Austrian Ulrich Seidl is one of the most interesting European film directors. Having started as a documentary director, he’s been working in his profession for 30 years. His debut in the sphere of full-length fiction films Dog Days became a real breakthrough at the Venice Film Festival in 2001, having won the Silver Lion and the Special Jury Prize (analogue to Grand-Prix). In 2007 he shot Import/Export, a history of labor migrant from Ukraine. At the moment the 61-year-old director is at the peak of recognition, for during last year the world’s three biggest festivals, in Cannes, Venice, and Berlin, held premieres of three parts of his new project “Paradise: Love, Faith, Hope.” Each film caused quite a stir far beyond the festival community, whereas Paradise: Faith caused a scandal, which however did not hindered the main jury of the Venice Festival from awarding again this masterfully shot and provocative film with the Special Prize.
Documentary part here is not an attachment to profession, rather a way to transform the world on the screen: documentary is synonymous to non-action, and Seidl deliberatelyrefuses from any kind of playing: either with the style, or plot collisions, and seeks to show absolutely not glorious sides of life, penetrate beyond the thoroughly painted shell of reality. The situation in his films lack the pathetic element and stick to memory namely due to their uncomfortable casualness. And his actors are impressively natural. You cannot say the heroes of Seidl’s films are pretty, but few people succeed in showing so convincingly these nervous, narcissistic, angry, or lonely bourgeois, avoiding either to glorify, or to humiliate them.
Recently Ulrich Seidl came to Odesa Film Festival, but our meeting took place earlier, in Kyiv, where the shooting of the show for his participation in the all-European TV channel Arte took place. The hero of the program insisted on picking our city as location.
Ulrich, why did you choose namely Kyiv for shooting the show?
“I know Kyiv, I like your country. Several years ago I was shooting a film in eastern Ukraine [the film Import/Export. – Author], but when I received an offer to make this show for Arte – and it must be about a specific city – Kyiv was immediately on my mind. So, I have an opportunity to see your capital again.”
Speaking about your trip to Ukraine for shooting Import/Export, what did impress you the most?
“When I arrived for the first time, it was winter. We were traveling on a car, and the streets were so strange, they were in such a poor condition that we had not even imagined. I went across the Carpathians and I had to drive around big pits. Another recollection is when I got stuck in the snow and had to stop in a village, with some family in the Carpathians. We did not understand each other. I was with my wife, they fed us, and we slept in the room of the host’s son, and it was very special indeed. Next day I went on and I don’t even know the names of those people.”
Continuing the Ukrainian topic, you are often compared with our photo artist, Kharkiv-born Borys Mykhailov. Do you agree?
“Yes, I know him. The comparison is not very apt, because he is a photographer, and I am a film director. But we have a similar accuracy of look: we are not afraid to look at unpleasant things, at people who live on social margins. I got acquainted with Borys 10 years ago, when he was living in Berlin. I wanted to shoot a portrait film about him, but unfortunately nothing came out of it.”
You work on the verge between live-action and non-action cinema, and are doing this so masterfully that one can hardly feel this line. I even want to ask: in your opinion, does documentary cinema exist as a genre?
“For me, there is no line between the live-action and non-action movie indeed. But I say this as a manifest or a provocation. In fact, there is a difference. At the moment when people stop playing themselves, but begin to play some role, live-action cinema starts. In my films there are many non-professional actors, but they do play roles, and all their peculiarities and characters get involved in this game. I will say once again, this is the difference: they are not playing themselves with their wives and dogs in their apartments, but turn into different characters. The thing is about creating on screen a kind of authenticity, so that the audience could find itself there. I don’t want to show an illusion, but the world we are living in.”
What are the peculiarities of working with non-professionals?
“There is no difference between professionals and amateurs; one can just distinguish between different people. It is easy with some actors, and not so easy with others. The same way with professionals. I work with all the performers in the same manner. I have the same method for everyone.”
Do you trust in actor’s improvisation?
“This is a part of my method. I write a script without dialogues. All the words said in the film are a result of improvisation. Of course, I can look for actors according to the principle whether they can say and play this. But very few actors are able to improvise in such a way – 10-20 percent.”
