«I try to use my vision to show things ...

... that somebody may well have seen before, in such a way that it opens his eyes. » An interview with Ulrich Seidl about his essay IN THE BASEMENT.

The basement is a metaphor that could represent your entire work. You always search for the dark, hidden spaces in the human soul. This time you have looked for the corresponding physical locations. What does the basement represent to you?
Ulrich Seidl: The basement isn't only a metaphor: first of all, it's a real place. It is, as we are painfully aware, a place of crime, concealment, secrecy, rape and abuse. Of course, it's not only that, and there is also happiness in basements: the wine cellar, the basement room, the food cellar… The film was not prompted, as people might assume, by the cases of Kampusch or Fritzl, but by my work for Dog Days, when I spent a lot of time in suburbs looking for suitable locations and saw a large number of detached houses. I realised that the basements were very often more spaciously laid out than the living rooms, and that the men in particular enjoyed going down into the basements in their spare time. That was my starting point. People go down to the basement to be where they want to be. Ranging from hobby basements to obsessions. The basement is also a metaphor for the abyss, the hidden, for a double life.

The first sequence – a man singing operatic arias in a basement shooting range – is a sort of prologue in a journey through human contradiction. Is the basement in itself a contradictory location: a dark place where eerie things happen which is also a place of protection?
Ulrich Seidl: The basement is both. It's a place for spare time, the place where people attain their true selves. That begins with harmless features like a model railway or cellar bar. You go down to the basement because nobody can watch. It's a place that is not accessible to the general public. The fact that the basement is a place of both pleasure and crime is what makes it so interesting.

Finding places to show things that are really hidden sounds like an attempt to square the circle. What form did this search for protagonists and locations take?
Ulrich Seidl: That was actually the main task in making the film. I realized immediately that the basement has something both cheerful and frightening about it, making it a good subject for a film. The question was how to gain access to basements. It's easy to find harmless, banal examples: people pursuing their hobbies or collecting things. Someone might make teddy bears, another person does wood-carving or basket-weaving. And they all want to show off their “lovely" basements. But the question I was pursuing was how do you, as a filmmaker, gain access to places that are kept secret? It was an exhausting search that took months. It turned out that the best principle was to look for people who wanted to reveal something rather than the actual places. Essentially, that meant driving into residential areas and knocking on doors. And we also placed ads and distributed flyers. As always when you set out to accomplish a task, chance comes to your assistance. The so-called "Nazi cellar", for example, turned up by chance.

How often do you show extreme basements?
Ulrich Seidl: No doubt there are worst examples. After all, I'm not showing any crimes – I'm showing obsessions. What the experience with Animal Love taught me was confirmed yet again: real life is much weirder than a film can possibly show. Here I’m just scratching the surface.

Even when you have found the places, you still need people who are prepared to reveal their secrets in front of the camera.
Ulrich Seidl: The two things go hand in hand. When somebody has let you through the door, they've already made themselves accessible. A person who wants to remain concealed wouldn't let anybody in. Everybody in the whole village knew about the basement devoted to the Nazi past. I wasn't the only one to gain access to that. Of course, there's always an obstacle to overcome as soon as the camera appears. Anyone who agrees for a film to be shown will know that at some point it will be on television, and the general public will see it. What will other people say when they see it? That’s the question I have to deal with. So you have to find people who stick by what they are doing. I had a similar problem with Jesus, You Know. In that film people also had to reveal their innermost thoughts to the camera.

IN THE BASEMENT is predominantly about people and their activities below ground. You can't describe the basements without also talking about architecture. How much variety was in the way the basements were presented at spaces? Does the space itself reveal something about the person?
Ulrich Seidl: Every room reveals something about its inhabitants. Even the entrance area, even the facade of the building. Every detail says something about the people there. And that includes the basement – it’s no exception. Of course, as an architectural feature the basement has a great deal more variety than I show here. I also researched underground nuclear shelters in Vienna which were completely falling to pieces, and the basements of apartment blocks – dark, damp cellars that are hardly used these days. They used to be coal cellars, or people would store things in the basement because they didn't have space anywhere else. I can still remember from my childhood going down to my grandmother’s dug-out cellar. But if I had started to explore these places in the film, it would have meant losing focus. The underground nuclear shelter in itself would be an interesting subject. But in the end I decided to limit myself to the basements of private houses.

