Part of what has made Austrian filmmaking so distinctive over the past few decades has been its coolly detached approach to character and storytelling. Clinical more than just observational, unapologetic, even confrontational in its casual "matter-of-factness", this approach has made directors such as Jessica Hausner, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, the late Michael Glawogger or Michael Haneke lightning rods for media coverage.
Ulrich Seidl has been one of this generation's most regular presences in the festival circuit, his work constantly generating passionate criticism (for or against) while applying a quasi-entomological observation of people in their natural habitats both to documentary and fictional features. In the Basement leads downstairs into the cellars and basements ubiquitous, and also infamous, around Austria, to shed light on what people do there - even though not all of it is in fact hidden or in hiding. Quite the contrary: some of these people hide nothing, like the failed opera singer who runs a shooting club, or the salaryman who plays in a brass band that rehearses in his home-sized cellar full of nazi memorabilia.
Mr. Seidl takes us down into a "don't ask don't tell" netherworld, where everybody pretty much lets off steam, creates a cocoon, keeps the world at bay in different ways. That some of these people will be seen by the viewer as freaks is practically written into the director's project - on purpose, since Mr. Seidl's avowed desire is to strip down the "otherness" of these folk and have us look at them not as "them" but as "us". The very simple device of filming them head-on in rather long takes, looking straight into the camera, suggests unnervingly that they're looking at us as much as we are looking at them - from the other side of the mirror, impeccably framed by Mr. Seidl and the great Austrian DP Martin Gschlacht. This window into their world could be as well a window into ours, a two-way mirror where you're never quite sure which is the right side.
The trouble Mr. Seidl's work creates in the viewer is then amplified by the measure of doubt introduced by his handling: how can a documentary be so exquisitely framed and photographed? How much of it has been staged for the camera? (In interviews, the director has pointed out that the film is not a straight vérité documentary but involves the odd staged storyline building on reality.) Can we have an answer to that, and does it even matter?
What Mr. Seidl is suggesting with these basement visits is how much the concepts of fiction and narrative have taken over our own lives, how we need them to make sense of things but are the first to discard them or doubt them when they do not fit our preconceived notions. The director does not take sides, he merely asks us to look at these people and ask how are they different from us. We may not like the answers, but that's what the Austrians do: they ask the questions we don't really want to answer.
Austria, Germany, 2014
Director and producer Ulrich Seidl; conceived and developed by Mr. Seidl and Veronika Franz; cinematographers Martin Gschlacht and Hans Selikovsky (colour); editor Christoph Brunner; production companies Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion in co-production with Österreichischer Rundfunk, Coop99 Filmproduktion and Westdeutscher Rundfunk, with the participation of ARTE
Screened May 12th 2015, Ideal, Lisbon (distributor press screening)