It’s been a rocky year for Ulrich Seidl. As far back as last February, Rimini was winning over critics at the Berlinale (us included) with its bleak beauty and frankly stunning central turn from Michel Thomas as the washed-up troubadour Richie Bravo. The director’s follow-up, titled Sparta and focusing on Bravo’s brother, was selected to open at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. A week before its premiere, allegations against Seidl emerged from an article published in Der Spiegel. In Sparta, Bravo’s brother (a pedophile played brilliantly by Georg Friedrich) travels to Romania and opens a judo school for young boys. The article alleged, amongst other things, that the child actors in Sparta had not been sufficiently protected on set and that their families had not been made aware of the film’s themes.
Seidl denied any wrongdoing; TIFF pulled the film the morning it was due to premiere. Sparta opened the following week in San Sebastian but Seidl didn’t attend. He went to the Hamburg Film Festival soon after, even though the organizers had agreed not to present him with their annual Douglas Sirk prize. There was an investigation by Austrian authorities who found no evidence of wrongdoing, thus somewhat clearing Seidl’s name. The next major European festival to invite him was IFFR in Rotterdam, who selected a newly cut double feature, Rimini/Sparta, in which the two films are intercut, their stories playing in a slightly awkward kind of parallel.
Situated a stone’s throw inland from the great docks of the Hague, the Rotterdam film festival is a kind of blustery winter outpost of the European festival circuit: a buzzy, indoor event where you’re more likely to spot Lav Diaz in a local Chinese restaurant than run into a familiar face wandering outside in the biting air. It’s also remarkably well-attended, which made the sparse audience at Seidl’s premiere all the more glaring. Granted, both films had played elsewhere, but Seidl’s name was amongst the glitziest. After the film played he took to the stage for a Q&A with Michel Thomas and his cinematographer, Wolfgang Thaler. Those in attendance applauded the film warmly. He took no questions from the audience.
I met Seidl the following evening at his hotel bar. The director, who turned 70 last year, is soft-spoken and quietly intense––more likely to be mistaken for a history professor than one of modern cinema’s great provocateurs. Though he speaks good English (better than my German), our interview was conducted through an interpreter. He took time to choose his words. Of course, he has his reasons.
The conversation has been edited for clarity.
The Film Stage: Before the screening last night, the moderator introduced you by saying that this festival programmed your films when you were an “embattled filmmaker” and continued to do so when you were “a celebrated filmmaker.” It was clear what he meant by that. Maybe you could talk a bit about the Spiegel article and what’s happened since.
Ulrich Seidl: The accusations leveled in the article were absolutely life-threatening to me, professionally. It was extremely dangerous. It would have meant that funding agencies would no longer fund projects of mine or projects that my companies produced. The scandal was extremely dangerous for me. Extremely.
And they were anonymous accusations, which are difficult to defend yourself against, but in the end the accusations were totally unfounded––there was no proof of them. After a thorough investigation the Austrian authorities could find absolutely no proof to justify any of them. The so-called journalism wasn’t serious at all. It wasn’t an attempt to uncover the truth and to investigate the truth, but rather the media creating a story that had nothing to do with me but which instead was calling on stereotypes.
It must have been difficult for Georg Friedrich to even get into this character’s head. What kind of preparation did you do for this role?
We researched the film by speaking with professionals from the Charité hospital in Berlin, as well as other institutions. We learned a lot from case histories, a lot about who pedophiles are in real life. We went so far as to eventually bring Georg Friedrich together with real-life pedophiles, to get to know them and talk to them.
In the Q&A last night there was a question about the role of fathers in these films. You responded by saying it’s more about mothers, even though few appear onscreen. Could you expand on that?
I only became aware of this during shooting. In Rimini, for example, the mother is absent but she plays a part from the very beginning as it opens on her funeral. Richie Bravo has a very close relationship with her. He mentions that he had his first orgasm with her, but we never see her. Then, at the end of the film, the father cries for his own mother. The film is really about generations.
