Why There Is Value and Not Excess in the Extreme Misery of Ulrich Seidl’s ‘Dog Days’

Dog Days Movie Film

Ulrich Seidl sees a particular problem. As much as any absurdly brilliant artist can, he examines human experience from the undesirable end of the axis. Seidl’s films infiltrate communities or small groups in which cruelty and pettiness is rampant and love is redundant. This is not a love of naivety or insincerity, but of empathy. Some artists choose to focus on the love that can be found in our world, others on the experiential variety of people’s lives. Then there are those who see only a deficit of love and happiness, enough at least to spend a career convincing others that it is so. Sticking the word porn after another word is an easy way of indicating that you have sussed a particular cultural product’s purpose. Dog Days (2001), like many of Seidl’s outstanding films, is pornographic in its extreme misery. However, I’d hesitate to call it Misery Porn because such descriptions are usually employed disparagingly. Instead, Dog Days depicts a world where we have abused love and have sacrificed ourselves to the consequences of our collective shortcoming.

It might not seem obvious, but Seidl’s vision of the world is one where we are all connected. Here, misery breeds misery, and pain is felt in unison. But this suggests that love can be equally contagious, and there are many characters in Seidl’s films — whether in his fiction or documentary-hybrids — who crave the act of loving as much as actually being loved. The children in particular are innocent victims, caught up in the terrible world they have inherited and lumped together with adults who are rarely worth listening to. As patient zero of his fiction output, Dog Days is an expansive picture of a suburban Vienna that is cracked and rotten from end to end of its hellish banality. Like a symphony of broken instruments, the six stories depict a town where fragile men exploit vulnerable women, grief destroys affection and sex is misunderstood as a tool for pleasure and violence, instead of only the former. 

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Dog Days Movie Film

Misery Porn might be an appropriate label for such films, but what this term suggests is that there is no meaning to any of these stories or this suffering. What might seem ugly, Seidl instils with deep, universal sadness, giving not just the people but the images a sacred purpose. In an interview with The Guardian in 2013, Seidl said of people who might feel tempted to denigrate his work as gratuitous, “I do not judge, but I show how people behave in their longing for happiness. If the viewers have a problem with my films, it may be that they have a problem with themselves too.” This accusation is slightly disingenuous coming from a known hellraiser; people can be uncomfortable with a film and not have to reckon with their own sensibilities. But the fact that Seidl sees his characters as “longing for happiness” is a confession. That is, he is very much interested in the heart.

Seidl’s website confirms that Dog Days was his first “openly acknowledged” feature fiction film. His previous film, Models (1999), could conceivably be classified as a documentary, but the filmmaker’s unmistakeable framing, colouring and lighting could only be achieved through meticulous composition, regardless of the obvious truth in the circumstances of his performers. As Seidl’s cinematographers vary and the camera technology develops, from one end of his filmography to the other, his commitment to hyper-real imagery is relentless, and his images induce pleasure whether they are being remembered or experienced. Seidl designs his actors and locations into angular scenery that in more sugary filmmakers’ hands gives the impression of an emptiness under the skin. 

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Dog Days Movie Film

Some of the posters created for Paradise: Love (2012), Import/Export (2007) or In the Basement (2014), for example, showcase the kind of pictures Seidl uses to inject a cartoon-like spectrum of colour and shape into his films, as well as the absurdities that would be laughable if the context wasn’t so horrific. The vibrance of his images is sometimes more pronounced in my memory than on the screen, like an impression left on admirers, because Seidl’s films can easily be described as colourful, even when the scene is dim and the people unhappy. Matched with this animated world, shifting between careful compositions and hand-held camerawork, the characters in Dog Days are also never the caricatures they are at risk of becoming. What can get lost in the praise of Seidl’s eye are the entirely convincing human dynamics and naturalistic dialogue. 

