Sunday, August 13, 2023

The Films of Ulrich Seidl

Films seen or revisited as part of this spotlight:

Models (1999)
Dog Days (2001)
Import / Export (2007)
Paradise: Love (2012)
Paradise: Faith (2012)
Paradise: Hope (2013)
In the Basement (2014)
Rimini (2022)

Boredom. Alienation. Despair. Misery. Helpless. Depression.

The above words can be used to describe the mental state that majority of characters experience in Austrian director Ulrich Seidl's films. His films are not known for depicting happy, cheerful characters. With the exception of Models, the characters in most of his other films are rarely depicted in cinema. They are characters that are on the outskirts of society who don’t find themselves in situations where a positive outcome will occur. The same can apply to subjects in his documentaries as well.

Ulrich Siedl is not a subtle director who lets viewers imagine things on their own by leaving non-relevant items out of the frame. In his films, the camera continues to focus on characters in their moments of weakness, awkwardness or rock bottom. In addition, his fictional films feature a mix of professional and non-professional actors. All of this gives his films a vérité or realistic feel. The works can come across as Docudrama in some cases as well.

Dog Days (2001)


Bright hot sunny days. Just another day in the suburbs. Nothing ever really happens. Silence and Sun. How to rid of the boredom?

Trim the hedges.

Or just sit around the pool.

Or one can engage in boring mechanical sex orgies.

A microcosm of a nation or an independent culture existing within a nation?

Ulrich Seidl's Dog Days is set in an Austrian suburb. But nothing in the film can be used to describe Austria itself -- the people depicted in the suburbs may be fictional characters or based on real life individuals but their stories can't be used as a lens to observe an entire culture. But can a suburb ever represent a culture? Even though American Beauty was praised for highlighting the suburban life, it was not representative of the American culture. Director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball could easily have portrayed a different set of happier and more confident characters who lived on the other side of the street. Similarly, Ulrich Seidl could have focused on characters who didn't live such bleak and depressive lives. But happy characters don't present audiences with many intelligent challenges. Not to mention that misery tends to win more awards!


Import Export looks at the lives of two characters who cross the border to make a living -- Olga leaves Ukraine for Austria while an unemployed Austrian youth heads to find some work in Ukraine. The film is shot in a documentary style which gives realism to many of the sequences. However, in keeping with his in-your-face style, Siedl ensures the camera doesn’t turn away and stays focused on visuals which add nothing to the story, such as being focused in between a woman's leg in the internet porn office. A few decades ago such shots would have ensured critical arthouse praise and described as “edgy”. Now, this tactic and style appears hollow and manipulative. It feels like Seidl has purposely included sequences which push the poverty and helplessness of the character (for example, the choice of jobs that Olga gets helps one to sympathize with her).

Paradise Trilogy

Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy does mark a high point in his directorial achievement with all 3 films a culmination of his style and methodology. The works stand on their own even though there is a connection between the three female characters in the films. Paradise: Love focuses on Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), whose daughter Melanie (Melanie Lenz) is the main character of Paradise: Hope. Paradise: Faith is about Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter) who is Teresa’s sister and Melanie's aunt.

The “paradise” in the film’s title represents each character’s sisyphean attempts to get out of their personal never ending hell. However, as the three films show, their attempts to claw out of their hell only pushes them further back down.

Paradise: Love

The best film of the trilogy focuses on Teresa’s trip to Kenya to escape her regular life and engage in sex tourism. The film manages to pack in many vital subjects such as colonialism, racism, capitalism while depicting events with a pinch of dry humour.

Paradise: Faith

Anna Maria is devoted to her religion and seeks salvation in it including self-flagellating herself. Yet, her resolve is tested when her Muslim husband returns.

Paradise: Hope

The third film focuses on Melanie, Teresa’s teenage daughter. Since Teresa is in Kenya and her sister Maria is busy with her religious camps, there isn’t anyone to look after Melanie. So Maria drops Melanie off at a diet camp where overweight teenagers go through drills aimed at changing their ways. There is a coming-of-age aspect to this film as 13-year old Melanie develops feelings of love. Unfortunately, she develops those feelings towards her middle-aged camp counsellor.


Richie Bravo (Michael Thomas) makes a living by singing songs and pleasuring elder women at the titular Italian resort. One can tell that Richie’s best musical years are behind him but none of that seems to matter to the women suitors who are willing to pay him for pleasure. Things take a turn when a young woman Tessa (Tessa Göttlicher) appears claiming to be Richie’s daughter and demanding support payments. Richie’s desperate situation and appearance reminds a bit of Mickey Rourke’s Randy character from Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. However, The Wrestler had more dramatic weight as Seidl allows some dry humour to enter the film in keeping with his style.

Changed perspective

Back in the day, I used to look forward to seeing any Ulrich Seidl film that appeared at a film festival. However, that is not the case anymore. Seidl’s style feels one dimensional where he is only interested in showing the misery or desperation of his characters. The script puts the characters in situations where they are stuck at rock bottom. His inclusion of characters on the fringes of society may have been edgy once but feels out of touch now given how the world has changed over the last few years. There is no attempt to look at the societal situation or larger world that the characters find themselves in and how that world impacts their situations.