Looking for a nice wholesome film you can bring the whole family to? Nana got a birthday coming up? You may want to give Ulrich Seidl’s graphic, transgressive but deeply transfixing “In The Basement” a wide, wide berth, then. But if precise, clinical dissections of fetishes, freakishness and folly are your bag (and they’re so ours) you’ll find a great deal here to admire, laugh at and be oddly moved by, at least after the initial shock has worn off. Seidl uses the peculiar relationship of Austrians to their basements as a way to pick away at the cracks between our public and our most private selves. But it’s an idea that is elevated further by his rigorous eye for composition and cinematographic portraiture that makes the even the most bizarre images beautiful, and fashions the film, which could feel very fragmented in that it jumps from subject to subject and back again, into a deeply engrossing whole.
Of course, the first place our minds went to when we heard “Austrians” and “basements” together was that this would be some sort of ghoulish tour of the cellars in which notorious Austrian criminals like Josef Fritzl and Wolfgang Priklopil hid and tortured their victims. But it’s not that at all, it’s much more ghoulish. “In the Basement” follows a number of “ordinary people” (though how ordinary they can be and have agreed to participate so revealingly in this film is arguable) and simply shows us what they like to get up to in their basements. The portraits range from short, single shots, like of the man with the enormous train set or the couple with the impossibly well-stocked bar, to the long, meaty and frequently-returned-to. Within that latter group a few become something like the stars of the show: a man whose basement is festooned with Nazi paraphernalia, including an oil painting of Hitler—a wedding gift that is his prize possession; a woman with a (consensual) sex slave who does the housework naked with his genitals trussed and must obey all her commands, even licking her clean after she urinates; and an aspiring opera singer who has kitted out his basement as a rifle range. Kinky sex, Nazis and gun fetishism—it’s a heady brew. But Seidl presents it in a distance, observational and dispassionate in the best way. It gives you an idea how he might have gained access to the secret workings of these most secret places; the film runs without commentary, without text on screen, without flinching. It is fascinated, but it does not judge.
Throughout our press notes, the movie is referred to as a documentary, and it does certainly mark a move back toward non-fiction filmmaking for Seidl after his recent “Paradise” trilogy, of which we were fans. But it’s not wholly a documentary in the traditional sense either—just as the “Paradise” films blurred the fiction/non-fiction line by casting non-professional actors in scripted stories and pursuing absolute realism in dialogue and locations, “In The Basement” muddies the waters from the other side, incorporating deliberately staged moments of action that are at best theatrical reconstructions of real events, and in some cases are entirely manufactured. So the woman who in the film keeps one of those creepy realistic baby dolls in a box in her basement and takes it out and coos over it for hours at a time, does not actually do that—she owns the doll, but it is not kept in the basement and the time she spends with it is above ground. So her scenes, as they happen in the film are not ‘real’ and yet they are hugely effective—the first time she goes through the boxes and pulls out what appears to be a real human baby there was an audible gasp in the theater.
The Nazi has his bandmates over (they play brasswind oompahpah music, naturally) and they get drunk and tell ribald, deeply unfunny jokes, presided over by the Fuhrer’s portrait. A weedy guy in S&M gear explains straightfaced how forcefully he can ejaculate and surmises that women enjoy having sex with him because “it must smack the vagina wall pretty hard when I come.” A man surrounded by the stuffed heads of the many different animals he’s killed proudly tells the story of tricking a friend into eating warthog (though baboon is off-limits even to him). A woman who likes being sexually dominated casually mentions her job as a spousal abuse counsellor for Caritas and her own experience of domestic violence.
Nothing is simple, no lines are straight, no assumptions can be made down here in these windowless subterranean chambers. But while they’re speaking of shameful things, these people are not ashamed. Often addressing the camera directly, they own their experiences fearlessly, in a way that, despite the perceived depravity of what some of them are into, is ultimately admirable.
The shot Seidl chooses to leave us with, however, is a brilliant metaphor for inner shame and yet another deeply uncomfortable, coolly presented image. The slightly overweight cashier-turned-prostitute whom we last saw with the dweeby S&M guy, is locked in a cage. It’s clearly designed to be just too small to lie or sit in, and the woman struggles to turn around to find a settled position, further hampered by the six-inch stilettos that are the only things she’s wearing. And so it is, Seidl seems to be saying, with our secret selves—they writhe and roil and chafe in the too-small cages we shove them into, deep down in the basements of our psyches. [B+]
Below, there are some clips from the film too. Warning: the first is NSFW