It seems to me, British realist director Ken Loach uses a similar method.
“No, it’s Mike Leigh [British film director, master of psychological drama. – Author]. But he does it differently. He works during the rehearsals. Before shooting he holds many-week-long rehearsals with the actors where they pronounce the dialogue. I don’t rehearse, I work during the shooting. I give an opportunity to improvise at the shooting area. My time of preparation with actors is a year or longer. We work in order for them to understand what the film is about, whom they will play. The actors, first of all non-professionals, should understand what it is all about, they should get used to the role; otherwise, they won’t be able to improvise.”
In your most famous films, I mean Dog Days and Paradise: Faith, the lead roles are performed by the incredible actress Maria Hofstaetter. Why do you like her? Why is she unique?
“She is real in the way I demand her to be. The actors must first and foremost be real before the camera. She and I have a similar feeling what is good and important for the role and what is not. She works very long on the roles, she prepares very thoroughly. We started the work on the film Paradise: Faith many years before the shooting. Maria had problems with this, because she has a religious upbringing, and for a long while we regularly refused from this project, because she said it was impossible. But later we kept starting it over – until we made it.”
Owing to the images created by Maria you have an opportunity to peep behind the scenes of bourgeois life, to show it not in a glorious way. Is it so important for you?
“The thing is about the truth, about looking beyond the facade of beautiful things. The world in which we are living by media pictures is not truthful. For example, in the film Paradise: Love the leading character is an overweight woman because she does not meet the general dictate of physical beauty.”
What is a human beauty for you?
“It is hard to express this in one word. For me it is important to find something beautiful in ugly things. There are people who see my works and say, they are not truthful. Then I reply to this audience: ‘Okay, undress yourself, let’s look at ourselves. We’ll look just like heroes of my film.’”
Is there a line for you in art?
“I myself outline and impose the borders. This is my responsibility as a director. Each time there is a concrete situation where I can say either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
Speaking about the allowed and forbidden things, were you surprised at the harsh criticism to Paradise: Faith?
“Such reaction was in Italy, where conservative religious organizations even filed a suit to court – we’ve written about this. But it is about the character of an action film, not about the religion which is shown as a big power. But the film does not make religion look funny.”
In the same way, you are not understood by some leftist – people of diametric beliefs. Why is this unity?
“Because I don’t meet some ideology. I don’t show ideology, I show the truth, regardless of what the leftists or conservators say, but after all this is a broadening of mind. And if you perceive this film, you can see yourself and some things in the society. My films are a mirror picture of our Western society.”
But motives connected with religion are often present in your films.
“In some, not in all of them.”
Actually, I want to say that sometimes you use a very interesting angle of shooting – from the viewpoint of an icon or some other religious symbol, to which people turn with a prayer. What does this angle give to you?
“These scenes simply show the most intimate things which can be heard when we speak about praying. The idea was in showing how people appeal to God. It did not work at first, but then everything came out right. Because people said: ‘When I say this in front of the camera and it will be shown on TV, what will my parents, my husband, my children say?’ But I persuaded them by telling that if I make this film, Jesus wants me to make it, therefore they must work with me.”
Speaking about optics, what type of look is typical of you as a director and traveler: quick, momentary impression episodes, or lengthy careful gazing at one landscape, one character?
“Time plays some role. Time means that we can get used to people. I look around more and it means that I work with emotions in the same way. Because I cannot tell anything about people if I don’t feel it the same way they do. When I was telling about the situation in Ukraine in the film Import/Export, I was spending much time here, in order to learn how people live in the east of your country. Otherwise, it would not have been possible to show anything.”
You said once that director is a profession of lonely persons. Are you lonely?
“Yes. I am a lonely person, too. I am the one who observes, and if I observe, I always stand on the outside, on the side. I don’t want anyone to see me, I want to observe and remain to some extent invisible. The films I make are creations of a lonely warrior. It is not a result of some joint movement, cooperation with other people. You must rely on your own feelings. As a result, I can get into contact with people, regardless of the country they live in, no matter what their social status is. It is important to get into contact with people.”