In the film the basement appears to an overwhelming extent to be the sphere of men.
Ulrich Seidl: My original intention was to make a film about men. I thought it was a good idea, after the PARADISE Trilogy and three films about women, to turn my attention to men. But it didn't work out that way, and I didn't want to stick to that original idea at any price. There are at least three women in the film who are as important as the men: the woman with the baby dolls, the masochist and the dominatrix.

Fritz Lang, the singer in the underground shooting range, fires four symbolic shots towards the camera at one point in the film – an ironic gesture towards the observer/intruder? How would you regard your relationship to the protagonists during the process of making the film?
Ulrich Seidl: My relationship with my protagonists is always good. I never force my way anywhere. I don't just knock on some door and stand there with my camera. In PARADISE: Faith there are scenes where Maria Hofstätter rings on doorbells with the Mother of God unprepared. That's something different. In what you call documentary work everything is prepared. I only select people when I get to know them and consider them interesting for the film. In contrast to my other films, In The Basement has virtually no hand-held camera sequences, and when you look at the individual scenes you can see they are completely structured, with a lot of tableau shots, a lot of things created for the camera. Actually, I wouldn't consider In The Basement a documentary film at all: it moves into the realm of an film essay, and it also contains things that are fictional.
Is it sometimes difficult to remain the position of an observer when powerful contradictions arise which prompted the urge to understand or question the issues?
Ulrich Seidl: I don't consider my work pure observation. It is my attempt to get closer to the people I've chosen, and to understand why they're doing what they do. Fritz Lang, the man in the first sequence, is an extremely good marksman and at the same time an artist who always wanted to be a singer. He ended up running an underground shooting range. That's tragic but also interesting. I always attempt to understand people. I can relate more to some things than to others. And, as I always emphasize, you also discover the abyss inside yourself. If I see this in myself as a result of watching other people, then it should be the same for the audience, too. It would be superficial if you were to watch and then just say: they’re all strange, they're just extreme people. I think that could only be the first impression. These people probably are extreme, and not everybody has the need to be a flagellant and to whip women, but when you look again you have to admit there's a great deal inside us that we know nothing about, but we don't want to admit for certain reasons. Including racism or sexism – all these dark things can be found inside us all. The question is how you cope with it. I don't think you can claim to be free from all this and simply reject it on the grounds of political correctness. I feel that‘s dishonest. The interesting thing about the man with the Nazi cellar is really that I don't think he's at all unlikeable. He is a sociable person who keeps sheep in his garden. The whole village knows what he's set up in his cellar: the local music group meets there. Terrible things, racist things, sexist things, Nazi things – these are all part of normal life. The village knows about it, his fellow musicians meet in his house. That's what I want to show. I don't want to parade bad people. Other people don't show it, but they think fundamentally the same. And that also says a lot about Austria. The idolisation of National Socialism is very widespread in Austria – just like the denial of the atrocities involved.

You show basements where a lot of people have created something which allows them to be entirely as they want to be – but at the same time these portraits exude considerable sadness.
Ulrich Seidl: I don't know whether it’s sad. It’s certainly harrowing. You see all the things people do to each other in order to achieve satisfaction, to find happiness, to stifle their everyday lives. That's also part of everybody’s life, the longing to experience the fractures again and again, when it may well be that life hasn't turned out the way you planned. With sado-masochist couples each of them has an obsession, and they’ve found the right partner, which enables them to act out their roles. The question is, do you have to do that to yourself, or what do you have to do in order to create lust? But of course the question is as old as the history of mankind. Everybody makes his own hell for himself. You always fail in life: in relationships, in generations. And however awful things are for a person, he needs hope and some sort of affirmation so he can carry on living.

To an even greater extent than your previous films, In the Basement is an attempt to make the invisible visible. Are you also interested in "digging up" images that have never been seen before?
Ulrich Seidl: I always attempt to create images which have never been seen before. That doesn't necessarily mean showing things that people don’t know. I try to use my vision to show things that somebody may well have seen before, in such a way that it opens his eyes. I don't go digging around for exotic things: after all, there are already images of everything, and people seem to know about everything there is. But the question that remains is this: what form can I use to present something? How can it be depicted? Finding the places which make that possible is the journey you have to undertake.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
August 2014