Ulrich Seidl's "Dog Days": The Power of Rebellion
by Liza Bear
Premiering at the Venice Film Festival in 2001, Austrian director Ulrich Seidl's "Dog Days" won the grand jury prize for its unflinching portrayal of social ennui in suburban Vienna. Enervated by the merciless August heat, the denizens of this sterile habitat, straddled by shopping malls and highways, seek week-end solace in bizarre sexual rituals, or burst into fits of inexplicable rage. Women of varied ages are for the most part -- though not exclusively -- on the receiving end.
From Camus' "The Stranger" to Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," writers and filmmakers have yoked extreme heat to extreme behavior, implying a sort of curdling or deliquescence of the emotions that leads to aberrant behavior. In "Dog Days" the violence takes the form of anger, humiliation, sexual abuse, the enactment of fantasies and revenge. But the film is not devoid of humor or compassion. For his first fiction feature, Seidl, who is known for the documentaries "Good News," "Animal Love," and "Models," cast a retired pensioner, an alarm salesman, a swingers club owner, as well as noted actors Maria Hofstatter and Georg Friedrich ("The Pianist") in a series of six interwoven stories. These characters are ready to snap, and do. Acting with unabashed physiological candor, all are knockdown-convincing in clinically explicit roles that transcend glamour with authenticity, in all too human ways. indieWIRE contributor Liza Bear corresponded via email with Seidl to find out more about the film, which opens today in New York from Leisure Time Features.
indieWIRE: I understand you shot "Dog Days" on the hottest days of 1999. Why? What aspects of human behavior did you want to portray?
Ulrich Seidl: Of course, heat produces extremes. During a heatwave people get aggressive, violent, apathetic or sexually stimulated. That's why heat is a good atmosphere for telling intimate stories.
In fact, very often we did not shoot on the hottest days, but for reasons of photography and light we shot only on cloudless days with blue sky. So sometimes we had to heat up the apartments and houses to make it really hot.
iW: Is this summer even hotter than when you shot "Dog Days"? How are you keeping cool?
Seidl: Yes, much hotter. Actually, it is the hottest summer since I was a child. And how am I keeping cool? I drink cold white Austrian wine.
iW: What kind of neighborhood did you grow up in and what is your family background?
Seidl: I grew up in a very Catholic, middle-class family (my father is a doctor) in a small town in the Austrian countryside.
iW: Did your parents support you as a filmmaker?
Seidl: No, not at all. In their opinion filmmaking was not a serious profession.
iW: What specifically attracted you to the suburban housing estates/mall/highway sprawl that is the milieu for "Dog Days"?
Seidl: I think the locations in "Dog Days" are typical of current developments in living conditions. These houses -- which you can choose and order by catalogue -- can be found everywhere in rich Western countries. They look universal and they have no history.
iW: It's possible to think of your film transposed to New Jersey, for instance.
Seidl: Yes, of course. I think not only the milieu of autoroutes and housing estates can be found everywhere, but also the people who live in that environment.
iW: To me there's a fascinating, seamless relationship between people and place in "Dog Days" -- place, or maybe non-place. Has your work as a documentary filmmaker given you unique insights into that relationship?
Seidl: My insights into the relationship of people and places are based on my personal curiosity for life and my love of plunging into unfamiliar lives and milieus.
iW: Are these insights, or close observation, particularly valuable when you're writing a fiction script?
Seidl: Yes, you are right. My fiction scripts are based on my observation of real life. The degree of authenticity of the characters in "Dog Days" is a result of my experiences with people from different milieus, which I have had by shooting so-called "documentary" films for 15 years.
iW: Were there fictional elements in some of your earlier documentaries, which made the passage to fiction inevitable?
Seidl: Actually, in all my so-called documentary films -- beginning with "Good News" in 1990 -- I already used fictional elements. For instance, in "Models" there were scenes between Vivian, the main protagonist, and her real-life boyfriend, but also scenes with imaginary lovers based on her fantasies.
iW: In "Dog Days," how easily did the dialogue develop -- was it really all improvised or written on the set?
Seidl: All the dialogue was improvised on the set, but the scenes were carefully planned and written before, while writing the script. I chose this method (without written dialogue), because I wanted the actors to be as free as possible for improvisation. Concerning the non-professional-actors, I wanted them to be able to talk with their own words. I wanted them to keep their individual manner to express themselves. And, of course, spontaneity is a very important element of my staging.
iW: Since you worked with both actors and non-actors, how much did you have to adapt your normal modus operandi (small crew, natural lighting, improv)?
Seidl: I did not have to adapt at all. I kept my modus operandi of documentary working. But to tell you the truth: The actors (the professional ones) had to adapt.
iW: Some people will see the women characters in this film as being victimized...
Seidl: Statistically, violence within the family exists in every milieu and physical violence is used mainly against women and children. During the casting of "Dog Days," to find the character of the teacher, almost every actress told me about experiences of male violence against her and personally confirmed the statistics. Then there's also mental violence in which men can be victims -- in the film Lucky is such a victim. I understand that feminists don't like violence against women to be shown in public, but I want to show things the way they are and not the way they should be.
iW: So it's also possible to give the film a less gender-driven and more humanistic reading and see them ALL, women and men, as victims of their environment.
Seidl: I think you are right...Anna [the perpetual hitchhiker] is my favorite character, because within all her craziness she is the woman with the most freedom and happiness in the film. To me she is like the angel of the film.
iW: How long have you and your co-screenwriter Veronika Franz worked together?
Seidl: I worked with Veronika (who's a journalist) on several documentaries before writing "Dog Days" together by exchanging computer discs. At the end of the process it's very difficult to say what her input was and what was mine.
iW: Is your film in some sense a satire of a certain stratum of Austrian society at the end of the millennium?
Seidl: No, I do not consider my film a satire. If it was a satire the audience could not identify with the characters and I would have missed my goal.
iW: How hard is it to make the kinds of films you want to make in Austria?
Seidl: After I left film school in Vienna, it took seven years until I could make my first film. It was the most terrible time of my life. Since then my films have always been very controversial. I had and have fans and enemies, but "Dog Days" turned out to be a huge success at the Austrian box office. So it should be possible to get financing for my next projects.
iW: Is it true you once wanted to be a pastor? Why did you decide not to go into the church?
Seidl: The truth is, it was the wish of my parents that I should become a priest. And when I was a child I had nothing against it. Then I became a teenager with all the power of rebellion against parents and church.
iW: I'm really looking forward to seeing your latest film, "Jesus, You Know," which you showed at Karlovy Vary [and will also play in Toronto]. What's it about?
Seidl: It is a small film, originally shot for television, where I fragmentally portray six Catholic believers, who pray very personally to Jesus. They repent, they ask questions, expect answers and pour out their woes.
iW: Have you started working on the historical film that you've allegedly wanted to make for many years?
Seidl: I decided to make another film first, one that deals with the relations between Eastern and Western Europeans. The historical film you are talking about takes a long time to prepare and a long time to get financed (it is a 5 million Euro project).
iW: And do you find it ironic that an Austrian-born actor is running for Governor of California?
Seidl: As you can imagine, Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger has never been a hero of my world. I don't agree with his political opinions -- that is, if he has any.
[Thanks to "Dog Days" co-screenwriter Veronika Franz for German translation.]