Dir: Ulrich Seidl. Aust. 2007. 135 mins.
Very much in the vein of his best-known film, Dog Days (2001), Austrian auteur and documentarian Ulrich Seidl continues in this, his first fiction film in 6 years, to explore the darker aspects of human existence.
His unremittingly depressing view of the human condition will not be appreciated by the many who prefer their reality with the rough edges smoothed off, but others will revel in the deep truth and immense power of his images and scenes that linger in the mind long after the film is over. Given the downbeat nature of his vision, the commercial prospects for this film are virtually non-existent, but arthouse DVD suppliers around the world should do steady business.
The film is organised around a clear, almost mathematical, doubled structure. A young Ukrainian woman named Olga (Rak), fed up with the bleak living conditions in her own country, leaves her mother and child to seek financial salvation in Austria. Paul (Hofmann), a feckless and violent working-class Austrian, who nonetheless retains some semblance of human values, ends up with his morally challenged stepfather (Thomas) heading east, toward Ukraine, in his eternal search to avoid the beatings regularly supplied by his many creditors. The film alternates between the two stories and the two characters never meet.
As in Seidl's earlier film, cruelty, violence and humiliation are the order of the day. Though occasionally redeemed by small glimmers of hope, what results will not be very comforting to viewers looking for solace or some meaning to life. Nevertheless, the locations and the situations are so brilliantly and uncompromisingly chosen and captured on film that a kind of redemption seems possible from their very intensity, even, or especially, when the viewer is being made to feel most uncomfortable. Individual shots - as for example the long shot of the nightmarish industrial landscape Olga walks through each morning, from which a faint wintry sun barely peeps out - silently speak unforgettable volumes in the Russian manner. Similarly, all interiors are either utterly sterile, if institutional, or unbearably kitschy, if domestic. Seidl is also parsimonious with narrative transitions, making the audience work to connect the dots, but this strategy results in a sense of respect for the viewer's intelligence, rather than incoherence.
Whole scenes make viewers squirm, as for example, the horrifying one set in a gypsy colony, which is only topped by the many scenes set in the nursing home in Austria where Olga finds work. The latter will ring with truth for those, in any country, with some exposure to these institutions.
Random and infrequent acts of kindness punctuate a generalised depravity and degradation, as everything, sometimes slowly, sometimes fast, but always inevitably, plunges toward death and destruction. Even Seidl sometimes goes a little too far, as when, perhaps concerned that the reality of the nursing home is not awful enough, he includes a scene of the inmates dressed up in ghastly party costumes.
In any case, he is the kind of director who is not afraid to end - in fact, who probably takes pride in ending - his film with a long shot of a darkened ward in the nursing home, with one character continually repeating the word 'death'.
Babies cry at full blast, Olga first tries out webcam sex with Germans via computers (and Seidl's views of human anatomy, no matter how grotesque, are always full and frontal), a man is insensitive to his girlfriend's fear of his new dog, and we cringe. Other scenes - like the one in which Paul's stepfather humiliates a Ukrainian prostitute at exceptional length in an almost exact duplicate of the infamous 'La Cucaracha' scene from Dog Days - will be even harder to take for most audiences.
Again, though, it's the very unremitting nature of the vision that forces us to confront an unpalatable truth and in that, many willing to go along may find a strange sort of comfort. We want to turn away, but it's all so compelling that we can't, and thus questions of audience complicity also continually arise.
Seidl has been described as a sadist, but underneath all the gloom and doom and constant cruelty is obviously a disappointed idealist crying out for people to care for one another. Thus, an important aspect of his social critique is all the rules that forbid Olga, who was trained as a nurse but can only work as a cleaning lady in Austria, to comfort the decrepit, dying patients. She also loses a job taking care of some children because she plays with them and the mother doesn't approve. Another powerful, and surprisingly funny, scene is the one in which motivational speakers try to teach foreigners and other society's losers how to think of themselves as 'winners, winners, winners,' as janitors. And there are many light moments that shine out of the darkness, as when Olga, as sex worker, assiduously practices talking dirty in German. Believe it or not, it's absolutely hilarious.
Ulrich Seidl Film Produktion
Parisienne de Production