At first, it’s not clear what sort of movie “In the Basement” is. A man standing in a shooting range sings an aria. A woman descends several flights of stairs, enters a store room, opens a box, and pulls out a terrifyingly realistic baby doll. A man crouches beside a terrarium containing an enormous python and a rather frightened guinea pig. The snake slowly extends its head as the camera lingers for what seems like an eternity until, suddenly, the snake strikes its prey.
“In the Basement,” directed by Ulrich Seidl, turns out to be a documentary, a fairly loose compilation of Arbusian portraits of Austrian weirdos and their basements, which they have turned into temples to their own obsessions. Some of these are benign—a model train enthusiast, a couple who have turned their basement into a novelty bar—others are strange—a man named Fritz Lang who has installed a gun range in his cellar, a dominatrix and her fat, hairy love slave—and some mix the benign with the horrific—particularly a brass band musician who has transformed his basement lounge, which he describes as “the cozy room where I spend most of my time,” into a shrine to the Third Reich, complete with swastika flags, WWII weaponry, mannequins dressed in full Nazi regalia, and a prized portrait of the Fuhrer.
Ulrich Seidl has been accused of misanthropy in the past, and, having only seen one of his previous films (“Import/Export,” which John Waters memorably described as “depression porn” when he named it the best film of 2009), I can’t say whether this is generally true. But “In the Basement” strikes me as the work of a man who is fascinated by people, not one who hates them. Evoking Errol Morris’s early works (“Gates of Heaven,” “Vernon, Florida”), “In the Basement” takes its subjects head-on, allowing their natural eccentricities to flow through the screen. These people are remarkably open to talking about—and showing on screen—some rather bizarre predilections.
Seidl composes his shots as Diane Arbus-like portraits, with people staring straight into the camera as they are framed by their fastidiously curated basements. These rooms are like externalizations of their own psychology, monuments to their inner weirdness. The subjects speak directly to the camera with a surprising lack of self-consciousness. Seidl never seems to be judging his subjects. He trusts the audience to form their own impressions. (In the case of the Nazi guy, judgments were most certainly made—after the film was released in Austria, where reengagement with National Socialism is illegal, he was forced to resign from his town council seat.) While “In the Basement” can at times seem scattershot—more a compilation of footage than a fully formed artistic statement—what ultimately emerges from these various subjects is a surprisingly inviting panorama of Austria’s darkest compulsions, a stunning record of the strange subterranean depths of the leisure class. After seeing “In the Basement,” I walked through my neighborhood, looking at the houses with their well-groomed suburban facades, and I couldn’t help but wonder, “What’s going on beneath the surface?”