Monday, July 27, 2009

Staring into Hell

"Never have I looked so directly into hell".
Werner Herzog (buy the T-shirt here!) is said to have remarked this after watching the eyeball searing Tierische Liebe (Animal Love) by Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl.

A couple of weekends ago the US blogs were circulating details of a retrospective screening of Seidl's work at the Anthology Film Archives, and I wish anyone who caught a 'celebration' of his films the best of luck. I detest his films (with the kind of deep revulsion you feel after your brother shows you some evil coprophiliac webvideo that is burnt into your memory forever) but, at the same time, I love them for the fact that I can't escape their power or influence. Just before making my film Skin, I watched several of his docos back to back over one weekend as 'inspiration'. I came away needing a good scrub but also truly inspired by the visual rigor and discipline and unnatural beauty of his films. These elements of his filmmaking can be seen and appreciated once your eyeballs have been cleansed of the profound human misery displayed on screen, or provided you have long ago been desensitised in much the same way as his numb, dehumanised subjects.

His strange formal approach to mediating between fiction and reality creates a world of it's own that is austere and confronting in the way that it refuses to look away from the most brutal aspects of what it is to be human. In his fiction films (Dog Days in particular has never stopped haunting me and I remember sequences from this film better than most of my 'favourite' films) people are so casually brutal and their lives so devoid of warmth or tenderness that you would think his worlds were almost completely artificial nihilist fantasies. Except, that is, when you watch his documentary films and realise that they are almost indistinguishable from the 'fiction' films in which the same kinds of characters haunt and inhabit the screen.

His work is fascinating, if for no other reason, than process. Is it just the confessional nature of Austrian society that allows people to permit a filmmaker to capture their unnatural love for their pets, or their brutality toward themselves or their families, or their petty family squabbles and gripes, or their senselessly desire-free sexual encounters, orgies or otherwise? Or is his process truly exploitative? Can you look at his films purely for the purposes of formal beauty and extraordinarily precise filmmaking? Or is his project to make you complicit with or at least equal to the ugly almost inhuman humanity of his subjects? Is it exploitation or poetry or truth or just amazing sequences of emotionally apocalyptic images? I don't know. He confuses and baffles and terrifies and inspires me. So, I'm cursed now to watch every film he makes and, most likely, never to visit Austria again.
"Every film has its own laws, and none of them come easily to me. But extreme conditions rarely deter me. I believe that intense and extreme scenes and images can be created only under intense and extreme conditions."
Ulrich Seidl

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