Ulrich Seidl

04/06/2011

Filming the Wretched

How do you create a gap between the viewer and the subject without arriving at the condescending? In both documentaries and in his fiction work, Ulrich Seidl seems to have pushed so far into violating his subjects and characters that he moves beyondcondescension. If many filmmakers work within the realm of dignifying characters in the style of Rossellini, where he says he finds what is “astonishing, unusual and moving in men”, and at the other extreme we have wide-angled caricaturing, say, of the Coen brothers, then where does Seidl sit?

One thinks here of a couple of scenes in Seidl’s documentary Animal Love. One of the subjects is a more or less homeless Austrian who uses his pets to panhandle on the city streets and malls. At one moment Seidl observes him and his pal asleep in their bunker, and as the camera moves from the friend sleeping, it sounds as though our nearby hero is scratching himself off-screen. However as the camera arrives after we first hear the sound, we notice he is masturbating. Later in the film, there are moments where one character talks in the foreground of the shot while his female partner stands in the background, on the flat’s balcony, wearing no more than an open nightgown. Both scenes are presented as documentary, and we are invited to muse over the ethical nature of the situations and the degree of manipulation involved. Who might we wonder asked the woman to stand on the balcony in an artful pose, and is it exploitation on the director’s part that she does so? Was our hero really masturbating or did Seidl ask him to do so for the purposes of a controversial, ethically complicated image?

Seidl here offers a sort of critique of pure documentary, where what we see is not necessarily what we get, but it is all we have to play with. In a Coen brothers film the absurdity of the situation and the contrivance in the framing lead us to believe in the intentionality of the work, and our purpose within it. For example in the Coens’ Burn After Reading, when John Malkovich’s character walks off the yacht he’s been forced to live on after his wife has thrown him out,  he is shown wearing nothing more than his underwear and his dressing gown. As he walks with his gut-spilling out, this is surely self-caricature, and consistent with Malkovich’s earlier self-conscious outing in Being John Malkovich. There are several levels of recognition here. There is Malkovich accepting the Coens’ framing as he offers to let it all hang out, the Coens making the most of this self-revelation for humorous observation, and the viewer who laughs at yet another actor in the Coens’ work playing with their self-image.

But obviously, this type of contractual self-consciousness isn’t at work in Seidl’s films. Whether documentary or fiction, whether ModelsLoss is to be Expected and Animal Love, or Dog Days and Import-Export, the films constantly ask the viewer to partake in an interrogatory relationship with their own ethical cinematic codes. This is basically abjection as ethical confrontation, with Seidl framing for maximum ethical disturbance. At the Berlin festival screening of Dog Days he wished the audience, according to a piece in Senses of Cinema on the director, “a disturbing evening”.

Now many filmmakers have filmed for the purposes of ethical disturbance, and Gaspar Noé’s Seul contre tous and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games are two such works that one can find genuinely demanding: they demand of the viewer a Brechtian confrontation with the violence they contain. The thirty-second warning offering us the opportunity to leave the cinema in Noé’s film, before the violence becomes horrific, or the asides to camera and rewinding of footage in Haneke’s, may not be the same as the self-consciousness of the Coens, but it is still consistent with us knowing where we stand partly because we know where the filmmaker does. They know their images are confrontational, and they confront us with this confrontationalism. However, in Seidl’s films this confrontation is constant and at the same time unacknowledged. When the character starts masturbating in Animal Love where do we stand? In a scene from Loss is to be Expected, some young adults are getting drunk and one of them starts to dance and strip. The other characters more or less ignore her, and the camera looks on, as if the camera itself is neither fascinated enough to zoom in nor disapproving enough to look away. In Animal Love, one man stands naked, holding his dog on a leash, near the edge of the frame, with the camera holding the shot as if not quite knowing what to do with this image in front of the lens. We may in such instances want to ask the director why he chose to include these shots, but apart from the fact that his oeuvre is full of equally ‘questionable’ images, to expect an answer from Seidl is somehow to refuse to ask the question of ourselves. Certainly Seidl has interesting things to say about his work, and it would be perverse to ignore his comments, but when we’re watching the films the most important questions are those we are asking ourselves in relation to the images shown.

Obviously, though, some of his films are documentaries, other works fiction. Surely our ethical relationship with the image alters with the nature of the images in front of us: documentative or fictional? Yet one suspects people will have no less a problem with a scene near the end of Import-Export than they will with the man masturbating in Animal Love or the woman stripping in Loss is to Expected. One of the leading characters is humiliating a teenage prostitute in his hotel room. As this middle-aged would-be lothario asks her to crouch down with her ass in the air, she obeys with all the ingenuousness of a child eager to please. Does it make any difference that we know that “in the hotel she is a prostitute playing a prostitute. It was arranged in advance how far we could go, what should have and what mustn’t have happened”? Do Seidl’s comments in a Sight and Sound interview make that much of a difference to how we respond to the scene? Obviously everything we know affects what we perceive, but one of Seidl’s achievements is to make films, whether fiction or documentary, where the most pressing questions are within the frame rather than beyond it. Seidl, who is a great mise-en-scene filmmaker, wants to generate questions out of the cinematic space he utilises, rather than a space that so closes off the options that we are forced, rather than expected, to ask questions beyond the frame, or to feel smugly placed within it.

If we think of Michael Moore’s documentaries, the mise-en-scene is almost non-existent, while in films by the Coens, Wes Anderson and films like Garden State and Napoleon Dynamite it is so over-determined that it almost contains the assertiveness of animation. In Moore’s Sicko, a number of Americans including Moore himself go over to Cuba as they compare the Cuban health care system to that in the US. Moore and most of his team are either overweight or obese, yet at no stage is this acknowledged in relation to issues of health care, though the viewer watching may muse over this question: whether health care isn’t only an issue of the individual in relation to health insurance as opposed to the state taking care of the individual, as in Cuba, but the individual in relation to looking after their own bodies. It is a question not provoked by the film, but one that Moore would rather we ignore as he sets out to praise Cuban care and condemn the US health insurance system. Imagine the same figures in a Coen brothers film: the girth of the characters would very much be part of the mise-en-scene, as the directors would probably utilise the widest of angles to propose the widest of girths. But, again, pressing questions within the frame would not be expected to be asked: in both instances the viewers’ relationship with the image is basically ‘un-disturbed’ rather than disturbed.

