Ain't No Miserablism Like Austrian Miserablism 

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The Films of Ulrich Seidl
Anthology Film Archives, July 24-August 6

Depending on your standards, Ulrich Seidl is either in the best or worst of company, having been compared to Werner Herzog, Diane Arbus, and fellow Austrian and contemporary Michael Haneke in his desire to unsettle viewers by filming straight-ahead confrontations with the grimmest and grimiest of bizarre human specimens. His m.o. invites the usual questions of exploitation and sensationalism, but even if one harbors reservations (I don't) Seidl has increasingly complicated his provocative gawking while slowly transitioning from documentary to narrative, incorporating a genuinely rich understanding of moral and spiritual hardship into his purgatorial worldview.

Seidl began making short documentaries in 1980; Anthology Film Archives' retro begins with 1992 feature doc Losses Are to Be Expected; unfortunately, the earliest film available for review (television movies Pictures of an Exhibition and The Bosom Friend, like Losses, have not been distributed in any form in the U.S.) is the disturbingly representative Animal Love (1995), a series of grotesque tableaux of sordid and more than slightly touched pet owners who use their domesticated beasts as substitutes for friends, children and romantic partners. Seidl frames them in long unbroken static shots (and never, as in all his films, relies on extra-diegetic sound) that accentuate their weirdness; a parallel-edited scene of estranged lovers attempting to win the affections of a confused pug as if it were a child caught in the middle of a custody battle, or a simple but effective cut from a couple overzealously playing with their mutt to the same animal chained up and muzzled, exemplify the material in which Seidl specializes: the most superficial of happy exteriors masking profound perversity, loneliness, or flat-out cruelty.

This means that the statuesque women of Models (1999) only exacerbate the gap between pretty façade and rotten interior, but what distinguishes it from every other romp through the image industry (drugs, eating disorders, pathological emptiness) is the director's eye for perfect visual evocations of his subjects' feelings. Captured in the most intimate situations, Models' models don't mind the ubiquitous camera; thus rendered invisible, Seidl indulges in stylized compositions that isolate physical and gestural oddities, including a startling opening shot of a girl desperately repeating "I love you" to a mirror that blocks out and replaces her face — an appropriate metaphor, since throughout the rest of the film the camera voyeuristically hides behind mirrors or else acts as one. If any véritist deserves credit for having "written" his work, it's Seidl.
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It should be clear by now that Seidl was long interested in the possibilities of molding reality to his predilections, which is what makes Dog Days (in the first of his collaborations with co-screenwriter Veronika Franz) somewhat of an afterthought as his fiction debut. With its intertwining tales of sadism and misery revealing the dark side of Austrian suburbia, the film must have seemed dated in 2001 but is even more dated now for the sort of arthouse provocations that were gaining currency at the turn of the millennium: unsimulated sex, extended torture scenes, despairing and irredeemable nastiness. The threads are too obvious — when a security system installer needs to find a patsy to blame for a rash of car vandalism, guess what he does with the local crazy woman? — but, again, Seidl revels in mood, and the film's over-bright look and tone, as generated by a scorching heat wave, is impressively realized.

Seidl returned to documentary, and form, with his follow-up. Comprised of fastidiously framed confessional prayers inside half a dozen otherwise empty churches, Jesus, You Know (2003) is as stark and severe as medieval artwork, and where he could have easily expressed condescending pity toward his faith-tested Catholics (ranging from a covetous, fantasizing teenager to a woman being blamed for her husband's illness because of their inter-religious marriage) Seidl instead practices empathy on his own, strict terms: as in the cinema of Manoel de Oliveira, patient and compassionate listening-one subject worries over sensationalist talk shows that supplant familial discussion-forms the foundation of humanistic communication, with the camera playing priest, or god, in absence of a more responsive higher power. "Why aren't you here, Lord?" pleads one of Jesus' flock — a commonly asked question that in Seidl's film hits like a sudden inner silence.

Such concern over the spiritual is for real. Import Export, which finally sees its U.S. release after a 2007 Cannes debut, imparts Christian imagery at the very end of its bleak, wintry and economically rooted stations of the cross. Parallel stories trace the migrations of Olga (Ekateryna Rak), a Ukrainian single mother and web cam girl who travels to Austria in search of better opportunities and Pauli (Paul Hofmann), a young man heavily in debt who finds work in the East collecting from and replacing candy machines. We've all seen soul-crushing Eastern European landscapes before, but Seidl renders them singularly haunting: when Olga is first introduced walking toward her underpaying nursing job the industrial smokestacks and trains in the background overwhelm in their depressing majesty. Throughout, Seidl's meticulous style absorbs the harshness of the underworlds traveled by these struggling foreigners, who must negotiate economic and familial betrayal using only moral fortitude. Within a cesspool of vipers theirs is a hope Seidl might have once considered entirely forsaken.

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