The Dog Days stories, taking place in the middle of a heatwave, are predominantly made up of couples at different stages of life and in relationships that are defined by a love that has deteriorated or is readily abused by one party or both. A young man opens the film by attacking another man in a grimy club toilet because he caught him looking at his girlfriend — who viewers find out is on a raised dancefloor being watched by almost every man in the club. His insecurity would be a joke if it wasn’t for the violence that he inflicts on his girlfriend because of it, borne of nothing but his own fragility. Across town, a middle-aged couple attempt to co-habit after a separation because of the death of their daughter. The woman, solo, attends orgies that Seidl apparently presents “unsimulated.”  She also parades her new lover around the house, while her late daughter’s father walks around cracking cans of beer and making his presence known, too powerless to stop what was probably agreed upon during the separation.

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Dog Days Movie Film

Sexual humiliation and psychological abuse, while prominent in the two relationships discussed, are bared in their rawest form in possibly the ugliest and most horrific scene in Seidl’s body of work. A middle-aged woman, whose face is battered and bruised from prolonged unhappiness, is the subject of her lover and her lover’s friend’s idea of a drunken lark. The scene is purposefully drawn-out, the three of them emptying bottles of brown spirits and fluctuating between anger, confusion and amusement. From the beginning, the level of disrespect the two men show the woman and her house indicates to the viewer that there is something to worry about. The scene ends with a climax that is so putrid it has left me numb in the aftermath, while being surprised at what Seidl has decided not to show his viewers and what is best left unseen.

It’s not true, however, that Seidl always skimps on hope. Dog Days has scenes which might not be completely tasteful, but which point to harmony. A pensioner-widower forms a sexual, semi-romantic relationship with the woman he employs essentially as his maid, who is around his age. He’s a dirty old bugger for sure, but watching the woman striptease for him, from an angle the man himself might find satisfactory, is a hypnotic and rare display of old, out-of-shape sexuality. It lies, like the rest of Seidl’s fascinations, in truth — just not in any common spheres of desire.

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Dog Days Movie Film

When Seidl uses music, it pumps brightness into his array of colour and people, whether they are moments of despair or joy. Accompanying the one moment in Dog Days of unadulterated positive energy is the 1967 German pop song “Monja.” Some of the stories in the film I haven’t mentioned, even though each of the six are as integral to Seidl’s portrait as the others. Of the three I have left out, a character named The Hitchhiker passes from car to car asking her drivers incessant questions and usually getting herself kicked out. Sitting in the front seat of a stranger’s convertible, her eyes and smile face the camera as “Monja” plays, apparently the only thing that keeps her quiet. She is like an annoying angel who is too innocent to comprehend how miserable this place is. Unfortunately, she is not spared the cruelty that she was seemingly able to avoid. Having been tortured by the people she trusted, rain takes over the entire town as if trying to clean their sins.

Whenever an audience is confronted with a production like Dog Days, they are only accountable to themselves when deciding whether the film should be dismissed as extreme cinema crap or whether there is meaning in the misery that is worth their time. Simply put, because people really do these things, because they treat each other in ways that are beyond comprehension if the viewer has not experienced it first-hand, there is value in it. After seeing the rape scene in Sion Sono’s Cold Fish (2010), I saw a director yielding to his own excesses, tainting the entire film. But I know many would disagree, and I don’t blame them, just as I wouldn’t blame someone for thinking Seidl was guilty of the same transgression. Seidl has produced many scenes of lengthy sexual humiliation or nasty perversion, but they are stories of the world that are drawn from the horrible truth of human behaviour. Mubi-user Viktor Pedersen, in his short review of Import/Export, neatly expresses how one might see purpose in such stories: “I believe he [Seidl] makes these films to try to change the world.”

Mark Seneviratne (@sene_mark) is a data analyst for an arts funding organisation and is based in Manchester, UK. He also writes for The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry, and will have a short story published for the first time in Not One of Us come October 2020. At university, he thought having a Michael Haneke poster made him edgy.

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