Seidl’s world is full of pressing ethical and formal questions, and perhaps this is what Ed Lachmann, one of his cameramen on Import-Export, meant when insisting Seidl was a moral filmmaker but not a moralistic one. We dissolve the categories of fiction and documentary in relation to his work chiefly because in Dog Days or Models many of the same questions arise out of the framing. When Seidl says “obviously you can do much more in fiction than you can in documentary – you can let people die, you can let them fight, things that in a documentary film would be impossible”, nevertheless the most pertinent issue would seem to reside in the freedom of the frame rather than the freedom of the content. Where in earlier documentaries like Loss is to be Expected (1992) and Animal Love (1995) the mise-en-scene and the documentative seem to fit, by Model (1999) it is as though the framing hems the characters in yet the non-fictional form doesn’t quite offer Seidl the fictionalising possibilities available in his later work. The inertia of the characters’ actions cannot be activated by fictional devices that could give thematic richness to their behaviour. Seidl arrives at cliché by filming cliché; it is as though the subject of modelling fascinates him, but the subjects themselves are without much interest, and the passive gaze that Seidl adopts in all his work is too readily matched by the passive inexpressivity of his subjects. Another filmmaker might have abandoned this project of bored, struggling models and found others more narratively interesting: perhaps models going in for a beauty contest, models that have recently been offered contracts to do photo-shoots around the world. But such an approach would somehow have violated Seidl’s claustrophobic aesthetic. How to hold to one’s aesthetic of inertia – which runs throughout the director’s work – without arriving at a certain inertness of thematic inquiry?

Moving into fiction seemed the most obvious answer to the question, and so while Seidl retains the observational aspect of his work, at the same time the subject becomes his property, rather than the filmmaker the property of the subject. Now clearly Seidl is one documentarist for whom this relationship is far from clear cut anyway. When we proposed he was a mise-en-scene filmmaker whether as documentarist or fiction director, it resided chiefly in how he would place a character in the frame. If we might say that he is loosely in the tradition of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, it rests in how Seidl will analyse his subject, will violate the subject’s centrality within the shot. In the film Gates of Heaven, Morris will do so by working with a cinematic space that says as much about how the filmmaker perceives the subject or how the filmmaker perceives the subject perceiving him or herself. When Morris films someone on the edge of the frame, or cluttered behind his sporting trophies, or characters that are cropped off in a field of corn, each shot is very different because it reflects the very different perceptions of the subjects towards themselves. Morris seems to be looking for a vital quality within them that can be reflected in the shot choices. This is also true in Seidl’s work generally, whether the characters/subjects are fictional or not. It is as though he wants to capture what he perceives as the essential quality of a person as he films them.

We might think here of the scene in Import-Export where Paul (Paul Hoffman) dances furiously and alone in the Ukrainian nightclub, or earlier in the film plays with his dog. In each instance is Seidl pinning the character to the frame in condescending singularity, or bringing out a singular quality in Paul? If it is the latter this doesn’t only reside again in extra-diegetic information, in knowing that Paul Hoffman likes dog-fighting. It of course must be reflected in the diegesis. It is often in Seidl’s holding of a shot that the possible condescension dissipates. Let us suppose a similar scene of a character playing and fighting with his dog: the shot would be held just long enough for us to muse over who this idiot who fights with his dog happens to be, and the film would move on. But by holding the shot do you increase the condescension or dilute it? Someone used to the type of shot deployed by the Coens would no doubt say they get the point, but Seidl’s reply might be what point does the viewer think they have got? They might be getting the point as disdain, but would they be getting the point as attentiveness?

This is clearly part of a wider issue of shot length, and even of shot length in relation to other Austrian filmmakers, including Michael Haneke, Jessica Hausner, and Our Daily Bread director Nikolaus Geyrhalter. Yet this is not so much the long take as the scrutinizing take, as Seidl holds a shot not especially for an inordinate length, but until it goes beyond the caricatural and into the exhaustively observational. At the beginning of Dog Days, Seidl films the grumpy, overweight pensioner in a way that makes him ripe for caricature, but then gives the character so much time and space to be within the frame in a series of shots, that the caricatural gives way to the observational, reveals the habitual nature of character. Seidl gives his characters and subjects time to express themselves, to reveal themselves, and thus to exist within the frame. As Mattias Frey notes in Senses of Cinema, quoting the critic Constantin Wulff, Seidl is interested in the accumulation of mundane detail that can lay bare “the insanity of normality”. So often in Seidl’s work a character is observed in such a way that their routine is revealing of their identity. Whether it is the pensioner Walter shaving in the mirror in Dog Days, the models applying make-up in Models, the widow getting up and getting dressed in Loss is to be Expected, Seidl attends to the details of a life as he reveals the everyday, no matter how personal (a bulemic model vomiting into the toilet), or apparently absurd: the drunkard dancing and stripping off in Loss is to be Expected. When in a Sight and Sound review Richard Falcon wonders whether Dog Days “raises voyeurism to possibly profound, certainly profoundly unsettling levels,” we may ask what allows for this rise, this mundane transcendence if you like.

Residual Christianity some might say, knowing Seidl has admitted that “a certain very basic Christian attitude has stayed with me”, and there is plenty religious iconography in his work: in Loss is to Expected and in Import-Export, for example, and we shouldn’t forget Seidl made a film called Jesus, You Know.  But it might be more useful to think of the shot itself, rather than the filmmaker’s religious background, or even the iconography in the work. There is a quote from Pascal in part 4 of that great Austrian pessimist Thomas Bernhard’s autobiography, Gathering Evidence: “being unable to overcome death, misery, and uncertainty, men have agreed, in order to be happy, not to think about them,” while in the following section Bernhard offers detailed scenes of death in a hospital ward that resembles moments from Import-Export. Like Seidl, Bernhard is if you like a transcendental pessimist, a writer who pays so much attention to despair that he elevates it to another plane. Bernhard accepts despair but adds “getting a clear view of existence – not just seeing through it but throwing the brightest possible light on it every day – is the only possible way to cope with it.” This is not the bright light of religiosity, necessarily, but the bright light of clarity: close indeed to Pascal’s notion of wretchedness in Pensees, when the theologian claims that at least man knows he is wretched; a gift of self-consciousness a tree for example does not possess.

