Under the Skin

Nick Pinkerton on Ulrich Seidl’s In the Basement

Ulrich Seidl, In the Basement, 2015, HD video, color, sound 81 minutes.

WITH REFERENCES, direct or implicit, to famous native sons Adolf Hitler, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, and Sigmund Freud, Ulrich Seidl’s In the Basement may be the most Austrian movie ever made. The filmmaker’s latest formalist documentary even features an appearance by Fritz Lang—not the Vienna-born director of the Dr. Mabuse series, but a forlorn-looking small-arms enthusiast with a fondness for bulky sweaters, whose subterranean firing range also affords him acoustics to exercise his sweet tenor and bemoan the opera career he never had.

In interviews, Seidl has been mentioning an in-the-works project about the relationship between Austrians and their basements for years now, speaking of the cellar as “a place to do things in secret...[of] violence but also a retreat.” He isn’t the only one of his countrymen to have noticed this peculiar attachment: Rainer Frimmel edited together the found-footage video diaries of Peter Haindl, a misogynistic Vienna hospital orderly, in his 2001 Notes from the Basement (the nod to Dostoevsky is purely intentional), while Michael Haneke protégé Markus Schleinzer’s dreadful 2011 Markus drew on much-discussed cases of two Austrian men, Josef Fritzl and Wolfgang Priklopil, who were discovered to be holding sex slaves hostage beneath their homes.

Hitler spent his last days in a basement, his Führerbunker, and he makes several appearances in Seidl’s film—as heroically depicted in oil paintings that decorate the den of one Josef Ochs, a married, middle-class fellow who unwinds by binge drinking with the other members of his oom-pah band while surrounded by his collection of Nazi memorabilia. (Most disturbingly, Ochs blandly states that he regularly has neighbors over to the space, and evidently no one is put out by his taste in decor.) Sacher-Masoch, from whose name “masochism” is derived, is represented by Austrians who use their subterranean square footage for dungeon space—a burly, hirsute security guard who acts as a slave for his live-in mistress, seen cleaning a toilet with his tongue and submitting to elaborate acts of cock-and-ball torture; a middle-aged female who relaxes from a day job working with abused women by allowing a lederhosen-wearing master to go to town on her haunches with a riding crop, and who seems entirely unneurotic about what some might perceive as a potential conflict of interest between these two pursuits. Freud’s presence is perhaps the most abstract, and the most ubiquitous. For Seidl, the basement is the physical manifestation of subconscious desire, the playground of the repressed: Take the case of the woman whose cellar houses a collection of ultrarealistic baby dolls, which she is seen dandling and whispering tender reassurances to, a private, privileged ritual that is never explained away.

Like his late friend and collaborator Michael Glawogger, Seidl pursues a practice that encompasses both documentary and fiction film, with exercises in each medium incorporating aspects that tend to be attributed to the other. The casts of Seidl’s fiction films, beginning with Dog Days (2001), mix professional actors with amateurs who bring an element of existential veracity to their roles. (Disconcertingly, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the two.) His documentaries, meanwhile, exhibit a degree of finicky, just-so compositional rigor that—particularly in the early years of his work, when every other doc discussion didn’t trot out the word “hybrid”—isn’t usually associated with nonfiction filmmaking. Excepting occasional handheld inserts, Seidl tends to pose his subjects in medium long shots, presented face-forward against a perpendicular backdrop, in what the film scholar David Bordwell, writing about Wes Anderson and his Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), termed “planimetric” composition. In fact, I sometimes have the impression of Siedl as Anderson’s stern, Teutonic older brother—certainly Seidl also has a sense of humor that could be described as deadpan, most evident in his sly, associative montage. A big-game hunter with trophy-covered basement walls discusses making a warthog meat Wiener schnitzel in Africa, and this is followed by Fritz’s recitation of a (self-penned?) poem (“A man is always young and trim / For him time stands still”) and the introduction of the abovementioned slave who, stripped and on all fours, could pass muster as a bristly warthog himself.

Among other things, In the Basement is a musky slog through the fundament of fear and desire in particularly feminine and masculine permutations—in one key moment, Fritz and gun buddies speak very candidly on their feelings about Turkish immigrants, grounded in a basic sexual insecurity. (“They proudly declare, ‘We’re fucking your women!’ ”) As in previous works like Animal Love (1996) and Jesus, You Know (2001), whose respective subjects are ardent pet owners and the devoutly religious, Seidl chooses a single fixed vantage point—in this case, the view from the basement—from which to look into the fantasy life of his countrymen. In both the specificity of his conception and the fastidiousness of his execution, with every mounted ibex and spanking bench seemingly arranged to present the desired flattened perspective, Seidl is as bound to his gimlet-eyed style as his subjects are to their obsessions. It isn’t the same thing as perfection, but by now Seidl has refined and delimited his approach to such a point that he cannot make a mistake.

Ulrich Seidl’s In the Basement has its New York theatrical premiere through November 12 at Anthology Film Archives.