I really admire Ulrich Seidl. He approaches a story like no one else, and at the same time, he approaches stories few others seem to want to touch. I love it when rather than focusing on how to bring in the masses and their money, directors use their skills and resources to tell stories in creative or at least, memorable ways. That’s how I believe Ulrich Seidl of Dog Days (2001) and the Paradise Trilogy fame (2012-2013) approaches each of his projects.
A Staged Documentary
I was unsure whether to approach Im Keller (2014) as a documentary or docu-drama. It sells itself as a documentary, however there’s an element of staging to it that can’t be denied. There aren’t any actors involved. The protagonists aren’t fictional characters; they appear to be appearing as themselves. Or at least, some version of themselves.
The film’s narrative is composed of various sequences showcasing what this particular selection of quirky Austrians get up to in their respective basements. Each individual’s sequence or segment is broken down into smaller parts; we get to meet each character for just a few minutes, break away to meet the next and return to the previous character afterwards.
The Softer First Half
While we don’t get to learn all of the characters’ first names, the first one we meet is called Fritz, and he’s a firearm instructor. We see him welcoming a handful of silver-headed seniors who come to the basement-cum-shooting range to shoot both their weapons and mouths off. Politics is all they seem to want to talk about in Fritz’ basement.
Fritz’s is quite the poignant story. His basement doubles as a sanctuary of sorts – he flexes his vocal chords there and only there. His tenor voice has potential, but he lacks proper training; he strains it. Knowing fully well he’s no Mario Lanza, he opts to sing in his empty shooting range and adjacent toilets to audiences of none.
Fritz muses about all the operatic roles he could have performed, had he not taken up the role of a fulltime shooting instructor instead.
Another fascinating character we get to spend some time with is a wild game hunter. He has a vivarium in which an at-least eight-foot snake resides. He watches it prey on the unfortunate white mouse cowering just centimetres in front of its flicking tongue. The mouse never stood a chance.
The hunter is definitely seasoned in his ‘art’ as is evidenced by the many heads that adorn his main room. He’s on first name basis with the heads of the animals that hang on those walls. They seem to be the closest thing he has to family.
The hunter almost comes across as remorseful about the murderous pastime he practices…or is he just being narcissistic?
That such a weak, sick person is capable of snuffing out innocent creatures for sport makes one question who the beast really is.
The third character we spend some quality time with is actually one of the most tragic. She is a woman on the wrong side of fifty who lives alone on the third floor of the apartment building. Every night she trudges down three flights of steps in her nightgown to her basement. Once inside, she locks the door. And in the privacy of her basement she pops a hyper-realistic baby doll out of a shoebox.
And then another, and then another. You can’t help but catch your breath the first time you glimpse them; they look just like the real thing. She coos and smiles at them. She kisses and sings her favourite doll a version of Brahm’s Lullabye with a verse which was new to me and which continued enriching the situation already brimming with pathos. ‘Tomorrow morn, if God deems, you will wake from your dreams.’
The Harder Second Part
Im Keller’s first half focuses on the above mentioned characters. The sad, perhaps sweet, habitually shy, always quirky introverts who attempt to actualize their fantasies out of sight. Around midway however, it takes a drastic turn. Seidl focuses on the ‘deviants’… the irrevocably damaged goods. I say ‘deviants’ in quotes as Seidl goes to great lengths not to judge any of his protagonists as such, so I feel I’d be doing the film a grave disservice were I to do so myself.
Initially, he seems harmless enough. We see him arriving home late in the day, suitcase in hand. Perhaps a music teacher or university professor? Definitely nothing anyone would write home about. He also seems well-groomed to a fault.
The French Horn player is also quite religious. All his rooms are chockfull of holy imagery and symbolism, crucifixes and Jesus and Marys. So what on earth could he be up to in his basement?
It turns out, the French Horn player is an alcoholic Nazi.
A large portrait of the Führer graces his cosy, yet spacious den. This is where he downs twenty spritzers a day, the only way he’s able to get through life. This is also where, at the end of each day, he entertains likeminded guests.
In true documentary fashion, Seidl continues giving us glimpses into the lives of all these characters, going out of his way not to judge them. He gives space to these people who otherwise might have no other way of sharing their world with others; of being acknowledged by the outside world in any way.
Then there are a sado-masochist relationship or two that invite us in on the action. And the middle-aged woman who agrees to be interviewed naked, apart from the ropes that bind her, her hands loosely clasped in front of her crotch. She explains how she needs pain to be able to free her mind and be herself. She needs to be beaten, hurt with whips and needles and strangled.
The same woman also recounts how after fatally stabbing her first husband, she fled her second husband because he beat her, hurt her with whips and needles and almost strangled her to death.
In her real life, this woman works a careworker with Caritas, caring for and trying to help abused women day in, day out. Her interview is interspersed with shots of her being whipped, legs apart. She concludes her segment by saying that she needs a man to control her.
In Conclusion: It’s all about Loss
On the surface, Im Keller acts as an eye-opener about what lurks beneath the public and the apparent. The obvious statement it appears to make is that people show (at least, a part of) their true selves when they’re alone. That to an extent, we’re a dishonest animal, more concerned with how we’re viewed by the rest of our respective communities than with being ourselves and realizing our own dreams.
While the film poses these very important anthropologic questions, it then goes a step further and asks a question which is even more pertinent and which carry answers which are even scarier; how does one deal with time lost?
Of all the characters we meet in the film, I was touched most by this nice old couple and the story behind their lovely, homey basement. They are exactly as they appear to be; sweet, old and tired. Their story is tragic in its simplicity. Their basement once bustled with family gatherings and parties. Now everyone’s grown up and out; turning it into a quiet, forgotten place, endlessly waiting for the sound of laughter and activity it will never know again. And this begs the more important questions.
What to do with a clock that won’t stop ticking? Is it possible to accept that some dreams will never be realised, or perhaps worse, that were realized once but never again will be? Are we spending our waking hours, days and years living out other people’s dreams, leaving our own to languish in dank basements?
Im Keller documents real people’s search for fulfilment and that’s what makes it a must-watch. In very different ways, each of the featured protagonists had a vision… a goal… an image of what they wanted to become; but for some reason, they became sidelined, becoming somebody else on the way, leaving them too old, too helpless, too sick to realise their dreams.
There’s no bigger loser than one eluded by time.