If one can accept wretchedness as a given of being, then the profoundly disturbing is perhaps also the profound. The difference between a caricatural approach and a wretched approach is that the former allows the ‘wretched’ to pass quickly before our eyes; the properly wretched does not pass until it has etched itself within our minds. We move from that is wretched to this is wretched, and this feeling can come about in at least two ways in Seidl’s work. One is through the concentrated gaze upon the scrutinized subjects and objects. In the Romany housing estate in Import-Export we may believe it is a place that need have nothing to do with our own lives, but Seidl lingers long enough to make it clear it is nevertheless central to other people’s. As Seidl dawdles over establishing the environment, as we see the litter strewn estate, as a knocked door more or less falls off its hinges, as the flats look cold, desperately neglected and dingy, so Seidl refuses to show us poverty metonymically. He refuses to allow an image to stand for other, broader images, broader social realities. When for example a semi-caricaturist like Danny Boyle offers an image of a housing estate in Trainspotting he does so in low-angled short hand as central character Renton crosses the frame. This is an image of despair and quite deliberately so, as it manages to be both metonymic and caricatural. This low-angled shot of the housing estate stands in for all the other housing estates: the multi-coloured curtains, the washing hanging out the windows, the looming facades, all indicative of a short-hand approach that makes us half laugh at our own metonymic recognition. It says less about the housing estate and more about our awareness of cinematic codes.

Seidl’s dwelling upon a scene is so insistent that it is as though he wants to destroy the metonym in an inversion of the neo-realists. If Andre Bazin and others saw neo-realism as a movement giving cinema the reality of location, and if Rossellini could say that neo-realism showed the necessary dignity of man, Seidl offers the wretchedness of man, whilst also respecting the nature of found realities. There is little dignity to be found in the housing estate in Import-Export so run down that dilapidated doesn’t do it justice, but there is a fixity of concentration that avoids the often drive-by nature of the metonymic. Seidl wonders instead how to hold a shot, how to pay attention to what is in front of the camera, for long enough that one feels the weight of the location upon our sensibility. This may have little to do with our life, but that doesn’t mean the filmmaker can’t find a way of etching it into our nightmares. When Herzog famously said of Seidl’s Animal Love, quoted in Indie Wire, that “never before had he looked so directly into hell”, it is as if Seidl managed to do so by taking on board a couple of Herzog comments about the German’s own work. One, where Herzog says in James Franklin’s book on New German Cinema, that he believes he has “the ability to articulate images that sit deeply inside us, that I can make them visible…” and another where he reckons “I believe the power of film lies in the fact that they operate with the reality of dreams.” In Seidl’s hands cinema moves from dream to nightmare, but the principle remains the same: to destroy metonymy and give back to cinema its capacity for the Real.

This then is one way in which Seidl implicates us in the image: through what we might call the intensified gaze. The second, that also usually contains an equal degree of concentration, lies in personal deterioration: the inevitability of bodily decline. When in Dog Days for example an aging housekeeper dances and strips in front of her employer, Walter, dressed and undressing in Walter’s late wife’s clothes, this is one of many examples in Seidl’s work of the inevitability of the flesh: the unavoidably aging body as it moves towards decay, decline and death. Again what is important is not: that is aging flesh, but this is aging flesh. Seidl asks us to look at the flesh in such a way that we do not have the schadenfreude that is the flesh of another, but closer to the shame of our own. The director needs to create a relationship between self and other, viewer and viewed, that closes the gap that reality TV and caricatural cinema so determinedly leaves open. In the brief scene where the housekeeper strips naked, Seidl holds to a medium long shot as she dances. Walter is seen from within the frame, but from behind, as we see the rear of the armchair he sits in and the back of his head. Seidl frames the shot so that the aging flesh is more important than aging desire, as the film doesn’t cut to Walter until the striptease is finished, and his face registers pleasure but hardly lust as he comments that her striptease was just like in the Orient. Though the camera keeps its distance from the housekeeper as she strips, this is a curious form of removal that feels implicative not in the moral sense – the way one might feel horribly incriminated in a porn film where the girl seems to be aggressively fucked and that the viewer has paid for the dubious pleasure – but in an ontological sense. This is the weight of a life in the weight of the flesh, and it is flesh that cannot fight decay, no matter if our minds remain youthfully yearning.

To help explain the way that Seidl captures this flesh rather than that flesh, there is a startlingly confessional moment where Bette Davis says in a biography by Charlotte Coleman that “they say that a woman gets over her desire for sex…Well they’re wrong. My wishes are the same as those of the romantic girl who thought nothing of saying no.” Now as an old woman she talks of her second virginity, because nobody wants her. Very few filmmakers would or could film such a thought; and again the caricatural moment comes to mind: the scene where Matt Dillon in There’s Something About Mary looks through the binoculars and sees not the beautiful and young Cameron Diaz he expects, but a woman of advanced years with saggy breasts. The point of view shot, the surprise and the consequent expected audience response all remove the empathic. There is empathy in Seidl’s work, though not in the pitiful sense of the awfulness of another’s plight that we show concern over, but a cold look at reality that will be, perhaps not soon, but at some time, our own physical condition. If Laura Mulvey famously proposed in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ that the gaze was masculine, could we now not say that in most filmmakers’ work the gaze is youthful, youthful in the sense that the assumed viewer is eternally young? Seidl instead shows not ego ideals, but worst case scenarios: how can a life be lived in its various manifestations of despair, and is getting old one of those desperate states?

This is obviously where ageism could come in through the back door. Throughout his work we accept that Seidl shows people in their sixties, seventies and beyond: there are the various pensioners in Austria and the Czech Republic in Loss is to be Expected, Walter and his housekeeper in Dog Days, the aged waiting to die in the second half of Import-Export, but does he not just present them as obsolete bodies awaiting their demise, when he could more optimistically have presented them as active creatures of the mind? This would be to ask of Seidl an aesthetic he cares not to pursue. The question to ask isn’t how despairingly does he show the aged, but how un-optimistically he shows contemporary living. Rich or poor, young or old, Seidl presents lives reduced to the materiality of the body, and the materiality of our towns and cities. He is a filmmaker who focuses on impoverishment in all its manifestations. Whether this is ageing characters like Walter in Dog Days and the alcoholic living in a rundown room in a rundown building in Loss is to Be Expected, the spacious abode the grieving couple share in Dog Days, or the luxurious apartment of one particular character in Animal Love who has candle lit baths and silk sheets on her bed yet is lonely, Seidl zeroes in on the multiple forms of impoverishment.

