By Vadim Rizov
[A retrospective of Ulrich Seidl's work begins today at Anthology Film Archives.]
In the early '60s, Pauline Kael—fed up with the newly-ordained cinematic holy trinity of Last Year At Marienbad, La Dolce Vita and La Notte, refusing to recognize them as part of any zeitgeist she'd find relevant—wrote an essay mocking what she dubbed the "Come-Dressed-As-The-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties" genre. In Ulrich Seidl's Europe, the sick soul of the EU heads straight for the discotheque without bothering to get dressed up first. Antonioni said he focused on the rich simply because they had the most time and leisure to act out the problems he was interested in; for Seidl, it's the poor, dispossessed and unredeemable that have come to stand in for Europe, and the dance-floor is their commonest intersection point. 2001's Dog Days begins with a violent near-fight, as dumbass Mario (the appropriately named Rene Wanko) threatens to beat up anyone with the temerity to look at the stripper dance his girlfriend is performing; the eponymous subjects of 1999's Models spend most of their evenings writhing in the light, their faces captured in small spotlights, their pale eyes and faces as unnerving as any J-horror wraith; 2007's Import/Export has alienated thug Pauli (Paul Hofmann) catatonically dancing his ass off for no one in particular.
Import/Export is, unequivocally, a great film. As with In The City Of Sylvia, Birdsong et al., Anthology Film Archives is once more performing a public service by giving a critically acclaimed, commercially unviable film a week-long run, thereby qualifying it for end-of-year Top 10 lists—but non-critics should probably make the effort to see it as well. Seidl's gaze is unblinking in the face of real-world vileness, which automatically opens him up to charges of exploitation, since it's very clear there's no intervention about to happen. Import/Export sets Austrian Pauli wandering through Ukraine, peddling shoddy wares in decrepit locales while Ukrainian nurse Olga (Ekateryna Rak) tries to make economic headway in Austria. For Olga's section, Seidl filmed actual senile, babbling nursing home patients in full dementia. Which, sure, is "exploitative," insofar as it takes the images of people who can't have any control over themselves and projects them back on the world. But it's urgent and justified: Seidl's exposing Austrian health-care conditions while using patients too far gone to have any recognizance as his metaphor for dying Europe. On both counts, he's validated.
Import/Export is easily Seidl's best film; out of the four other films I watched in preparation for Anthology's Seidl series, nothing came close. (NB: This effectively amounts to the second half of his career.) Seidl's methods aren't always as justifiable; Import/Export is shining a light on disparate levels of exploitation, rot and misery in a way that's freakishly revelatory, but it's hard to say any of the other films have goals nearly as lofty. Presumably Seidl isn't a sociopath, just a guy with a steely gaze and too much commitment to witnessing debasement to bother with any distracting point of identification on-screen, but it's creepy that the closest you get to an explicit statement of purpose comes from one Lucky (Georg Friedrich) in Dog Days. "I enjoy seeing how people can treat each other" he announces, before going on to force people to sing "La Cucaracha" at gun point, extinguish cigarettes on each other, etc. He finds this funny, and Seidl seems to as well—and so, invariably, it kind of is. Transgression's always good for laughs, and there's something so consistently, unrelievedly vile about Import/Export and Dog Days that they both invite laughter. Like Rosemary's Baby and The Shining—but with zero metaphorical/fantastical distance—they're hilarious precisely when they should be most disturbing. You'll have to laugh or be horrified, which is certainly a possibility: I've heard from both admirers and detractors of Import/Export who never want to see it again.
Seidl's aesthetic—immaculate static compositions alternating with long handheld work that can be inelegant but never rushed—has been fully-formed from at least 1995's Animal Love onward, but the targets have gotten far worthier of his scorn. Animal Love itself garnered the attention and praise of Werner Herzog, and it plays a lot like Herzog's early effort Land Of Silence And Darkness: Long, barely edited scenes of freakish behavior without anything else. In this case, it's people way too devoted to their pets; it's less appalling than boring. There's no real revelation to watching socially inept squatter dudes read long instructional passages about clitoral stimulation while obviously processing it through a 12-year-old's sexuality; you get the feeling Seidl is just getting his kicks out of their weakness without building up any institutional indictment. As for Models, you get what you come for: Two hours of skinny freaks vomiting, snorting up and holding court in the club's bathroom. I'll give Seidl props for not wasting any time on specious guff in defense of "fashion," but the joke's hardly any more surprising or revelatory than Brüno, just harsher in the details. It's satisfying in its own particular way: If you want to see barrels of these particular fish shot, they do tend to flop around enjoyably, and the film ends with one of the loudest, most terrifyingly long laughs this side of John Huston. 2003's Jesus, You Know toys with empathy, though it's safe to say that this collection of tortured monologues—prayers to God, delivered straight to the camera, quickly curdling into the repressed and sociopathic—unsurprisingly doesn't follow through on the declaration made by one woman at the start: "We all made this film in honor of You." It's a safe guess Seidl wouldn't agree about his motivations there.
There's one chilling monologue at the end, though, from a woman summarizing her knowledge that the end of her life is fast approaching; she's recalling the deaths she's known, realizing she can only think of one that was swift and pleasant. And Import/Export also ends at death, the geriatrics muttering the word itself over and over. All Seidl's films are worth it if they led here. When I saw it, I was grimly amused and never once bored—at 135 minutes, it more than finds enough fresh forms of debasement—but wondered if there was anything more to it than novel shock value and formal skill. Then I went to see Revanche a year later, and a segment about the female protagonist's brothel duties had me distracted for reels; Seidl's depiction of the sex-trade had seared my memory so hard that nothing else could come close. Seidl's seemingly uninflected realism becomes stylized indelibility because of the gap between a formalistic perfection—an unwillingness to break mise-en-scene—and footage of atrocities that would've shaken someone less unfeeling into rougher footage; the results can sneak up and invade other movies that aren't really kin, the way David Lynch's creeping surrealism deranges archetypal set-ups. In the end, the nightmare power of their imagery is the same, at least for one film.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion AV Club and Paste Magazine, among others.