Something that makes Ulrich Seidl so fascinating a director is that his filmmaking process actively merges the real and unreal – Jacques Rivette said that every film is a documentary of its own making, Godard’s variation on the phrase is that every film is a documentary of its actors, and Seidl seems to be one of the few directors today that places those ideas front and center in their films.1 His sense of “staged reality” (which I wrote about in my review of In The Basement yesterday) creates a strange relationship with the viewer, who processes the narrative and dialogue of his work with a suspicious of rampant falsity, something Seidl welcomes with open arms. His 1999 film Models is shot to appear like a hyper-intimate documentary, only dawning on the viewer that it is not when the placement of the camera, behind a mirror in the bathroom of a club, is too broadly invasive. This sense of camera as invasive tool permeates so many of his films, but at a clever remove; most of the time it’s his subjects who reveal too much in an interview rather than the camera lens.
Those coming into Constantin Wulff’s A Director at Work expecting a behind-the-scenes documentary will be surprised by just how multi-focal Wurff’s film is. It does offer glimpses at the making of In The Basement but offers as much, if not more, footage of the rehearsals of Seidl’s 2012 play Bad Boys/Hideous Men, which was inspired by some of the stories in Basement. Originally his most recent documentary was meant to focus on men, as a step back from the female-centric Paradise trilogy, yet it’s only in this piece of theatre that this specifically gendered focus remains. Bad Boys/Hideous Men is shown to us as an ever-evolving piece of performance art, with actors and non-actors (all of whom have appeared in Seidl’s films before) using their own experience to deconstruct masculinity. The premise of the play is an intellectualised Fight Club, wherein a group of men from disparate backgrounds come together in a basement to act out their power fantasies on one another – oh, and also, it’s a comedy.
His unorthodox approach to crafting theatre is shown to carry over to his films. He doesn’t approach his documentary subjects with a script, or even a clear shot, in mind, in fact he decides whilst on set, injecting a sense of improvisation into a finished product that feels wholly calculated and controlled. When he directs actors on camera – whilst his predominate verbal direction seems to be “don’t do anything” – in between takes he tends to physically move the actors, as if pawns on a chessboard. His reasoning for this off-the-cuff approach is fairly succinct – “I want to experience things.” This also goes some way in articulating why he prefers to use a mix of actors and non-actors in both theatre and film, with one of the most interesting segments in this documentary being how Wurff lays out the web of interconnectivity between Seidl’s film through their actors; for instance – Rene Rupnik, who appears in Bad Boys/Hideous Men, was the lead in Seidl’s 1990 film The Bosom Friend, then quasi-reprised that role in Paradise:Faith.2
His partner, Veronika Franz, producer, co-writer and director in her own right,3 appears in A Director at Work as well, and says that Seidl has a closer connection to the “proletarian millieu” than some of his contemporaries. The sentiment essentially boils down to the notion that bourgeois viewers think Seidl’s films mock the middle class, when in fact those in the middle class can identify and laugh along with the film. The two filmmakers seem to have an unusual rapport on-camera; there’s an amusing scene in which she describes the ending to Paradise: Faith and why it moved her so much, only to have Seidl disagree with her interpretation. What follows is a brief argument that, through strange circular logic, leads Seidl to agree with Franz’s original proposition.
Whilst A Director at Work does leave you wanting much more footage of Seidl’s process on, say, the Paradise trilogy, Wulff’s film is more than some basic overview of an unusual artist’s career; it instead exists as a window into a mode of thinking, packing a lot of insight into its very brief runtime.