One notices this if we compare a scene from Dog Days with one in Loss is to be Expected. In the former, ex-beauty queen Klaudia walks from her house to meet her boyfriend in a parking lot at a suburban shopping centre. As the camera travels behind her as she moves from one space to the next, it may remind us a little of the scene where Paula in Loss is to be Expected goes out into her backyard and lops the head off a chicken. In one there is a capitalist world of plenty: Klaudia is well dressed, her boyfriend has a new car, and the shopping centre looks like an advert for material comfort. On the other, there is Paula living in little more than a shack, who kills the chicken for basic sustenance. Yet in each instance not only is the formal approach similar; the problem remains the same – what is it that is impoverishing our lives? In some ways, it is the very shopping malls that could be seen to lead to the material lack elsewhere. There is in how we live our lives a loss that is always to be expected, but we cannot always know exactly where this loss will be. Will it be on the material level as it is for Paula and others in the small Czech village where the standard of living is much lower than across the nearby border into Austria? Is it on the level of grief as it is for the wealthy couple in Dog Days who have lost their daughter to a car crash? Is it an issue of decrepitude as it is for those of advanced years dying in hospital in Import-Export? Is it emotional as it seems to be for so many of the characters in Animal Love, where human emotions appear so often out of reach? Seidl’s purpose seems to be to search out these spaces of loss, locate them, and emphasise them through the weight of the shot.

This attempt to explore the places of loss means that, as Seidl himself says, his films are “about society as a whole”, no matter if moments before he has said, “when I started making films my interest was particularly in those on the edges of society. I felt close to them…they are in some ways truer.” This may mean no more than that those on the fringes signify loss more readily than those with plenty. But there is a danger here that Seidl would then arrive only at material deprivation to reflect deeper despair, or that the despair is merely social deprivation. But as we’ve proposed, comparing moments from Loss is to Be Expected and Dog Days, the importance of Seidl’s work resides not in representations of poverty, but the location of misery in multiple manifestations. When Seidl says of the geriatric hospital scenes in Import-Export, “of course it’s unpleasant to see certain things, but, you know, reality is unpleasant”, this is a rather pat answer considering reality isn’t always so awful, and that Seidl’s framing hardly indicates a realist anyway. The question isn’t whether or not people are stuck in geriatric hospitals, nor even whether a filmmaker should film them, but what the filmmaker is getting at by doing so. What loss is being exposed in this instance?

The loss would seem to be that of dignity, and is this not at the core of Seidl’s work, and at the same time its most problematic aspect? Think of all the scenes that potentially rob dignity from the subjects in the process of Seidl’s very filming of them? Presumably, the drunkard in Loss is to be Expected could have been filmed in more flattering circumstances than doing an inebriated striptease in front of the camera? What about the dance Seidl films from a partial point of view in Import-Export as Paul’s mother dances for her lover and Paul? Then there is the scene at the beginning of Dog Days where the grieving mother is in a sex club, being fucked and giving a blowjob. In each instance, the scene could have been removed or filmed differently. If dignity is constantly being taken from us, Seidl would seem to be part of the problem not part of the cure.

However, if we accept that the flipside of dignity is shame, then maybe there is a place that is a variation of Nietzche’s beyond good and evil; a place beyond shame and dignity and the arrival of the Pascalian notion we invoked earlier: the wretched. At first glance, Seidl’s presentation of showing subjects and characters shamelessly may lead to any number of ready terms being thrown at the work: amongst them that it is condescending, exploitative and aloof.  Perhaps all of them have their place, but none of them takes us as far as the notion of the wretched. Now we invoke the term not only because of Pascal’s religious inclinations, nor Seidl’s (he came close to becoming a priest), nor even through the religious imagery we often find in his films, but chiefly because the word seems to conjure up a certain self-reflexivity not readily apparent in the work, but can be explained if we think again of the weight of Seidl’s shots. Do we look at the camera or does the camera look at us – is this where Seidl’s self-reflexivity resides, taking into account a comment Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit make in Forms of Being? “The voyeuristic enjoyment of being ‘let in on’ a world the camera has generously made available to our protected vision is naively unreflective; we are in reality confronted, looked at by a point of view, a world already interpreted.” “And we are in turn,” they suggest, “interpreted, identified by that interpretation.”

What happens is that the camera’s point of view contains within it certain assumptions about us as viewing subjects. Can we say this assumption in Seidl’s case is not one of superiority, but one of wretchedness? He doesn’t offer us a vision of hell for our delectation; more for the purposes of implication. Walking out of a Seidl film believing that it is condescending would be to miss the point and purpose of one’s sense of ethical involvement. When one of the great philosophers of wretchedness, Emmanuel Levinas, asks in Entre Nous whether “the self is the very crisis of the being of beings in the human”, he also adds, “I myself already ask myself if my being is justified, if the Da of my Dasein is not already the usurpation of someone’s place”. How to create, taking into account Levinas’s comment and also Dutoit and Bersani’s, a viewer who is positioned within not superiority which would lead to condescension, but wretchedness that would lead to notions of usurpation?

However, though we’ve said there is much religious imagery in Seidl’s work, like his compatriot Michael Haneke his films are chiefly interesting not theologically but socially, though containing traces of the religious. The potential for self-hatred stemming from usurping or exploiting another is vitally present in his oeuvre. This can take the active form of the step-father humiliating the prostitute in Import-Export since he has paid for her company, or passively so where one of the male nurse’s at the hospital where Olga works in Import-Export is clearly attracted to her, and this leads to a catfight between Olga and another female nurse who is in love with him. It is passively present as well in Loss is to be Expected, where no more than a border separates comfort and desperation, and, actively so again, when Wickerl in Dog Days bullies, abuses and humiliates his older lady lover. This is not wretchedness in the face of God, but in social dynamics, active and passive, that leads to a sort of ‘wretchedness of everyday life’.

Clearly, this will lead many viewers to ask if Seidl is himself part of that wretchedness, as he is both actively and passively involved in using his subjects and actors to produce the work he does. Whether employing well-known pornographers (the actor playing Wickerl), prostitutes (the young woman in the Ukraine in Import-Export), non-fiction subjects whose lives Seidl documents (Loss is to Be Expected and Animal Love for example), or non-professionals in fictional roles but based loosely on their own lives – as with Paul (Paul Hoffman) in Import-Export, where Seidl says “much of what he says, much of what he feels in the film is actually him” –  the question of exploiting people is never far away. But though as we have said Seidl defends himself against accusations of possible exploitation non-diegetically, it is what is on the screen that we are left to work with in the cinemas. How do we feel during the viewing experience, and has Seidl managed to arrive at a perspective that isn’t gawping voyeurism, but instead wretched realisation? This is a question that would still need to be addressed whether he paid his subjects well or badly, informed them of what the film was about or gave them no information before filming started, and hopefully his revelation of the wretched is some sort of answer. It offers a comprehension of the ethics in the work; though of course, we cannot pretend the filmmaker is not involved in such wretchedness in filming it, and pretend that we are not involved in the viewing of it. It is, of course, that very involvement which is central to the work’s wretchedness. Is it not this accessing of wretchedness, this sense of watching ourselves as another, finally, that makes the work moral, as Lachmann would say, rather than moralistic?

