It’s rare to see a movie in a London cinema and feel you’re actively bonding with the rest of the audience, but Ulrich Seidl’s 2014 documentary Im Keller (In the Basement) has exactly this effect. In its perturbingly wry staging and framing of what many would describe as “utter depravity”, viewers are – with few exceptions – left wondering whether to recoil or roll in the aisles or both.
Seidl has us from the first scene, which could be part of a nature documentary if nature documentaries had an explicitly voyeuristic edge. We watch a man watching a long glass cage in which a gigantic yellow python inches towards an oblivious gerbil. It’s quite clear, given the man’s dispassionate gaze, that nature will take its course here; the gerbil has no escape. This makes the encounter, filmed in a completely unbroken take of a minute or more, no less tense. When the python inevitably strikes, you jump out of your seat anyway.
Cut to a nicely geometric shot of a suburban roof, visible above a green hedge that occupies most of the frame, on a sunny day – and so begins the film’s dialectical rhythm of slow descent into intensity jerked back into ambient calmness. Sometimes there are brief syntheses between the two: unexplained shots of people staring blankly at the camera. It’s interesting how these occasional shots create unease not by what they contain – literally just people of various ages staring at the camera – but by the scenes that preceded them. It’s all part of the same queasy, foreign world.
Much has been made of the spectre of the Joseph Fritzl revelations, but not only was the idea for Im Keller in gestation long before 2008, the film contains tableaux that are twisted but by no means immoral. All parties, with the possible exception of the gerbil, appear to be engaging in the acts on screen consensually. Some play captive to sexually dominant lovers because they themselves are captives of their past, but the scenes that deliver the real katzenjammer are left psychologically unprobed. They’re just there. People behave like that because… well, they just do. Searching for a cause becomes recursive.
It’s tempting to view the “basement” of the title as a sort of metonym for the id – the basement of our minds, an unconscious driver. But what’s most surprising about the film, and its unsensationalised staging/framing of what people get up to, is that their behaviour feels compartmentalised rather than pervasive. If a woman decides to use a pulley system to hoist her husband up by the balls, or make him lick their toilet clean, that’s just part of their lives; it sheds no light on who (or why) they are. If a man uses his basement as a shooting gallery, it’s completely unrelated to his wish to have been a successful opera singer, which he expounds on during breaks from target practice. If a woman keeps eerie simulacra of lifeless babies in shoeboxes, and takes them out occasionally to caress and coddle, she may be an entirely different person above ground. This level of remove vitiates a straightforward post-Fritzl reading.
Nonetheless, the film is unflinching and unsettling. Seidl, a master manipulator, knows how to shock us far more effectively than torture-porn directors and horror movie maestros do; he gets under the skin in the same way as, say, Yorgos Lanthimos does, only more so. Im Keller is worth watching because you won’t be seeing this stuff anywhere else; you’ll never see anything more uncannily inhuman yet so inescapably human.