When Ulrich Seidl unveiled plans to make a documentary on everyday Austrians and their relationships with their basements, almost everyone jumped to the conclusion that this would be about Joseph Fritzl. In the Basement (2014), which screened out of competition at the Venice Film Festival this week, makes no mention of Fritzl, even though the very idea of the infamous figure adds a layer of dank mould to the underground antics of Seidl’s subjects. The film begins with a man sitting in his basement watching intently a huge snake in a large glass tank. As the shot lingers we notice movement. A guinea pig snuffles about at the far end of the tank, tentatively and unwittingly getting approaching its demise.
More moments pass and the tension mounts until the snake suddenly strikes. The attack is dark, visceral and provocative. Seidl got his first walk out right there and one wonders if he squirmed with satisfaction. But what does such a repulsive image really have to say? Are we witnessing the voyeurism and sadism of the man who obviously enjoys watching his snake eat lunch for some reason? Or are we the man? Is what happens in the basement supposed to invoke some form of truth? Or is it just what some people do? The doubt as to whether there is anything true being said here persists throughout the remaining eighty-odd minutes. One of the surrealist scenes involves an amateur opera singer who has a gun range in his basement and practices shooting at paper targets.
Elsewhere, a brass band musician talks of his enthusiastic alcoholism – “All my family were drinkers” – as he meticulously cleans his basement, a portrait of Adolf Hitler is glimpsed, but nothing will be so subtle as just a glimpse and a veritable treasure trove of Nazi memorabilia is soon revealed, including shop dummies dressed in SS uniforms. The Hitler portrait, we later learn, was a wedding present from his friends: “I was so excited to get home and hang it”. In another segment, a big game hunter shows of his exotic trophies and sits with his wife, who unwisely considering her husband’s enthusiasm, wears a leopard spotted shawl. Then there’s the sex: a dominatrix and her sex slave live out their daily routine of humiliation and torture, a weedy looking guy in a thong talks about the power of his load and a woman naked and bound reveals she works for a centre for battered women, which bizarrely gets a laugh.
Although famed for his almost fetishistic attachment to ‘reality’, Seidl’s In the Basement is a fundamentally dishonest work. His subjects have been carefully selected and arranged to exploit their freakishness to the maximum. The freakiest get the longest screen time. The relatively ‘normal’ are made to look grotesque by being forced to stand immobile in a tableau and stare gormlessly at the camera. They do not get a voice. The monologues are given to those who will say something casually racist, or the more obviously deluded. Seidl is a filmmaker of both talent and merit, but the blatant manipulation of his subjects and the nakedness of his own intentions and dribbling fascination make In the Basement irrelevant as a comment on Austrian society as a whole, and only passingly interesting as an unsurprising picture of what some very odd people do in the privacy of their own homes.
The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.