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Ulrich Seidl

Filming the Wretched

How do you create a gap between the viewer and the subject without arriving at the condescending? In both documentaries and in his fiction work, Ulrich Seidl seems to have pushed so far into violating his subjects and characters that he moves beyondcondescension. If many filmmakers work within the realm of dignifying characters in the style of Rossellini, where he says he finds what is "astonishing, unusual and moving in men", and at the other extreme we have wide-angled caricaturing, say, of the Coen brothers, then where does Seidl sit?

One thinks here of a couple of scenes in Seidl's documentary Animal Love. One of the subjects is a more or less homeless Austrian who uses his pets to panhandle on the city streets and malls. At one moment Seidl observes him and his pal asleep in their bunker, and as the camera moves from the friend sleeping, it sounds as though our nearby hero is scratching himself off-screen. However as the camera arrives after we first hear the sound, we notice he is masturbating. Later in the film, there are moments where one character talks in the foreground of the shot while his female partner stands in the background, on the flat's balcony, wearing no more than an open nightgown. Both scenes are presented as documentary, and we are invited to muse over the ethical nature of the situations and the degree of manipulation involved. Who might we wonder asked the woman to stand on the balcony in an artful pose, and is it exploitation on the director's part that she does so? Was our hero really masturbating or did Seidl ask him to do so for the purposes of a controversial, ethically complicated image?

Seidl here offers a sort of critique of pure documentary, where what we see is not necessarily what we get, but it is all we have to play with. In a Coen brothers film the absurdity of the situation and the contrivance in the framing lead us to believe in the intentionality of the work, and our purpose within it. For example in the Coens' Burn After Reading, when John Malkovich's character walks off the yacht he's been forced to live on after his wife has thrown him out, he is shown wearing nothing more than his underwear and his dressing gown. As he walks with his gut-spilling out, this is surely self-caricature, and consistent with Malkovich's earlier self-conscious outing in Being John Malkovich. There are several levels of recognition here. There is Malkovich accepting the Coens' framing as he offers to let it all hang out, the Coens making the most of this self-revelation for humorous observation, and the viewer who laughs at yet another actor in the Coens' work playing with their self-image.

But obviously, this type of contractual self-consciousness isn't at work in Seidl's films. Whether documentary or fiction, whether Models, Loss is to be Expected and Animal Love, or Dog Days and Import-Export, the films constantly ask the viewer to partake in an interrogatory relationship with their own ethical cinematic codes. This is basically abjection as ethical confrontation, with Seidl framing for maximum ethical disturbance. At the Berlin festival screening of Dog Days he wished the audience, according to a piece in Senses of Cinema on the director, "a disturbing evening".

Now many filmmakers have filmed for the purposes of ethical disturbance, and Gaspar No's Seul contre tous and Michael Haneke's Funny Games are two such works that one can find genuinely demanding: they demand of the viewer a Brechtian confrontation with the violence they contain. The thirty-second warning offering us the opportunity to leave the cinema in No's film, before the violence becomes horrific, or the asides to camera and rewinding of footage in Haneke's, may not be the same as the self-consciousness of the Coens, but it is still consistent with us knowing where we stand partly because we know where the filmmaker does. They know their images are confrontational, and they confront us with this confrontationalism. However, in Seidl's films this confrontation is constant and at the same time unacknowledged. When the character starts masturbating in Animal Love where do we stand? In a scene from Loss is to be Expected, some young adults are getting drunk and one of them starts to dance and strip. The other characters more or less ignore her, and the camera looks on, as if the camera itself is neither fascinated enough to zoom in nor disapproving enough to look away. In Animal Love, one man stands naked, holding his dog on a leash, near the edge of the frame, with the camera holding the shot as if not quite knowing what to do with this image in front of the lens. We may in such instances want to ask the director why he chose to include these shots, but apart from the fact that his oeuvre is full of equally 'questionable' images, to expect an answer from Seidl is somehow to refuse to ask the question of ourselves. Certainly Seidl has interesting things to say about his work, and it would be perverse to ignore his comments, but when we're watching the films the most important questions are those we are asking ourselves in relation to the images shown.

Obviously, though, some of his films are documentaries, other works fiction. Surely our ethical relationship with the image alters with the nature of the images in front of us: documentative or fictional? Yet one suspects people will have no less a problem with a scene near the end of Import-Export than they will with the man masturbating in Animal Love or the woman stripping in Loss is to Expected. One of the leading characters is humiliating a teenage prostitute in his hotel room. As this middle-aged would-be lothario asks her to crouch down with her ass in the air, she obeys with all the ingenuousness of a child eager to please. Does it make any difference that we know that "in the hotel she is a prostitute playing a prostitute. It was arranged in advance how far we could go, what should have and what mustn't have happened"? Do Seidl's comments in a Sight and Sound interview make that much of a difference to how we respond to the scene? Obviously everything we know affects what we perceive, but one of Seidl's achievements is to make films, whether fiction or documentary, where the most pressing questions are within the frame rather than beyond it. Seidl, who is a great mise-en-scene filmmaker, wants to generate questions out of the cinematic space he utilises, rather than a space that so closes off the options that we are forced, rather than expected, to ask questions beyond the frame, or to feel smugly placed within it.

If we think of Michael Moore's documentaries, the mise-en-scene is almost non-existent, while in films by the Coens, Wes Anderson and films like Garden State and Napoleon Dynamite it is so over-determined that it almost contains the assertiveness of animation. In Moore's Sicko, a number of Americans including Moore himself go over to Cuba as they compare the Cuban health care system to that in the US. Moore and most of his team are either overweight or obese, yet at no stage is this acknowledged in relation to issues of health care, though the viewer watching may muse over this question: whether health care isn't only an issue of the individual in relation to health insurance as opposed to the state taking care of the individual, as in Cuba, but the individual in relation to looking after their own bodies. It is a question not provoked by the film, but one that Moore would rather we ignore as he sets out to praise Cuban care and condemn the US health insurance system. Imagine the same figures in a Coen brothers film: the girth of the characters would very much be part of the mise-en-scene, as the directors would probably utilise the widest of angles to propose the widest of girths. But, again, pressing questions within the frame would not be expected to be asked: in both instances the viewers' relationship with the image is basically 'un-disturbed' rather than disturbed.

