It was a bright, sunny day in Venice until Ulrich Seidl brought it down. That’s no surprise given the Austrian director’s penchant for
the odd, the quirky and the underside of things (“Paradise Hope/Faith/Love”).
His latest, “Im Kellar (In the Basement),” literally goes underground with a
sort of documentary survey of Austrian basement life. The title works on, er,
two levels, as what goes on down there tends to be kitschy, kinky or Nazi (of
Among the denizens of Seidl’s deep are an opera-singing
gun-slinger; a Hitler-loving history and music buff, a dominatrix-slave couple
who raise the level of eww; a woman
who was abused by men and now enjoys sex only with men who take absolute charge
and inflict pain (though of the "good" sort); a young zaftig woman
and her small male friend who wows the ladies, he explains modestly, with his
larger than normal, projectically impressive load. In one scene, his girlfriend
is seen at night, naked but for a pair of heels inside a small wire cage,
trying to find a comfort that was purposefully not there. Most of the audience
probably knew the feeling.
The German-speaking peoples tend to laugh at things other
peoples might not find amusing, and that’s the case with this film, the concept
of which comes from Seidl’s wife (and fellow director) Veronika Franz, whose
“Goodnight Mommy” is also in the festival. While there’s a certain arthouse
appeal to these creepy oddballs, as well as to Seidl’s austere compositions and
patient pace, ultimately you feel like you’ve visited a simply strange land –
or one of the darker rooms at Berghain — and are happy to go home again, in
this case to the nearest cafe with a decent glass of wine. Thankfully, that’s
not a problem in Venice.
But the night was only beginning and so was the darkness. Two
years ago, after the Berlinale premiere of Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of
Killing,” the audience sat silently, shocked and benumbed by what they’d seen.
Thursday night’s public screening of his new film, “The Look of Silence,”
brought a completely different kind of reaction to a nearly full Sale Grande:
Both a kind of prequel and sequel to “The Act of Killing,”
“The Look of Silence” is the second Oppenheimer film to explore the killing of
a million Indonesian "communists" by Army-supported civilian killing
squads in the 60s. But while all of the players in the first film are the
killers themselves, who revel in retelling (and re-filming) their brutal
exploits, the second centers on one man’s courageous search for, and moral
investigation into, his brother’s murderers. And while those murderers reenact
the killings in much the same way as they’re cohorts did in “Killing” – with Oppenheimer
providing plenty of video rope for these old men to finally hang themselves —
it is more about Adi and his still-grieving family.
Using his almost too-perfect profession of optometrist/eyeglasses
salesman as a means of meeting the killers, Adi checks their vision and in the
process asks questions not just about how they can see but about what happened
in the past. Still proud of their actions, and unofficially protected – one is
the head of the legislature and many are rich and powerful as a direct result
of their roles in ’65 — they are usually happy to discuss them, as long as the
questions aren’t too probing. When they are, the old killers resort to
not-so-subtle threats: it could happen again, they say, best to leave it alone.
Even Adi’s mother, who cares for her quite ancient and mercifully blind and senile
husband, feels much the same way. Their silence has kept the peace all of these
years, after all – there is no point in re-opening this deep, festering wound.
Only ill will can result.
But Adi, whether prodded by Oppenheimer or not and at quite
a risk to himself and his family, presses on, his mournful eyes searching his
brother’s killers’ faces for signs of regret, or simply humanity. He wants to
know, and for it to be known, the lies to be understood as such. “I have not
come to harm you,” he tells them, “but this is what happened.” The silence
perpetrated by everyone, which as the title asserts is far more than the lack
of noise, will be revealed and overturned. At least that is Adi and
At the very least, the killers’ families now know the truth about
them. This, too, carries extreme pain – a loving adult daughter learns from his
own mouth that her aged father had drunk the blood of his victims as a means of
warding off “going crazy” from killing “too many people.” She seems to suggest
that he’s senile and doesn’t know of what he speaks, yet the tears in her pained
eyes say otherwise. In the end, she and Adi embrace, and then in a surprise
gesture of forgiveness, Adi embraces the old man, too.
Adi was in attendance Thursday alongside Oppenheimer and when
the film ended they received a prolonged standing ovation. Adi was quickly
overwhelmed, covering his face with his hands, the director embracing him. They
stood like this for several minutes, the applause continuing, until Oppenheimer
finally encouraged Adi to leave. The audience filed out in silence, not in
shock but perhaps in awe — of a portrait in courage and moral integrity, and
pretty brilliant filmmaking.