With the documentary Good News (1990), Ulrich Seidel (born in Vienna in 1952 and raised in Horn) attracted the attention of a larger audience, and since “Hundtage” (2000) he has become internationally known at the latest. In the field of tension between fantasy and reality, the director is interested in the truthfulness and existential questions of man, as shown by the award-winning “Paradise” trilogy (2012-2013).
But Seidel not only touches, he stirs: “Im Keller” (2014) led to the resignation of the Burgenland municipal council, “Rimini” (2022) won the Große-Diagonale for best feature film, “Sparta” was exposed which was released to critical acclaim, and allegedly violated the children’s rights of underage amateur actors, according to the indictment. His is about allegations, but also about past and possibly things to come.
noe.ORF.at: You’ll be 70 these days – are you already thinking about what you leave behind for the world?
Ulrich Seidel: I haven’t thought about it yet, but of course it’s on your mind when you’re 70. For example, how many movies will I be able to make? Or how many trips will I still be able to take? How many books will I be able to read? How many women will I meet etc.? So you know you are moving into an age where you are at the end of your life.
noe.ORF.at: The advantage of film is that it can be reproduced, that is, in fact, it is not perishable. Does this make the film more interesting as your medium? You also did theatre.
Seidl: That’s why I don’t make films. In the movie, you shoot the scene so many times that it just can’t get any better. And then they will have it forever. In the theatre, you rehearse scenes that might be great, and then the premiere comes along, then performances come and then it’s not good for a long time. This is the big difference. In this regard, I also struggled in theater because quality was often lacking.
noe.ORF.at: What sticks to your films is this vague, indefinable thing, that between fantasy and reality. What are your demands from the film and what do you want to convey?
Seidel: It is important for me that the viewer leaves the cinema differently than when he entered. After all, I want my films to have an impact, and what they do is different too. I maintain that every viewer sees a different movie, even though everyone watches the same movie – especially in my case, because the viewer, if he is true to himself, is drawn into a world in which he must also identify himself. Which is why movies are impactful, for better or for worse.
Movies, too, are like an image of our society, our time, and our world and they always have something honest about them. It is about loneliness, for example, or the longing for love, or about transience, or about death or even about the meaning of existence and the struggle for a dignified life.
noe.ORF.at: What inspires you to do this? Is this personal experience or just observation?
Seidl: In any case, I am a very good observer. I’ve always felt a little out of society. And when I observe things from the outside, I realize what I want to convey to the viewer or what I want to disturb him. My movies, even if they are sometimes funny, are more than just entertainment. There is enough entertainment. There are very few films that lead to ideas.
noe.ORF.at: But this is often uncomfortable for viewers.
Seidl: My job as a director is to address and show the things that are important to us, to our coexistence and existence. The question is not: is it comfortable or uncomfortable for the viewer? And if this is uncomfortable for you, it means nothing more than that this viewer has a problem with something. For example, if I’m filming in a geriatric ward, which has happened many times in my films, there are viewers who say, “He can’t do that. It’s not going to help.”
Then I ask myself: Why don’t old people who get wasted and left completely alone deserve to be seen? Who wants to set boundaries? Who wants to say what you can show? I believe you can show anything if you show it sincerely. And if people leave their dignity. It is even important, I think, that you have to look. Nothing changes without looking. Things don’t get better by looking away.
noe.ORF.at: It’s often criticized that your heroes expose themselves in this way. It is questioned whether the heroes can judge for themselves, whether they want to or not, or whether they know in what light they stand.
Seidel: I think that’s an insanely cavalier attitude – to say that the people in front of the camera don’t know what they’re doing. People who are actors come up to me and say, “But I didn’t want to,” that’s very much not the case with me, because I’ve also been making films for a long time and building a very close, trusting relationship.
noe.ORF.at: After your film “Im Keller” (2014), two aldermen from Burgenland quit because they could be seen partying in a basement full of Nazi memorabilia. Do you feel responsible or did you expect the movie to have such consequences?
Seidel: Of course I didn’t make “M Killer” to denounce people or to put people to the knife, not at all. I offer something using the example of those people who gathered in this bunker and had fun under the image of Hitler. This, of course, is of my order, but it was not invented. I didn’t even know they were counselors. Every person in this town was aware of it, and found nothing in it – this is actually what I want to point out: you know it anyway, but you find it quite normal in some places in Austria and in some social classes anyway.
noe.ORF.at: How do you feel about the audience’s response to your latest film, Sparta? Did that ultimately change your relationship with the public?
Seidl: The allegations have not been proven to this day. All allegations come from anonymous persons. The children and parents have not made any allegations against me. It took a whole year to shoot — so if something had happened by then, the parents would have pulled their kids out long ago or started an argument with me, whatever. And now they also watched the movie and there is no censure or reprimand there either. Everyone agrees with the movie.
So objects were intentionally, manipulatively and suggestively placed in the room that lacked any foundation. And this is in the world now. This is a huge damage to my reputation. It was also a threat of existential annihilation for some time. So one asks oneself: How does one go about making films at all? Ultimately, these processes harm the film industry, art in general, and ultimately democratic sentiments.
noe.ORF.at: If you look back now, you’ve directed almost 30 films: are there some films that were of particular interest to you?
Seidel: Not really, so I don’t have an arrangement. I keep working on a movie so I think I’ve exhausted everything now, I’ve done the best I can do. In hindsight, you can always say, “Well, yeah. That wasn’t good.” Something could have been done differently and better. But with every movie, everything becomes new again. That’s the beautiful thing about it, that the tasks are new again, that the challenge is new and that you’re taking on new people and other milieus or other countries.
noe.ORF.at: Were there any ideas or themes that you couldn’t grasp because you couldn’t access them?
Seidel: There is a big subject that I have wanted to do for many decades and probably won’t do it anymore. Or maybe yes? I don’t know. The subject is Grasel (note: based on the Austrian robber Johann Georg Grasel, who died in 1818). I wrote the script for this movie 30 years ago. It’s about young people who were criminals because they couldn’t live any other way, because that was the only way they got their dignity. It’s not a costume drama, and it won’t have any big stars in it either. So far, the movie has failed due to financing.
Grasl’s raids took place in Waldviertel, all the way to Bohemia, and are very popular here in this region, of course quite perverted, for he is such a folk hero, someone who rose up against the authorities.
noe.ORF.at: So Robin Hood from Waldviertel. And I suppose you will not take sides and judge whether what Grassell did was right or wrong?
Seidel: No, absolutely not. Layered history. It was a world of incredible poverty. I am sure that this picture of the world at that time can be compared with the world today. Only then was what is seen more rigorously regional and global today.