Seidl's world is full of pressing ethical and formal questions, and perhaps this is what Ed Lachmann, one of his cameramen on Import-Export, meant when insisting Seidl was a moral filmmaker but not a moralistic one. We dissolve the categories of fiction and documentary in relation to his work chiefly because in Dog Days or Models many of the same questions arise out of the framing. When Seidl says "obviously you can do much more in fiction than you can in documentary - you can let people die, you can let them fight, things that in a documentary film would be impossible", nevertheless the most pertinent issue would seem to reside in the freedom of the frame rather than the freedom of the content. Where in earlier documentaries like Loss is to be Expected (1992) and Animal Love (1995) the mise-en-scene and the documentative seem to fit, by Model (1999) it is as though the framing hems the characters in yet the non-fictional form doesn't quite offer Seidl the fictionalising possibilities available in his later work. The inertia of the characters' actions cannot be activated by fictional devices that could give thematic richness to their behaviour. Seidl arrives at clich by filming clich; it is as though the subject of modelling fascinates him, but the subjects themselves are without much interest, and the passive gaze that Seidl adopts in all his work is too readily matched by the passive inexpressivity of his subjects. Another filmmaker might have abandoned this project of bored, struggling models and found others more narratively interesting: perhaps models going in for a beauty contest, models that have recently been offered contracts to do photo-shoots around the world. But such an approach would somehow have violated Seidl's claustrophobic aesthetic. How to hold to one's aesthetic of inertia - which runs throughout the director's work - without arriving at a certain inertness of thematic inquiry?

Moving into fiction seemed the most obvious answer to the question, and so while Seidl retains the observational aspect of his work, at the same time the subject becomes his property, rather than the filmmaker the property of the subject. Now clearly Seidl is one documentarist for whom this relationship is far from clear cut anyway. When we proposed he was a mise-en-scene filmmaker whether as documentarist or fiction director, it resided chiefly in how he would place a character in the frame. If we might say that he is loosely in the tradition of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, it rests in how Seidl will analyse his subject, will violate the subject's centrality within the shot. In the film Gates of Heaven, Morris will do so by working with a cinematic space that says as much about how the filmmaker perceives the subject or how the filmmaker perceives the subject perceiving him or herself. When Morris films someone on the edge of the frame, or cluttered behind his sporting trophies, or characters that are cropped off in a field of corn, each shot is very different because it reflects the very different perceptions of the subjects towards themselves. Morris seems to be looking for a vital quality within them that can be reflected in the shot choices. This is also true in Seidl's work generally, whether the characters/subjects are fictional or not. It is as though he wants to capture what he perceives as the essential quality of a person as he films them.

We might think here of the scene in Import-Export where Paul (Paul Hoffman) dances furiously and alone in the Ukrainian nightclub, or earlier in the film plays with his dog. In each instance is Seidl pinning the character to the frame in condescending singularity, or bringing out a singular quality in Paul? If it is the latter this doesn't only reside again in extra-diegetic information, in knowing that Paul Hoffman likes dog-fighting. It of course must be reflected in the diegesis. It is often in Seidl's holding of a shot that the possible condescension dissipates. Let us suppose a similar scene of a character playing and fighting with his dog: the shot would be held just long enough for us to muse over who this idiot who fights with his dog happens to be, and the film would move on. But by holding the shot do you increase the condescension or dilute it? Someone used to the type of shot deployed by the Coens would no doubt say they get the point, but Seidl's reply might be what point does the viewer think they have got? They might be getting the point as disdain, but would they be getting the point as attentiveness?

This is clearly part of a wider issue of shot length, and even of shot length in relation to other Austrian filmmakers, including Michael Haneke, Jessica Hausner, and Our Daily Bread director Nikolaus Geyrhalter. Yet this is not so much the long take as the scrutinizing take, as Seidl holds a shot not especially for an inordinate length, but until it goes beyond the caricatural and into the exhaustively observational. At the beginning of Dog Days, Seidl films the grumpy, overweight pensioner in a way that makes him ripe for caricature, but then gives the character so much time and space to be within the frame in a series of shots, that the caricatural gives way to the observational, reveals the habitual nature of character. Seidl gives his characters and subjects time to express themselves, to reveal themselves, and thus to exist within the frame. As Mattias Frey notes in Senses of Cinema, quoting the critic Constantin Wulff, Seidl is interested in the accumulation of mundane detail that can lay bare "the insanity of normality". So often in Seidl's work a character is observed in such a way that their routine is revealing of their identity. Whether it is the pensioner Walter shaving in the mirror in Dog Days, the models applying make-up in Models, the widow getting up and getting dressed in Loss is to be Expected, Seidl attends to the details of a life as he reveals the everyday, no matter how personal (a bulemic model vomiting into the toilet), or apparently absurd: the drunkard dancing and stripping off in Loss is to be Expected. When in a Sight and Sound review Richard Falcon wonders whether Dog Days "raises voyeurism to possibly profound, certainly profoundly unsettling levels," we may ask what allows for this rise, this mundane transcendence if you like.

Residual Christianity some might say, knowing Seidl has admitted that "a certain very basic Christian attitude has stayed with me", and there is plenty religious iconography in his work: in Loss is to Expected and in Import-Export, for example, and we shouldn't forget Seidl made a film called Jesus, You Know. But it might be more useful to think of the shot itself, rather than the filmmaker's religious background, or even the iconography in the work. There is a quote from Pascal in part 4 of that great Austrian pessimist Thomas Bernhard's autobiography, Gathering Evidence: "being unable to overcome death, misery, and uncertainty, men have agreed, in order to be happy, not to think about them," while in the following section Bernhard offers detailed scenes of death in a hospital ward that resembles moments from Import-Export. Like Seidl, Bernhard is if you like a transcendental pessimist, a writer who pays so much attention to despair that he elevates it to another plane. Bernhard accepts despair but adds "getting a clear view of existence - not just seeing through it but throwing the brightest possible light on it every day - is the only possible way to cope with it." This is not the bright light of religiosity, necessarily, but the bright light of clarity: close indeed to Pascal's notion of wretchedness in Pensees, when the theologian claims that at least man knows he is wretched; a gift of self-consciousness a tree for example does not possess.

