is it any surprise to find deviant sexuality, fascism, xenophobia, obsession, or boredom in basements? These are, for those willing to admit it, the ‘known secrets’; the ‘normal perversions’ repressed by the societal subconscious rather than an individual one. The real surprise in In the Basement is how the film inverts standard moral values, making the basest perversities seem most normal. The workout machines, the mini swimming pools, the train collections are somehow more perverse than the S&M chambers, the trophy rooms or shooting galleries, whose darkness is at least aware, whereas the former are constructed with the illusory goal of banishing darkness with the insipid. These attempts to flee the darkness by drawing down the living room’s veneer into the cellar’s depths ultimately lead to a show of oblivious ludicrousness (the bobbing bald head of a sexagenarian before an elaborate construct of model trains).

With this moral inversion of space, comes the moral inversion of character, and the initially more perverse-seeming characters (Joseph Ochs, Nazi-sympathizer; Gerald and Alessa Ducheck, Mistress and Slave) having renounced middle-class duplicity and shame become more understandable. It is certainly they, and not the ‘normals’ in Seidl’s film, who are given a voice, or more importantly, a conscience—one that must occur in their choice of marginality. Frau Sabine from Vienna, who addresses the camera frontally, nude and bound, exposes a clarity of vision in regards to her masochistic desires that is never presented by those who simply work out in their basements. We discover a history of abuse that may have been a cause for this desire, but also a vivid (and feminist) consciousness of the sharp distinction between the masochist’s desire for limited, fantasized violence, and the unlimited and all-too-real violence of an abusive husband. The work Frau Sabine has chosen—as a Caritas aid worker for abused Catholic women—indicates her awareness: the same society which rejects the fantasy of masochism, creates the conditions of abuse (patriarchal, secretive, ritualistic). Her qualitative understanding of the differences between these similar-seeming acts of violence liberate her, whereas the quantified and legalistic morality which considers each act of violence literally leads only to moral hypocrisy.

Everything comes to a head, as it must in Austria, in the Burgerland basement of Joseph Ochs, the epitomic subterranean space of the national psyche. Herr Ochs, a collector of historical objects and leader of a brass band musical society enters his basement through the garage (a calculated step which obviates the necessity of ever encountering his wife, who is most notable in the film by not being in it), where we discover a wall bedecked with the portraits of Austrian royal figures. Joseph Ochs’ love of order is an adoration of the peasant towards the unbroken hierarchy, which both submits him and grants him power. His reverence of both nation and history, the most ‘normalized’ of all attitudes for the citizen of the nation-state, can in Austria lead only to one predictable conclusion, one which Seidl works towards almost philosophically. And before we arrive at the most inner and secret (although unsurprising) chamber—Ochs’ Schatzkammer replete with Third Reich paraphernalia—we encounter a portrait of his Führer hung almost casually at the back of the garage. A visual chain is constructed in the progression in images in Ochs’ abode—the casual royal portraits, the heroic portrait of Adolf, leading to the inner chamber teeming with guns and knives and swords and swastikas, an almost logical chain, which in most normal basements is truncated before it can reach its obvious conclusion—the insuperable connection (which Thomas Bernhard would have been proud of) between fascism, religion, and monarchy in Austrian society. And so, when we witness a wall decorated pell-mell with portraits of Hitler, Jesus, the King, the Pope, and orientalist clichés of camel-riding nomads in the desert, this mélange of ‘classic’ Austrian imagery makes the natural associations between each image clear, which is of course why it must be exiled from society down to Ochs’ basement.

Ochs’ leadership of a group of small-town musical flunkies attests to his normality. His group of Nazi adulators is not made of the typical marginal neo-Nazis continuing to profess what is a defunct and (one hopes) anachronistic ideology, but rather they see themselves connected in some basic way to the history and rituals of their place. Nazism is in In the Basement, as it is in Bernhard’s novels, no longer a historical anomaly, but rather reinserted to the flow of time. In this, Ochs’ basement is most deserving of that matronly warning: “You don’t want to know what goes on down there”; an admonition which functions only because everybody does in fact know what goes on ‘down there.’

When we leave Ochs and his brass band for the last time, trumpeting up a local ditty in front of the garage, deep inside, on the far wall illuminated in a pale yellow light, hangs the portrait of his Führer, in a space halfway between the basement’s private, secretive space and the street’s communal, public one, reminding us that this one basement is proudly displaying what countless others hide (consciously as well as subconsciously).

Which is why the experience of watching a Seidl film in a full movie theater is remarkably revelatory. They provoke giggles of embarrassment, peals of laughter, screeches of disgust, cries of moral outrage; in so doing they winnow the hypocrisies of those unwilling to recognize their own darkness in the obscurity of the Other. Their dissimulation (“That horrible! I’m nothing like that!”) is the typical refusal to see that which reflects their own moral bigotries. Bigotries which are outed by Seidl’s film, which takes the perspective of regarding the middle-class through the shameless eyes of the lower ones (not unlike Pasolini, with his affinities too for the archaic, the peasant, the worker).

Seidl’s films are nothing if not clear—their preference for the proletarian, the primal, the crude; their catholic fascination with the carnal; their mitigated relationship with the real; their imposition of an unnatural in order to display a truer essence—all expose a certain critical (and quite funny) view of the ridiculousness of the human rituals. The mise en scène in In the Basement, as in all Seidl’s films, is literal—the glorious and sometimes frightening spectacle of humanity has been scenographied, dramatized, ordered for the camera which records it, frontally, stilted. Seidl never shows the convention of the world, but rather imposing his conceptual vision on the world, a world not so much stylized as conceived from a true Weltanschauung, raw and dark as it may be.

Thank you for such an informed, relatable, culturally significant piece. Forgive the pun, but I really dig the subject matter—this repressed nature which our own society, ironically because we built it, says we need to bury. Plus, being half Austrian makes this even more interesting. Where can I view this film?
Hey Max, Glad you enjoyed it. And the pun, as always was forgiven before it was written (I even enjoyed it). Where can you see it? Not sure when it will be out in the US. I heard it will maybe have a release date in the summer, but then probably only in NY/Cali. (or maybe some random arthouse cinema somewhere). If you are half-Austrian, you should at least half-enjoy it…

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