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The Dark Recesses of the Austrian Soul

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A brass band trombonist and Nazi fetishist practices in his basement. | STRAND RELEASING
A brass band trombonist and Nazi fetishist practices in his basement. | STRAND RELEASING

These days, it’s tough to get anyone to come and physically protest your movie. Although boycotts were declared against “Stonewall,” I don’t think anyone went to the Angelika and picketed it during its one-week run there. Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s “Paradise: Faith” managed to anger a conservative Catholic group so much that they showed up at the City Cinemas Village East with protest signs. Ironically, the scene that upset them, in which a woman masturbates with a crucifix, is preceded by material that actually might have bothered them more, such as an orgy featuring unsimulated oral sex. Seidl’s work is just as capable of ticking off liberals; one critic I know thinks he’s a master of cruelty who gets his rocks off laughing at the harsh scenarios he devises for his characters.

When I saw his first narrative feature, “Dog Days,” that was my take on Seidl. He struck me as a combination of the worst qualities of Todd Solondz and Michael Haneke. (To be fair, he began working well before Solondz.) Then I saw his documentaries “Animal Love” and “Models” and realized that there’s pathos amidst the considerable pain in Seidl’s work. At his worst, there’s little but artfully framed schadenfreude to it; at his best, he’s capable of Sadean cruelty modulated by compassion.

Ulrich Seidl brings his art to disturbing finds in people’s basements

His latest film, the documentary “In the Basement,” takes a look at the contents of Austrian basements. Many of them would probably be illegal in a country without America’s First or Second Amendment: guns galore, Nazi memorabilia. There’s even an underground target range. While not illegal, the BDSM dungeons he finds would raise a few eyebrows, even in a culture where “Fifty Shades of Grey” was a blockbuster book and film. There’s a huge difference between its “pornography of tastefulne­ss,” to lift critic Kevin B. Lee’s phrase, and Seidl’s images of a man’s testicles being lifted by hooks in a grungy basement.

Seidl’s wife Veronika Franz, a director in her own right (and collaborator on the scripts for his work), has said that all Austrian films are horror films. Seidl’s oeuvre bears this out, although the horror is more often emotional than physical. The country seems more damaged by the historical experience of Nazism than Germany — a German director like Christian Petzold doesn’t seem nearly as angry as Seidl or Haneke, even when he addresses World War II directly in “Phoenix.” As it happens, Seidl depicts a subculture of Nazi fetishists who also happen to play in a brass band in “In the Basement.” He never questions any of his subjects on camera, and his attitude toward them is entirely nonjudgmental, even when judgment seems called for. The Nazi fetishists seem almost harmless; while they talk about traveling through Germany to visit Hitler’s castle, they never express any fascist ideology.

That’s left to the guys in the gun range, who practice in case of an Islamist takeover. Actually, they believe that Muslims, especially Turks, are already invading Austria, and they’re dumber than white Europeans. One of them seems slightly more liberal than his buddies: he argues that Islam is only 300 years behind the West.

All this would be only slightly more edifying than watching an evening of Fox News or listening to right-wing talk radio if not for Seidl’s direction. His work, in general, suggests reality TV freakshows like “Strange Sex” and “My Strange Addiction” raised to the level of art. His framing is impeccable. Most of his beautifully lit, carefully poised images could be used as still photos in a gallery setting. He rarely moves the camera; even when following people through their houses, he tends to cut as they walk from room to room. There’s a pleasurable quality to Seidl’s direction even when what he’s filming is repugnant. As with Haneke, it makes his provocations go down easier.

“In the Basement” suggests that Austria’s basements are a repressed subconscious for the country. They represent the material it doesn’t want to acknowledge: racism, violent potential, the legacy of the Nazis. The film finds a kind of redemption in sex. It’s guilty of cheap irony at times, when it has a prostitute talk about how she felt abused in her previous retail job as if the audience would be astonished that anyone could like sex work. But even though Seidl leaves himself and his voice off camera, he manages to get a real dialogue going with a domestic violence survivor who’s now working for a charity that serves abused women. She’s also a masochist in a relationship exploring consensual BDSM and states her preference for men who do their share of housework but like to objectify her sexually. The film ends with her locked in a cage. Only in Seidl’s world could this be a sign of hope.

IN THE BASEMENT | Directed by Ulrich Seidl | In German with English subtitles | Strand Releasing | Opens Nov. 6 | Anthology Film Archives | 32 Second Ave. at Second St. | anthologyfilmarchives.org

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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