If one can accept wretchedness as a given of being, then the profoundly disturbing is perhaps also the profound. The difference between a caricatural approach and a wretched approach is that the former allows the 'wretched' to pass quickly before our eyes; the properly wretched does not pass until it has etched itself within our minds. We move from that is wretched to this is wretched, and this feeling can come about in at least two ways in Seidl's work. One is through the concentrated gaze upon the scrutinized subjects and objects. In the Romany housing estate in Import-Export we may believe it is a place that need have nothing to do with our own lives, but Seidl lingers long enough to make it clear it is nevertheless central to other people's. As Seidl dawdles over establishing the environment, as we see the litter strewn estate, as a knocked door more or less falls off its hinges, as the flats look cold, desperately neglected and dingy, so Seidl refuses to show us poverty metonymically. He refuses to allow an image to stand for other, broader images, broader social realities. When for example a semi-caricaturist like Danny Boyle offers an image of a housing estate in Trainspotting he does so in low-angled short hand as central character Renton crosses the frame. This is an image of despair and quite deliberately so, as it manages to be both metonymic and caricatural. This low-angled shot of the housing estate stands in for all the other housing estates: the multi-coloured curtains, the washing hanging out the windows, the looming facades, all indicative of a short-hand approach that makes us half laugh at our own metonymic recognition. It says less about the housing estate and more about our awareness of cinematic codes.

Seidl's dwelling upon a scene is so insistent that it is as though he wants to destroy the metonym in an inversion of the neo-realists. If Andre Bazin and others saw neo-realism as a movement giving cinema the reality of location, and if Rossellini could say that neo-realism showed the necessary dignity of man, Seidl offers the wretchedness of man, whilst also respecting the nature of found realities. There is little dignity to be found in the housing estate in Import-Export so run down that dilapidated doesn't do it justice, but there is a fixity of concentration that avoids the often drive-by nature of the metonymic. Seidl wonders instead how to hold a shot, how to pay attention to what is in front of the camera, for long enough that one feels the weight of the location upon our sensibility. This may have little to do with our life, but that doesn't mean the filmmaker can't find a way of etching it into our nightmares. When Herzog famously said of Seidl's Animal Love, quoted in Indie Wire, that "never before had he looked so directly into hell", it is as if Seidl managed to do so by taking on board a couple of Herzog comments about the German's own work. One, where Herzog says in James Franklin's book on New German Cinema, that he believes he has "the ability to articulate images that sit deeply inside us, that I can make them visible..." and another where he reckons "I believe the power of film lies in the fact that they operate with the reality of dreams." In Seidl's hands cinema moves from dream to nightmare, but the principle remains the same: to destroy metonymy and give back to cinema its capacity for the Real.

This then is one way in which Seidl implicates us in the image: through what we might call the intensified gaze. The second, that also usually contains an equal degree of concentration, lies in personal deterioration: the inevitability of bodily decline. When in Dog Days for example an aging housekeeper dances and strips in front of her employer, Walter, dressed and undressing in Walter's late wife's clothes, this is one of many examples in Seidl's work of the inevitability of the flesh: the unavoidably aging body as it moves towards decay, decline and death. Again what is important is not: that is aging flesh, but this is aging flesh. Seidl asks us to look at the flesh in such a way that we do not have the schadenfreude that is the flesh of another, but closer to the shame of our own. The director needs to create a relationship between self and other, viewer and viewed, that closes the gap that reality TV and caricatural cinema so determinedly leaves open. In the brief scene where the housekeeper strips naked, Seidl holds to a medium long shot as she dances. Walter is seen from within the frame, but from behind, as we see the rear of the armchair he sits in and the back of his head. Seidl frames the shot so that the aging flesh is more important than aging desire, as the film doesn't cut to Walter until the striptease is finished, and his face registers pleasure but hardly lust as he comments that her striptease was just like in the Orient. Though the camera keeps its distance from the housekeeper as she strips, this is a curious form of removal that feels implicative not in the moral sense - the way one might feel horribly incriminated in a porn film where the girl seems to be aggressively fucked and that the viewer has paid for the dubious pleasure - but in an ontological sense. This is the weight of a life in the weight of the flesh, and it is flesh that cannot fight decay, no matter if our minds remain youthfully yearning.

To help explain the way that Seidl captures this flesh rather than that flesh, there is a startlingly confessional moment where Bette Davis says in a biography by Charlotte Coleman that "they say that a woman gets over her desire for sex...Well they're wrong. My wishes are the same as those of the romantic girl who thought nothing of saying no." Now as an old woman she talks of her second virginity, because nobody wants her. Very few filmmakers would or could film such a thought; and again the caricatural moment comes to mind: the scene where Matt Dillon in There's Something About Mary looks through the binoculars and sees not the beautiful and young Cameron Diaz he expects, but a woman of advanced years with saggy breasts. The point of view shot, the surprise and the consequent expected audience response all remove the empathic. There is empathy in Seidl's work, though not in the pitiful sense of the awfulness of another's plight that we show concern over, but a cold look at reality that will be, perhaps not soon, but at some time, our own physical condition. If Laura Mulvey famously proposed in 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' that the gaze was masculine, could we now not say that in most filmmakers' work the gaze is youthful, youthful in the sense that the assumed viewer is eternally young? Seidl instead shows not ego ideals, but worst case scenarios: how can a life be lived in its various manifestations of despair, and is getting old one of those desperate states?

This is obviously where ageism could come in through the back door. Throughout his work we accept that Seidl shows people in their sixties, seventies and beyond: there are the various pensioners in Austria and the Czech Republic in Loss is to be Expected, Walter and his housekeeper in Dog Days, the aged waiting to die in the second half of Import-Export, but does he not just present them as obsolete bodies awaiting their demise, when he could more optimistically have presented them as active creatures of the mind? This would be to ask of Seidl an aesthetic he cares not to pursue. The question to ask isn't how despairingly does he show the aged, but how un-optimistically he shows contemporary living. Rich or poor, young or old, Seidl presents lives reduced to the materiality of the body, and the materiality of our towns and cities. He is a filmmaker who focuses on impoverishment in all its manifestations. Whether this is ageing characters like Walter in Dog Days and the alcoholic living in a rundown room in a rundown building in Loss is to Be Expected, the spacious abode the grieving couple share in Dog Days, or the luxurious apartment of one particular character in Animal Love who has candle lit baths and silk sheets on her bed yet is lonely, Seidl zeroes in on the multiple forms of impoverishment.

