“Never have I looked so directly into hell,” remarked Werner Herzog after viewing Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl’s “Animal Love,” one of 6 films screening at Anthology Film Archives in New York as part of their retrospective “The Films of Ulrich Seidl” (July 24-30). The series will culminate with a week-long run of Seidl’s latest film, “Import Export” (July 31-August 6).
Anthology’s description of the series: “In anticipation of our week-long run of his most recent feature film, ‘Import Export,’ Anthology presents a retrospective of the work of Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl, one of contemporary cinema’s most accomplished artists, and one who has consistently explored the line between fiction and documentary. Though 2001’s ‘Dog Days’ was his first purely fictional film, Seidl’s documentaries are as carefully composed and shot as any narrative feature, while both ‘Dog Days’ and ‘Import Export’ borrow many of the methods of non-fiction filmmaking. Unblinking in the face of the grim realities of the modern world, yet ultimately a profoundly humanistic filmmaker, Seidl is among the most perceptive and important cinematic chroniclers of 21st-century life.”
For those unfamiliar with Seidl’s films, Michael Tully at Hammer to Nail has assembled a film-by-film primer. Tully cautions: “These films aren’t for everyone. Case in point: I would call myself an admirer and I’m not sure they’re for me. With a tar-blackly comical spirit, Seidl depicts a modern universe that is bleak, crude, confrontational, mundane, explicit, and bracingly real. This content will surely be easier to swallow for some, but even taking that into account, one must give credit where credit is due. For Seidl doesn’t just blur the line between documentary and narrative. He erases it. He does this so confoundingly well, in fact, that the question of ‘is it fact or fiction?’ becomes utterly irrelevant when discussing his work. While many filmmakers also toe this line, no one does it with nearly quite the same subtly demonic gusto.”
Indeed, Tully offers this assessment of “Animal Love”: “‘Animal Love’…consists of watching several different pet owners trudge through their increasingly dour daily lives. At the beginning, even for someone familiar with Seidl’s work, one might innocently mistake this for a sweet-natured tribute to humans and their pets. Yeah, right. It isn’t long before Seidl’s disturbing reality emerges. When I think back on ‘Animal Love,’ a nightmarish image springs to mind: a dingy room jam-packed with the film’s subjects—both humans and animals—all piled on top of one another, engaged in an obscenely disgusting orgy. Though this image never actually occurs in the film, it’s the best way I can describe how ‘Animal Love’ made me feel. You have been warned.”
“Seidl may best be described as a Darwinian observer, who looks at humanity the way an alien species might, honing in on our elemental urges and desires, fascinated by our awkward, fitful efforts to forge meaningful connections,” writes Scott Foundas for the Village Voice. “And despite the frequent comparisons to his near-contemporary Michael Haneke, he is considerably less interested in the problems of the bourgeoisie than of the poor and working class (one of the most affecting chapters of ‘Animal Love’ concerns two homeless men panhandling for change—with the aid of a rabbit—in a Vienna subway station). If he sometimes goes too far, or lingers too long (his preference is for spare, static compositions), he’s almost always pointing his camera at something that matters. And if it is indeed hell that Seidl stares into, then we are all burning in its fires.”
Vadim Rizov at The House Next Door calls “Import Export” “unequivocally, a great film,” but offers cooler assessments of Seidl’s other films. On “Animal Love” Rizov writes: “It’s less appalling than boring. There’s no real revelation to watching socially inept squatter dudes read long instructional passages about clitoral stimulation while obviously processing it through a 12-year-old’s sexuality; you get the feeling Seidl is just getting his kicks out of their weakness without building up any institutional indictment. As for ‘Models,’ you get what you come for: Two hours of skinny freaks vomiting, snorting up and holding court in the club’s bathroom. I’ll give Seidl props for not wasting any time on specious guff in defense of ‘fashion,’ but the joke’s hardly any more surprising or revelatory than ‘Brüno,’ just harsher in the details.”
“Few directors make the frame seem more like a prison cell than Ulrich Seidl,” observes Darrell Hartman for ArtForum. “Confined to their airtight chambers, his characters lead empty, repetitive lives consisting of cruel, pointless relationships. His camera rarely shows signs of life.
“In Seidl’s documentaries, which have drawn controversy for their staged elements, the subjects sometimes look back into the camera. The girls in ‘Models’ (1999) lean toward it to check their makeup. The earnest, somewhat pathetic Christians in ‘Jesus, You Know’ (2003) train their eyes just above it, as if praying for a bolt of lightning—or something, anything—to emerge from the lens.”
Michael Joshua Rowin on “Jesus, You Know” for L Magazine: “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.”
The New York Times’ A.O. Scott describes Seidl as “a disturbing, paradoxical and difficult artist whose work proceeds from an almost naïvely simple premise. His camera dispassionately records people — sometimes documentary subjects, sometimes nonprofessional actors giving seminaturalistic performances — in the midst of daily life, and theresults are funny, awful, upsetting, bizarre and enraging.” Scott writes that “Dog Days” “turn[s] ordinary existence into a comic nightmare and rais[es] a series of impossible ethical questions. Is the film motivated by compassion or contempt? Does it voyeuristically exploit its sometimes clueless, helpless characters (or ‘actors’), or does it critique the audience’s own prurience and comfort? It will be no easier to try to answer these questions than to forget what you have seen. Be warned, but go.”
Finally, the New York Times also has a slideshow of images from Seidl’s films.