We speak to that (other) great Austrian filmmaker, Ulrich Seidl, about his ambitious Paradise trilogy and he explains why it’s healthy for a director to court controversy
The great film critic (and painter) Manny Farber acclaimed in his famous essay White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art the very idea of cinema that feels its way through walls of particularisation and always moves forwards, eating its own boundaries and leaving nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity and turning these boundaries into the condition of the next achievement.
Ulrich Seidl is most definitely the creator of termite art. He burrows away from the maelstrom of filmmaking distractions and quietly makes films that stare into the void of unknown unknowns and the like. Whether it be documentaries like Jesus, You Know or Animal Love (Werner Herzog said after watching it: “Never have I looked so directly into hell”) or Dog Days and Import/Export, Seidl does what few directors manage to do, he makes films only he could have made and takes you to places few could imagine.
His new films are a trilogy, entitled Paradise, and they are split into Love, Faith and Hope. They show three women from the same family attempting to make an emotional connection in a harsh world; they’re looking for love, intimacy and emotional wantonness rather than sex. Around these themes we touch on sex tourism, religion as mental illness, gluttony and the dying days of a hegemony on its last legs.
“We had material that we had shot for 90 hours and by putting that together we had a film that would have lasted 6 hours, which is not a disaster.” Seidl says about his unique way of shooting. “Maybe it’s a disaster in commercial terms but not in artistic terms. But I wasn’t satisfied with it artistically so after numerous attempts in the cutting room we ended up having three films. We also tried out in what sequence the films should be shown and I think it’s in this sequence that you should see the films: Love, Faith and Hope.” He goes on to explain why the trilogy isn’t a Béla Tarr-esque six and a half hour film.
He claims, though, that he would prefer the audience to see the three films in one sitting: “I think as a viewer you would then realise what is the linkage between the films and you would get a different perspective on the issues as such. It is this interaction that is the best approach to seeing these three films rather than seeing the films individually.”
We go on to talk about Austrian cinema. There are lots of interesting directors coming out of Seidl’s homeland – Jessica Hausner, Michael Haneke, Markus Schleinzer, Nikolaus Geyrhalter and Götz Spielmann – is there something about Austrian culture or the support mechanisms that allows such uncompromising work to be made? “For a very long time Austria was a developing country in terms of the film industry and actually Austrian films did not exist at all and Austrian audiences did not want to go and see Austrian films,” says Siedl. “Where we are now is I think the outcome of a policy that eventually led to this development, and let me say that Michael Haneke wouldn’t have become Michael Haneke, for example, if he hadn’t been able to produce films that were not commercial successes in the beginning.”
Many in the Anglo-Saxon world misread Seidl completely and accuse him of exploitation and misanthropy, so how does he feel about being so misunderstood? “As a filmmaker you need to have a long life, so at the beginning I was not accepted for what I was doing but I was consistent and continued working in the way I wanted to and it took until Dog Days when I was faced with hostility but now things have changed and I have become a star with the Paradise trilogy,” he says. “Actually, there is a certain quality to creating something that is controversial. I think it is good if your work creates some sort of argument and discussion. This is more important than if people just say good things about your work and if this did exist I would be very suspicious.”
What then is the cinema of Ulrich Seidl and what are his aims? “My films have nothing to do with psychoanalysis, the Vienna School or psychology, because what I produce is something physical, something tangible and I want to show people in search for something, people who want to escape their own prison. My work is a study of these people but I’m not making any value judgments or any explanations. I am just offering this to the viewer and leaving it to the viewer to come to their own conclusions.”
The Paradise trilogy is distributed by Soda pictures
Paradise: Love was released 14 Jun
Paradise: Faith is released 5 Jul
Paradise: Hope is released 2 Aug