One notices this if we compare a scene from Dog Days with one in Loss is to be Expected. In the former, ex-beauty queen Klaudia walks from her house to meet her boyfriend in a parking lot at a suburban shopping centre. As the camera travels behind her as she moves from one space to the next, it may remind us a little of the scene where Paula in Loss is to be Expected goes out into her backyard and lops the head off a chicken. In one there is a capitalist world of plenty: Klaudia is well dressed, her boyfriend has a new car, and the shopping centre looks like an advert for material comfort. On the other, there is Paula living in little more than a shack, who kills the chicken for basic sustenance. Yet in each instance not only is the formal approach similar; the problem remains the same - what is it that is impoverishing our lives? In some ways, it is the very shopping malls that could be seen to lead to the material lack elsewhere. There is in how we live our lives a loss that is always to be expected, but we cannot always know exactly where this loss will be. Will it be on the material level as it is for Paula and others in the small Czech village where the standard of living is much lower than across the nearby border into Austria? Is it on the level of grief as it is for the wealthy couple in Dog Days who have lost their daughter to a car crash? Is it an issue of decrepitude as it is for those of advanced years dying in hospital in Import-Export? Is it emotional as it seems to be for so many of the characters in Animal Love, where human emotions appear so often out of reach? Seidl's purpose seems to be to search out these spaces of loss, locate them, and emphasise them through the weight of the shot.

This attempt to explore the places of loss means that, as Seidl himself says, his films are "about society as a whole", no matter if moments before he has said, "when I started making films my interest was particularly in those on the edges of society. I felt close to them...they are in some ways truer." This may mean no more than that those on the fringes signify loss more readily than those with plenty. But there is a danger here that Seidl would then arrive only at material deprivation to reflect deeper despair, or that the despair is merely social deprivation. But as we've proposed, comparing moments from Loss is to Be Expected and Dog Days, the importance of Seidl's work resides not in representations of poverty, but the location of misery in multiple manifestations. When Seidl says of the geriatric hospital scenes in Import-Export, "of course it's unpleasant to see certain things, but, you know, reality is unpleasant", this is a rather pat answer considering reality isn't always so awful, and that Seidl's framing hardly indicates a realist anyway. The question isn't whether or not people are stuck in geriatric hospitals, nor even whether a filmmaker should film them, but what the filmmaker is getting at by doing so. What loss is being exposed in this instance?

The loss would seem to be that of dignity, and is this not at the core of Seidl's work, and at the same time its most problematic aspect? Think of all the scenes that potentially rob dignity from the subjects in the process of Seidl's very filming of them? Presumably, the drunkard in Loss is to be Expected could have been filmed in more flattering circumstances than doing an inebriated striptease in front of the camera? What about the dance Seidl films from a partial point of view in Import-Export as Paul's mother dances for her lover and Paul? Then there is the scene at the beginning of Dog Days where the grieving mother is in a sex club, being fucked and giving a blowjob. In each instance, the scene could have been removed or filmed differently. If dignity is constantly being taken from us, Seidl would seem to be part of the problem not part of the cure.

However, if we accept that the flipside of dignity is shame, then maybe there is a place that is a variation of Nietzche's beyond good and evil; a place beyond shame and dignity and the arrival of the Pascalian notion we invoked earlier: the wretched. At first glance, Seidl's presentation of showing subjects and characters shamelessly may lead to any number of ready terms being thrown at the work: amongst them that it is condescending, exploitative and aloof. Perhaps all of them have their place, but none of them takes us as far as the notion of the wretched. Now we invoke the term not only because of Pascal's religious inclinations, nor Seidl's (he came close to becoming a priest), nor even through the religious imagery we often find in his films, but chiefly because the word seems to conjure up a certain self-reflexivity not readily apparent in the work, but can be explained if we think again of the weight of Seidl's shots. Do we look at the camera or does the camera look at us - is this where Seidl's self-reflexivity resides, taking into account a comment Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit make in Forms of Being? "The voyeuristic enjoyment of being 'let in on' a world the camera has generously made available to our protected vision is naively unreflective; we are in reality confronted, looked at by a point of view, a world already interpreted." "And we are in turn," they suggest, "interpreted, identified by that interpretation."

What happens is that the camera's point of view contains within it certain assumptions about us as viewing subjects. Can we say this assumption in Seidl's case is not one of superiority, but one of wretchedness? He doesn't offer us a vision of hell for our delectation; more for the purposes of implication. Walking out of a Seidl film believing that it is condescending would be to miss the point and purpose of one's sense of ethical involvement. When one of the great philosophers of wretchedness, Emmanuel Levinas, asks in Entre Nous whether "the self is the very crisis of the being of beings in the human", he also adds, "I myself already ask myself if my being is justified, if the Da of my Dasein is not already the usurpation of someone's place". How to create, taking into account Levinas's comment and also Dutoit and Bersani's, a viewer who is positioned within not superiority which would lead to condescension, but wretchedness that would lead to notions of usurpation?

However, though we've said there is much religious imagery in Seidl's work, like his compatriot Michael Haneke his films are chiefly interesting not theologically but socially, though containing traces of the religious. The potential for self-hatred stemming from usurping or exploiting another is vitally present in his oeuvre. This can take the active form of the step-father humiliating the prostitute in Import-Export since he has paid for her company, or passively so where one of the male nurse's at the hospital where Olga works in Import-Export is clearly attracted to her, and this leads to a catfight between Olga and another female nurse who is in love with him. It is passively present as well in Loss is to be Expected, where no more than a border separates comfort and desperation, and, actively so again, when Wickerl in Dog Days bullies, abuses and humiliates his older lady lover. This is not wretchedness in the face of God, but in social dynamics, active and passive, that leads to a sort of 'wretchedness of everyday life'.

Clearly, this will lead many viewers to ask if Seidl is himself part of that wretchedness, as he is both actively and passively involved in using his subjects and actors to produce the work he does. Whether employing well-known pornographers (the actor playing Wickerl), prostitutes (the young woman in the Ukraine in Import-Export), non-fiction subjects whose lives Seidl documents (Loss is to Be Expected and Animal Love for example), or non-professionals in fictional roles but based loosely on their own lives - as with Paul (Paul Hoffman) in Import-Export, where Seidl says "much of what he says, much of what he feels in the film is actually him" - the question of exploiting people is never far away. But though as we have said Seidl defends himself against accusations of possible exploitation non-diegetically, it is what is on the screen that we are left to work with in the cinemas. How do we feel during the viewing experience, and has Seidl managed to arrive at a perspective that isn't gawping voyeurism, but instead wretched realisation? This is a question that would still need to be addressed whether he paid his subjects well or badly, informed them of what the film was about or gave them no information before filming started, and hopefully his revelation of the wretched is some sort of answer. It offers a comprehension of the ethics in the work; though of course, we cannot pretend the filmmaker is not involved in such wretchedness in filming it, and pretend that we are not involved in the viewing of it. It is, of course, that very involvement which is central to the work's wretchedness. Is it not this accessing of wretchedness, this sense of watching ourselves as another, finally, that makes the work moral, as Lachmann would say, rather than moralistic?


© Tony McKibbin