A storehouse of junk accumulated over a life, a metaphor for repressed history, the place to get high or be gassy without stinking up the proper rooms: The basement offers Ulrich Seidl access to the guts of his countrymen. The filmmaker follows up the flagellating dramas of his Paradise trilogy by plunging into the cellars of Austrians, showcasing the things — and identities — these people treasure but don’t display for the world. Often, seated at their train sets and lavish pub setups, they gaze dully at the camera for long moments, subject to the aesthetic vision of their documenter. Once the film leaves theaters, people around the world might stare back in a similar stupor, in their own bottom floors, the air and couch thick with scents and sloughed-off skin cells: Seidl’s study reminds us, with each new basement, that the places where we’re most ourselves might as well have grown off us like the shells of mollusks.
For the film’s first half, in often still shots of rigorously symmetrical composition, Seidl gives us gun-lovers, collectors of Nazi paraphernalia, brass-band enthusiasts, white-haired salts in a cavern of brick arguing over what’s to be done with Austria’s burgeoning Muslim population. (One proposes outlawing the burka — way to stand up for freedom, dude!) Much friendlier is the mustachioed old gent tootling on his tuba beneath the heroic portrait of Hitler he received as a wedding gift.
Eventually, predictably, the whips come out and the clothes come off, and Seidl introduces a mistress and her love-slave, whom she tasks with nude chores — and with cleaning her up with his tongue after a pee, while she’s still on the pot. Looming over this, and informing the film’s haunting final frames, is the horrific fact, unmentioned in the film, of two Austrian men who in recent years were discovered to have kept female prisoners locked up in their own basements. (The cases were unrelated.)
There’s none of that, here, except for teasing hints during some s&m role-play. In interview segments, Seidl’s people speak with offhand charm; the stories a woman tells of her abusive first marriage are more upsetting and revealing than the quite thorough scene of her being worked over by her master. Seidl being Seidl, that’s shown in one long shot in which the basement’s back corner forms a line splitting down the precise center of the screen — and the split in her ass is lined up with it perfectly. Makes you think, maybe.
In the Basement
Directed by Ulrich Seidl
Opens November 6, Anthology Film Archives