As the saying goes, it does what it says on the tin: Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl takes his camera into the basements of ordinary Austrians and documents what he finds. Sometimes it’s a kitschy wet bar, or a wall of ham radios. Other times it’s a sex dungeon, or a rec room jammed with Nazi memorabilia. Of course, ultimately, the spaces are less interesting than the people who inhabit them, and what their subterranean ids say about them and perhaps, by extension, about us all.
Seidl has made a career out of deadpan provocateurism—see “Dog Days,” which screened at MFF in 2004, or the more-recent ‘Paradise’ trilogy, which screened at the festival in 2013. He’s working in documentary mode here, but he doesn’t just shaky-cam it while his subjects natter about their enthusiasms. “In the Basement” is scrupulously composed and unblinking. The long, quiet journey an older woman takes down several flights of workaday apartment-building stairs and past rows of bikes to her storage space only heightens the creep factor when she reaches in a cardboard box and pulls out a hyper-realistic baby doll, which she clucks over like a new mother. At first, an amateur brass-band musician seems like an ordinary, if slightly dour, suburban type, until you notice that one of the many prints hanging on his basement wall is a portrait of Hitler. Seidl doesn’t show you every single detail of the lengths to which a schlubby nude sex slave is required to keep every surface of a bathroom clean with his tongue, but you get the idea.
Of course, Seidl’s subjects don’t think they’re weird, or at least not so much that they refuse to appear on camera or list their names in the credits. They talk about themselves and behave with the straightforwardness of Seidl’s shots. A pallid dom in a leather jock strap matter-of-factly describes the typical bounty and force of his ejaculate. The Nazi collector gets drunk with his band under display cases of ceremonial knives and swords until one cracks, “I’m the Führer of THIS party!” This is who these people are, even if this particular aspect of who they are is kept out of their living rooms. The fact that they share many obsessions with middle-Americans (sex, guns, right-wing politics) only makes them more relatable.
“In the Basement” feels a bit like water-treading from Seidl—it is, essentially, a stranger-than-fiction take on the same sort of characters and quirks that animated “Dog Days.” Still, as another saying goes, there’s nowt as queer as folk.