Ulrich Seidl: ‘Coach at sex scenes? That makes no sense on my sets’

The Austrian director Ulrich Seidl (1952) is “not a wedding photographer”, he says. No frills or filtered light at Seidl. In his films, which are a cross between documentary and feature film, he documents the decline of human relationships, of the body, and above all of a lifeless Europe.

In Paradise: Love (2012) he follows Austrian women looking for love in Kenya. In Safari (2016) he portrays Austrians who hunt zebras and giraffes on a steppe in Namibia, and who explain their hobby at length to the camera.

Seidl’s films often cause a stir, but he is also seen by many critics and at film festivals as one of the most important German-speaking directors of his generation. His movie Hundstage (2001) won the jury prize for best film in Venice.

Seidl’s new movie Rimini (2022) is the first part of a diptych. The second part, Sparta, has been surrounded by controversy. More on that later. In Rimini a schlager singer who must have been successful at one time – now he has to wear corrective underwear to get his glitter suits closed – performs for Austrian seniors in the Italian seaside resort in winter. The concrete giants are abandoned in a harsh sea breeze, singer Richie Bravo performs in half-empty hotel rooms for his old fans and then visits them in their hotel rooms to have sex with them for extra income.

On the phone from Vienna, Seidl talks about the ‘Seidl method’: “There is a script, but without written dialogues. That script is for production and financing; the actors don’t get it. Every scene is improvised.”

Frank Sinatra

In order to be able to improvise, Seidl explains, the actors prepare very well. Michael Thomas, who in Rimini the schlager singer Richie Bravo plays, practiced his singing and his performance for a year. The schlagers were written especially for the film.

Seidl got the idea for the film while working with Thomas on the film Import/Export (2007). “We shot in Ukraine, Michael had a small role. In the evening we were in a restaurant, there was a band, and suddenly Michael got up, took the microphone and Frank Sinatra sang. The restaurant was suddenly silent. Michael can hit people. The role was written for him.”

Seidl brought a busload of Austrian schlager fans to Rimini – amateurs, not professional actors. From then on, says Seidl, “everything is improvised.” Of course within certain frameworks: “Michael Thomas puts on his suit, he knows he has to perform.”

The interaction with the fans arises naturally. And, Seidl emphasizes, “the women he has sex with are actresses.”

But you probably have to go through a sex scene from A to Z in advance?

“No not at all. That is all improvised. The actors can do that because they trust me and know who to play. They surrender to improvisation.”

That seems a bit uncontemporary to me, now that it is much about the importance of intimacy coaches on the set.

“That does not ring a bell. Just because that’s how it is today doesn’t mean it’s right. Moreover, there are several ways in which you can make a movie. In some films, an actress who has only seen the director twice and has to shoot a sex scene may come on set. I have a bond with the actors for weeks and sometimes months, they trust that what is happening in front of the camera is good. Then it makes no sense to bring someone from outside for intimacy.”

Is the confidence towards their opponent prepared in the same way?

“They know each other. In the preparation time it is important that the actors know exactly who they are playing, who they are, because otherwise you cannot improvise. They don’t know yet what kind of scenes we’re shooting.

“I give clues like: ‘You play a female fan of this singer who lusts after you and whoever you have sex with’. Exactly how that works only becomes clear when turning. But if an actress doesn’t want to do a sex scene, I wouldn’t cast her at all. That makes no sense then. You notice if someone has to overcome something or doesn’t want to, then it won’t be good either.

“But our team is very small. When we shoot a scene like that, only the actors, the cameraman, the soundman and me are in the room. There is no one else. It is clear that the actors are protected.”

Read also: Someone who watches the filming of intimate scenes: necessary or not?

The diptych Rimini and Sparta bears the title Bose Games. The film Sparta is about the brother of the schlager singer Richie Bravo, who in Rimini also has a small role. Their demented father in a nursing home sings an old Nazi song, suggesting a traumatizing childhood. In Sparta Bravo’s brother goes to Romania to teach judo to Romanian adolescent boys.

The film was supposed to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in early September, but it was canceled after weekly magazine The Mirror had written that the young Romanian actors of Sparta before rotating cameras were emotionally manipulated for maximum effect. A boy with an alcoholic father would have been made to cry by a drinking and aggressive opponent. The children’s parents also blame Seidl for not telling them the film was about pedophilia. The judo teacher Sparta after all, is attracted to the boys.

Seidl, the one with NRC does not want to talk about the allegations, defends himself through his producer, arguing that there are no “active pedophile scenes” in the film. He calls the allegations “character assassination”. In an interview with the South German Zeitung he says he has regained the trust of the parents and the boys by personally showing the film to all employees.

The film has since been screened at festivals in Hamburg and San Sebastián. Praise critics Sparta for Seidl’s uncompromising rawness and his lack of moralism. Also talking about Rimini and the way in which he depicts the schlager fans, Seidl presents himself as a completely neutral viewer.

What are the most important features of the schlager for you?

“They fulfill desires of some people. It is about the longing for love, about the only and eternal love, and also about the melancholy after a broken love.”

The schlager has a bad reputation. The dictionary defines it as an “undemanding song.”

“I think that’s a bit arrogant. The schlager may not be a high art, but I wouldn’t say you can dismiss it like that.”

The public in Rimini consists of old people in cold hotels. Isn’t that a pitying look at the schlager audience?

“No, then you have not looked closely, then the film would not work at all. Richie Bravo genuinely means it. He’s not cynical. And because he means it sincerely, he touches the people who listen. Michael Thomas can do that.”

With regard to your work, critics sometimes speak of ‘the aesthetics of the ugly’. What do you think of that categorization?

“I don’t identify with that at all. I don’t think an intellectual elite can define categories of beautiful and ugly. People in one environment may decorate their homes in a kitschy way and others may find it ugly. But those who live there don’t think so, because otherwise they wouldn’t decorate their house like that.

“People usually don’t meet the ideal of beauty that the media continuously tells us anyway. When I show people naked in sex scenes, I show what average bodies look like. If, as a critic or as a viewer, you normally only see ‘beautiful’ bodies, you apparently find that ugly.”

Read the here review of ‘Rimini’

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