As well as singing his Nazi marching songs, the father has a line: “To every man their due.” I’m curious about the history and significance of it, as it’s given such prominence in the film.
It’s an old Nazi slogan adopted from Roman times, originally a legal expression. Slogans were simply ingrained in peoples’ mentality at that time. So even after the Nazi period it lived on. People still use those expressions without necessarily knowing where they’re from. It’s like those songs: they are just so pervasive. I heard them growing up.
There’s even a quite moving scene in Sparta when Georg Friedrich’s character plays his father the marching song off his phone, and for a brief moment the father is really present with him. How do you find the sentimentality in a scene like that?
The emotion of a scene depends on the rapport between the two actors. I can’t explain it better than that.
You spoke about generations earlier. I feel as if there is something in these films about a kind of inherited shame, as if these men are in some way paying a debt for their father’s sins.
You can interpret it that way if you like.
During the Q&A Wolfgang Thaler explained that he’s never told the content of a scene before he frames it for you. Having worked together for over 20 years, I’m curious how you developed this kind of understanding. Maybe you could describe his contribution to your films?
Wolfgang has a talent of knowing exactly how to move, where to move, where to focus. No other cameraman I know of has this. Most cameramen, when filming, center on the person who’s speaking, even when it’s not the most interesting part of the composition. Wolfgang also has a sense of distance and a sense of closeness to the actors. He has this incredible sense for acting, because even though my scenes are improvised I often do several takes. And somehow he keeps in mind how it will work in the editing room, how I can take certain parts of one take and edit it together with parts of another take. That’s very unusual.
Also, because I require the actors to give so much of themselves––to make themselves so vulnerable––they have to feel at ease. On set the person who the actors feel closest to is often the cameraperson because the cameraperson is capturing them on film, so they have to have a sense of trust, of human closeness. Wolfgang has that gift, of creating that relationship with them.
Can you give an example of this in Rimini or Sparta?
I often shoot my films in very small spaces. In Rimini there are explicit scenes in hotel rooms with Richie Bravo. In these you have only 5 people: two actors, the cameraman, the sound guy, and myself. To have that intensity, that sense of closeness, the actors have to feel a sense of trust.
I’m often asked how or why the actors––in this case women of a certain age––do it. They do it because they know me and they know how I work, what I expect, and because they agree to go on this journey, to be a part of that exploration. If an actress or actor were to tell me “I’m willing to do this but not that,” or establish limits, it’s clear that they wouldn’t be able to work with me because they wouldn’t be able to explore, to develop the scene. All of this requires a sense of trust, a sense of confidence, without which this matter would be absolutely impossible.
That vulnerability is so central to your work. I’m curious how it became so.
When I started mixing professional with non-professional actors for my first fiction film, Dog Days, it created an exciting authenticity that I found very productive. It’s necessary for the kind of cinema I’m trying to do, for things to happen that are not expected, that are innovative. The viewer sees this reality presented onscreen and it’s the reality that they share, so there’s a sense of identification, a sense of belonging.
If you look at Import Export, for example––the residence where the nurse works with the elderly patients––that was a real hospital with real residents lying in bed. For the actors to work in that context is very exciting, because they’re carrying out a task they’ve been instructed to do on camera, but all around them? You can’t control it. And the viewer senses the realism. They may not know why, but they sense that it is a real scene and that allows them to have an emotional rapport with the scene that you wouldn’t have if you were working with extras.
On the other hand, in both Rimini and Sparta, everything is artificial. Everything is created. All of them are staged.
I’m interested in the choice of Schlager music in Rimini. What is the significance of this genre to Richie and to you?
The music expresses the longing of these people, a longing we all share in fact. These are songs that he believes in. He’s not a cynic or contemptuous of his fans; he doesn’t look down on them. He sings about longing for eternal love, longing to find a partner, or about the disappointment when love ends. He’s entirely believable and entirely likable when performing those songs––while in his daily life, like all the rest of us, he’s an abject failure.
Rimini/Sparta premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in January, and Rimini is now in U.S. theaters.