DIRECTED BY: Ulrich Seidl
FEATURING: A cast of “ordinary” Austrians
PLOT: A documentary about secret hobbies in which Austrians indulge their basements, including a man with a shrine to the Nazis, a woman who cradles creepy lifelike newborn dolls, and multiple S&M devotees.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As we have often pointed out, due to their very nature—which requires them to be rooted in reality—documentaries have a much harder row to hoe if they aspire to weirdness. In the Basement tries to strangen things up, formally speaking, with cut-and-paste editing and awkward minimalist tableaux; it still doesn’t make it all the way to “weird,” though.
COMMENTS: In one of the opening scenes of In the Basement, a man (whom we never see again) silently watches as his pet python stalks a helpless bunny rabbit crowded into the corner of a plexiglass cage. My immediate thought was, there’s no healthy reason for him to be watching this. In the Basement is built around the idea of watching what you shouldn’t. It takes us into the private demesnes of a tuba-playing Nazi sympathizer, a woman obsessed with creepily realistic baby dolls, and a hairy man who cleans his mistress’ toilet with his tongue, among others. To add to the alienating feel, the editing seems purposeless, bouncing back and forth between the film’s subjects at random. To generate further discomfort, establishing shots are held for much longer than is necessary. The director scatters snapshot moments where the subjects stand posed stock-still and stare at the camera without expression at several points throughout the film. Sometimes these are the main characters, and other times they are people who did not make it into the film proper, like the middle aged women who stand arranged around a washing machine as it runs through a noisy rinse cycle. The carefully posed amateurs staring affectlessly at the camera from gray rooms invoke the absurdist spirit of Roy Andersson.
Rarely are the subjects asked to speak about themselves or their hobbies, with the noteworthy exception of a masochistic woman who, standing nude except for the thick ropes ritually wrapped around her, confesses the personal history that brought her into the subculture. It’s In the Basement‘s lone moment of obvious insight and humanity.
While it engenders a morbid fascination, there are some serious downsides to Basement. For a while, the documentary earns extra thrills just from the fact that you don’t know what new kink is going to be introduced next. But eventually it runs out of surprises. There aren’t enough weirdos willing to go onscreen, so director Seidl ends up filling up space with redundant S&M devotees (who probably get an extra kick of humiliation from being exposed to the public). The amount of time devoted to these six, plus the wince-inducing detail involved in their explicitly detailed torture sessions, makes you wonder if maybe Seidl should have abandoned Basement‘s ostensible thesis and just made a movie about the S&M lifestyle instead. More upsetting, however, is the revelation that some of the scenes were, basically, faked. Although Seidl’s M.O. lately has been blurring the line between fact and fiction, narrative and documentary, that technique doesn’t seem fruitful in this context. Does Basement say something about the contemporary Austrian soul, or is it just a carefully curated compendium of grotesques? Although I believe Seidl intended to make an artistic statement about social and psychological repression, in practice the movie plays more to the latter interpretation. When
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s in more conventional observation and confessions to camera that the film really delivers its strange, melancholic universe.”–Lee Marshall, Screen International (contemporaneous)