What the hell is wrong with Ulrich Seidl? I heaped a respectable heap of praise on his Paradise trilogy, even going so far as to put Paradise: Love on this list. Each of those felt of a piece, a triptych on the obsessive longing of broken people. In the Basement makes me rethink all the thoughts about him that I thought. Oh, it appears to deal with the same themes as his previous work, but betrays a disturbing viewpoint that made my eyes roll so much I got several good looks at my brain, and a headache.
Oh, hey, um, maybe don’t read this review at work, okay? You probably really don’t want to read this review at work.
I hear from Wikipedia that In the Basement is a documentary. I mean, it was in the ‘documentary’ section of the streaming service I watched it on, but I just had to double check. Allmovie confirms it, as does IMDb. But so what? I don’t believe it. Nope, no sir, I really do not. All the sequences seem various levels of rehearsed and staged. Of course, this happens in some documentaries, especially with dramatic reenactments, but here we’re not led to believe we’re seeing reenactments. Just messy Austrian life, in all its freakish glory—too precisely freakish, if you ask me.
We open with a woman descending a staircase. Where is this woman going? To her basement, of course! It’s right there in the title: In the Basement. Where else would she be headed? She finally reaches the end of the stairs, and walks through a labyrinth of boxes and shelves. Finding the correct box, she opens it and pulls out a disturbingly realistic baby doll. She coos to it, calls it by name, rocks it, receiving untold love and affection from this completely inanimate object. Just a normal, everyday hobby you randomly let a respected filmmaker film you doing.
Think that’s weird? There are other basements in Austria, lemme tell ya, and Seidl revels in them. What else will we find in the basement(s)? In one is a firing range managed by a rabid, rabid gun enthusiast. We also meet a man exhibiting a patently unacceptable amount of Nazi memorabilia. (Look, I don’t know where the line is indicating an acceptable amount of Nazi memorabilia, but it seems like this guy passed it in 1986 and just kept on collecting.) One basement is a monument to the many dozens of exotic animals one man has hunted; he proudly rattles off species as the heads of these now mounted animals stare at us from behind him.
Oh, yes, did I mention the sex slave dungeon? No Austrian home would be complete without a sex-slave dungeon in the basement! And yes, you see exactly how this sex slave dungeon is used. A paunchy, fully nude man, bound to a table and fully erect, waits for his mistress to tie literal knots around his genitals. She does, by god, and proceeds to flick it, pull it, twist it, bop it, and otherwise playfully abuse the meat and two veg for the camera. This sequence is shot very artfully, yet somehow isn’t art.
Even if this is, for some insane reason, your thing, and you have the appropriate PornHub page bookmarked, the way Seidl shoots it you’ll never want to have your balls bopped again. Once the film was over, I spent several minutes caressing my own jumble-giblets, reassuring them that they were good and hearty genitals, and never had to worry about such torment: ‘Remember, fellas. You is kind. You is smart. You is important.’
Anyway, none of these activities I’ve just mentioned are really bad in and of themselves, right? What people do in the privacy of their homes and all that. I’m not here to judge them. (Except for the hunter guy. Fuck him. You kill helpless animals for pleasure, you deserve the raw end of the sex dungeon.) I am here, however, to judge Ulrich Seidl. I’m sure he thinks he’s filming all these people dispassionately, but he is not.
Have you seen Faces of Death? I hope not. It’s that awful 1978 film about the many various ways people die, mixed with other acts of shocking violence like animal cruelty. It is, basically, pornography—but instead of exploiting sex, they exploit death. And much of that film is staged as well. I think this is what Seidl does in In the Basement. You may as well call it Faces of Fetishes. It’s filmed in a very flat, detached, en vogue European style. But the effect is all 1970s Mondo Exploitation. It’s the same attitude I detect in The Greasy Strangler; here is my review of that monstrosity.
I’m not sure what more to say here. If everything I just described sounds appealing to you, congratulations on turning twelve. If you admire Seidl’s previous films, I don’t see much here to keep that spark going. Why did I even spend so many words talking about this movie? Just filling time until I reach that hideous sex dungeon in the sixth layer of Hell, I guess.