Saturday, April 27, 2013

'We Search for Our Own Paradise but We All Fail.': Ulrich Seidl Interview

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The Film Society of Lincoln Center hosts Ulrich Seidl, controverisial Austrian director of Dog Days, Import/Export and now the Paradise Trilogy, in a special Film Commend Selects series. It's a rare occasion to watch Love, Faith and Hope, back to back to back, the way they were intended. The screenings are on April 26-27 (with Paradise: Love getting a separate week run). Our interview took place at the posh Austrian Cultural Forum building in mid-town in the sunny afternoon. Mild mannered and personable, Seidl doesn't really give you any impression that he is the director of those depravity filled, human misery films.

*I had to share my time slot with the esteemed film writer Oleg Sulkin in prodding Seidl, the other Austrian provocateur (Oleg and I among others also shared Haneke last year). I thank him for his camaraderie.

Was the Paradise Trilogy originally conceived as three separate films or was it conceived as a whole?

Originally it was intended as a single film consisting of three episodes, dealing with three protagonists. The stories were going to be interwoven similar in structure to previous films of mine: Import/Export which consisted of two episodes and Dog Days which consisted of six episodes. So here we have three episodes, each with a female protagonist and each dealing with their search for fulfillment and longing. The decision to make three autonomous films only came when I was editing the material.

How much footage are we talking about when you conceived it as one film?

When I found myself in the editing room, first time I had about ninety hours of rushes and when we first attempted to cut it in to a single film, the result was over six hours long. But the length wasn't the problem, you can make films that are six hours long. The problem however was that dramaturgically and emotionally the film didn't work. It was too heavy, too intense for an audience to follow it and to stay involved.

Faith, hope and love are famous Christian virtues. I noticed that you changed the usual order of these notions. Does it have any special meaning behind it?

First of all, the order of the films I presented, in my mind, is a correct one. For example you couldn't start with the film about Melani (Hope), just as you couldn't start it with Faith. So titles have to follow in that respect. First film, about Teresa is love and the others follow as a result. Do you understand that?

(I think he was referring to Corinthian 13:13- And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. Hence, Love first)


Why focus so intensely on nakedness and sexual relations in people?

In all my films, sex and relationship to bodies are very important. I am always interested in looking behind the façade because the world we are living in is flooded with images by media which paints completely distorted picture from the our true selves. If we look at ourselves in the mirror, what we see is very different from the images in the media. For me it's very important to look and present reality.

Also the power struggle between the sexes and couples are carried out through sexuality. The mutual exploitation is also a theme that I'm always interested in exploring.

Judging by your filmography, you seem to be very interested in photography and painting. It looks pretty evident that it is very important to you to create amazing visual images which sometimes don't need any dialog. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

Those were my beginnings. At first I was seeking not to confront reality but to deal with the artistic process. It's the question of gaze. My interest was in painting and photography and they were what led me into film. My background isn't in writing but pictures.

That's my approach. I try to share my gaze with the audience and by sharing a specific gaze through my films would hopefully increase their awareness. It hopefully will give them different view on things and allow them a new consciousness, new awareness of reality.

Speaking of photography, I'd like to know how your professional relationship began with an American cinematographer, Ed Lachman.

Indeed, Ed Lachman (The Limey, The Virgin Suicides, Far from Heaven) is an American. But he is very interested in Europe. He hasn't devoted himself to working only in Hollywood but he is interested in cinema. He'd seen several of my films and many years ago, we first met in Vienna and felt a sense of kinship. Two years later when it came time to make Import/Export, I asked him if he wanted to work with me and he said yes. Of course, in the 70s Lachman already worked with Wim Wenders (Lightening Over Water, Tokyo-Ga) and Werner Herzog (La Soufrière). So it was nothing new to him.

I could be mistaken but the last part of the trilogy is more warm-hearted and delicate than the others. Does it have to do with the subject of hope: because the doctor overcomes his desire- his sexual temptation and did not become pedophile? Is that what you mean by hope?

No. (laughs) My relationship to the three female protagonists is identical. I feel the same compassion, same tenderness for them. But it's true that the last film is less provocative, probably it's because there is no abuse that takes place. That's how I wrote the script. Had the abuse taken place it wouldn't have been provocative and would've gone in a very different direction. But you are right. As children/teenagers they have far greater potential for hope.

The notion of paradise is very important for three of them in the trilogy. They dream of it but they never get close to it. Does it mean you are pessimistic about the human nature in general?

That's what we all do. We search for our own paradise and happiness but we all fail.

That's... (we all laugh)

Do you have a different opinion?

No. I ought to agree with you unfortunately.

You have a great background as a documentary filmmaker. I notice that you cross the border between narrative and documentary. Is it important for a cinema to have these definitions?

No. In fact when I was first starting out I was criticized for mixing those two together. But with time there have been many other filmmakers started working in a similar fashion- melding documentary and fiction. So times have changed.

On that note I have a question on authenticity of your films. I can't never tell when I watch your films which is fictitious and which is authentic. Does the notion of authenticity matter to you?

The so-called authenticity is developed because of the actors and their performances. The audience sees and identifies with these protagonists on screen, people they can recognize: 'that's my mother, my neighbor, my brother or my friend'. That authenticity is my intention when I seek to create and that leads me to identify with the world and to recognize my responsibility in my participation in it as a filmmaker.

When you work with actors, do you leave a lot of room for improvisation? What's your method?

It would require days to explain my shooting method. It's something I often talk about with film students. I can just say all of the scenes, whether with professional actors or non-professionals, are improvised. I never write up dialog. They are improvised by them.

And there are various circumstances: on the one hand there are scenes in which you have everything down to an inch determined- where people are going to sit in exactly what position and what exactly they would do. On the other hand you have a scene with Teresa involving striptease where you create an area, a shooting space in which actors can move about with much more freedom and spontaneity.

Is the filmmaking hell or paradise for you?

(A big pause) Paradise. (laugh) Well, very often hell but occasionally paradise too.

The Paradise Trilogy plays in the correct order: Love, Faith and Hope at FSLC 4/26-27 in conjunction with US theatrical release of Paradise: Love. The standalone releases of two films will follow in coming months.

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