Architecture on Film: In The Basement (Im Keller)

Iconoclastic provocateur Ulrich Seidl descends into Austria’s basements, finding dens of dark desire housing very different manifestations of domestic bliss.


07:00pm, Tuesday, 17 January 2017


08:30pm, Tuesday, 17 January 2017


Cinema 2
Barbican, Beech Street, London EC2Y 8AE



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In The Basment (Im Keller)

Iconoclastic provocateur Seidl descends into the basements of Austria, finding dens of dark desire manifesting very different iterations of domestic bliss. The subconscious gains a room of its own; a cosy place where acts both suburban and shocking, mundane and highly explicit, take place in the very private foundations of the home.

"The basement in Austria is a place of free time and the private sphere. Many Austrians spend more time in the basement of their home than in their living room, which often is only for show. In the basement they actually indulge their needs, their hobbies, passions and obsessions. But in our unconscious, the basement is also a place of darkness, a place of fear, a place of human abysses.“
- Ulrich Seidl

From fitness to fascism, launderettes to sex dungeons, Seidl both finds and fabricates a world of routine pleasures most normally kept in the shadows, excavating the ‘safe place’ that lies under the kitchen, and shelters the psyche.

Released just a few years following the shocking revelations of the Joseph Fritzl case, the film’s presentation of a nation hiding all manner of secrets in their basements – from butt plugs to bars, living dolls to Third Reich drinking dens – contains many unsettling and NSFW moments that some may find uncomfortable.

Austria, 2014, Ulrich Seidl, 85 mins

Programme Notes by Nikolaus Perneczky

(writer, researcher and co-founder of curatorial collective The Canine Condition)

From The Fountainhead to Upstairs Downstairs, there is no shortage of multi-storeyed architectural allegories that build social hierarchy from the ground floor up. Though its principle of elaboration is less obvious, life underground is subject to social stratification, too, ranging from the infamous Hackney mole to wealthy West London stamp duty dodgers digging out their multi-level subterranean complexes, which are sometimes called ‘iceberg homes’.

Basements as far as the eye can see, self-enclosed and disconnected like so many windowless monads yet harmonised, by director Ulrich Seidl’s cunning, slow-burning montage, into a subterranean network of hidden desires, an underground topography of the Austrian mind: such is the cumulative image conjured by In the Basement. Of the aboveground, only brief glimpses are granted: architectural details abstracted from their surroundings, oozing with a sense of quiet repression.

Like all of Seidl’s nominal documentaries, In the Basement is a thoroughly hybrid construction that arranges rather than depicts reality, purposefully and methodically obscuring the difference between what is real and what staged. The deeper truth revealed in Seidl’s theatrical mise-en-scène is that these basements, albeit real, are also stages, meticulously furnished for all manner of everyday performance art – from brass music to horsewhipping to (a recurrent motif) the ritual telling of dirty old man jokes.

In the ‘topographical model of the mind’ advanced by Seidl’s compatriot Sigmund Freud, our conscious lives are just the tip of an iceberg plunged deep into the abyss of the unconscious. It’s tempting to consider In the Basement along similar lines, but are these cellars really refuges of the repressed? As often in Seidl’s work, there’s little inhibition in evidence; his subjects seem rather like born actors, eager to exhibit their symptoms on the underground stages therefor prepared.

Seidl is sometimes faulted for exploiting his amateur actors. Much like in the sadomasochist relationships that provide the film’s disarming coda, however, there is a degree of complicity between the director and the directed, who wilfully submit – or so it seems – to his exacting gaze. The ethical stakes are undeniably high, and further complicated by Seidl’s mischievous mode of address: He obviously knows how to tap into people’s desire to expose their basement selves, but ultimately leaves us guessing at the precise means by which he coaxes them into participation.

One shouldn’t let the resulting sense of unease take away from the complex interplay of cruelty and compassion that defines the Seidl method – in visual terms as much as in his work with the actors. As ever, there’s the slow but steady procession of DOP Martin Gschlacht’s unmoving tableaux, which have been likened to altarpieces for their frontal, symmetrical framing but here also suggest the orderly arrangement of a butterfly collector’s display board. Religious fervour meets taxonomic reason as Seidl collects and connects man caves, S&M dungeons, an underground shooting range and various places of private worship, housing sacralised artefacts such as wall-mounted taxidermy, lifelike 'reborn' dolls and Nazi paraphernalia. Some basements are crammed, claustrophobic spaces; others so roomy their acoustics move an opera singer manqué to break into song.

In the past decade, Austria was shaken by a series of basement revelations that strain the imagination: the case of Natascha Kampusch, abducted at age 11 and held in underground captivity for more than eight years by telecommunications engineer Wolfgang Přiklopil, and that of Josef Fritzl, who kept his daughter in an underground prison for almost 24 years during which he raped her repeatedly, fathering seven children, three of whom he also confined to life in the custom-built cellar underneath the family residence.

In the Basement cannot but contend with this nightmarish national imaginary, even if the idea for the film occurred to Seidl and co-author Veronika Franz long before these crimes had been revealed, during the shoot of Dog Days (2001), which features a cellar sequence so deadpan and desolate it would fit right in with the cave-dwelling misfits here assembled. In Seidl’s topography of the Austrian mind, the abyssal borders directly onto the banal. And in between the two, borne from their tectonic friction: what Austrians call humour.