This is a trilogy of films by Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, written together with Veronika Franz. In a piece of imaginative programming the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds programmed the three films on consecutive Tuesdays, [with a special ticket offer]. Added to this was the chance to discuss the films in the Cinema’s informal Film Club discussion group following the opening and closing screenings, [held in a local social club]. This certainly helped me clarify my responses to the films. Seidl is an uncompromising and challenging filmmaker determinedly breaking taboos usually observed by other filmmakers. It seems the audiences found the films challenging: the manager, Wendy Cook, observed that there were about 50 or so in the audience for Love, and about 30 for Faith and Hope. And the discussion group after the last film was also slightly diminished. I incline to think though that still an equal amount of intellectual energy was spent on each of the three films, as they developed their parallels and interlinkages. The responses in the discussion were positive, though there were also quite a few questions about the intent of the films. The films show parallels with the work of two other Austrian directors: Michael Haneke’s uncompromising moral questions and Fritz Lang’s moral formalism and a touch of his expressionism. There are parallels with Luis Buñuel, in the sardonic tone, irony but also in the direct simplicity. There is also a similar savage humour: Seidl admires an Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, “since his novels infuse the terror of human existence with profound humour.” [Sight & Sound, July 2013]. Someone also suggested the films were reminiscent of Lars von Trier, especially visually of Antichrist. And it occurred to me later there is a touch of the savagery found in the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
The opening film Love  follows a care-worker Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) on her holiday in a Kenyan seaside resort. This cover several weeks, which also provides the timeframe for the two subsequent films. During her sojourn she becomes involved with black male prostitutes, though the financial bargaining is opaque. Faith (2012) studies Teresa’s sister Anna Maria (Maria Hoffstätter), who is a fundamentalist catholic involved in proselytising people whom she hopes to bring to salvation. During the film her Moslem husband, Nabil (Nabil Saleh), returns to her flat: he is now a paraplegic usually confined to a wheelchair. There is a connection between his accident and Anna Maria’s sudden acquisition of faith. At first fairly accepting, he becomes more demanding as time passes. Hope (2013) opens in Anna Maria’s flat just before she takes Teresa’s daughter Melanie (‘Melli’ – Melanie Lenz) off to a summer ‘dietcamp’ where she is taken through strenuous exercises, special diets and lots of health talks in the company of other overweight young people. During her stay at the camp she develops a crush on the institutions doctor (unnamed- Joseph Lorenz) with hints that there is some reciprocation.
The films overlap in their timeframes and with common characters. Thus we meet all three women in the first film, as well as Teresa’s cat Rolli. Telephone calls between Teresa and Melanie are heard in both the opening and closing films. And there are common visual motifs. An especially striking one is where a character walks along a wooded path, usually in the evening or at night: at one point with thunder and even rain. The buildings in which the main characters reside have common forbidding features: Teresa stays at a luxury hotel, serried ranks of uniform curving walls and windows. Anna Maria occupies a flat in a non-descript block, whilst the interior is one of overbearing order. Melanie stays at a large concrete and glass block, with identical living rooms and endless corridors.
I also found myself struck by the continuities of style across the films. Sidles favourite shot is the plan américain [a medium long shot], often held for fairly long takes as if in a tableaux. He cuts regularly between these, sometimes using quite oblique angles. He is well served here by the two regular cinematographers, Wolfgang Thaler and Ed Lachman, as well as the editor Christof Schertenleib. Then at certain points this changes into handheld moving camera. [There is no Steadicam listed in the credits]. One starts to note these changes in the first film, but only gradually does an intended pattern emerge. The camera movements accompany sequences where the established order breaks down, frequently connected to sexual activity or to confrontations outside the sterile patterns of the institutions. What seemed to be the most mobile of any sequence is in Faith, when Teresa crosses a rope line on the breach which separates tourists from the African hustlers. As she wades in the water followed by one persistent seller, the camera provides noticeable movement. For much of the film such movement only occurs beyond the confines of the hotel. But it enters those walls when several women hire an African man for a birthday party celebration.
In Faith the movements occur when Anna Maria leaves home to visit, uninvited, her unsuspecting subjects: though a visit where she argues vigorously over religion with an older Austrian couple is held in a rigid tableaux. The most ecstatic movements occurs when Anna Maria, crossing a park at night, stumbles on a drunken orgy. And movement finally invades her flat when the conflict with Nabil reaches a climax.
In Hope the camera movements accompany the young people as they hold illicit parties after ‘lights out’ and raid the kitchen for illicit food. But it also accompanies Melanie and the doctor as her feelings reach a climax. This is followed by one of the most beautiful shots in the whole trilogy: as a drugged Melanie lies asleep in the woods, the doctor carefully lies by her side. The backdrop is composed of tightly packed, elegant pines – reminiscent of similar great shots from the work of filmmakers like Victor Sjöström and Alfred Hitchcock.
The Production Design by Andreas Donhauser and Renate Martin, as well as the sound by Ekkehart Baumung is of equal quality to the visuals. Whilst the films may seem static when compared to the highly mobile cameras and fast editing of many contemporary films, at all points there is great pleasure in watching and listening both to the environs and to the characters interactions.
Seidl uses a mixture of professional and non-professional actors: uniformly the performances or ‘recreations’ are impressive. [“Lenz had already experienced the dubious pleasures of an actual Diätcamp prior to being cast.” S&S]. While the gaze he offers on the characters’ foibles is unflinching it is at the same time sympathetic. Each film opens with an introduction before the main title. We meet Teresa as she watches over a group of Down syndrome sufferers enjoying rides on dodgems. In the last film we see Melanie sat on Anna Maria’s sofa beneath a somewhat kitsch painting of an Austrian Alpine scene. Both are equally passive, a passivity that changes radically in the course of the films.
Some critics have remonstrated with the way that Seidl uses his performers. Teresa and Melanie are both extremely over weight. Ana Maria is obsessive, down to the self-flagellation she endures [or enjoys] before a crucifix. And supporting characters can be seen as problematic. We see little of Africans in Love except of those who exploit the European female tourists. But Seidl provides alternatives, though you may miss one of these if you do not watch the end credits. In Love at one point we see African musicians entertaining the tourists, with a passivity and lack of vitality that suggests their oppressive situation. However, after the final credit we glimpse then once more, now a vital band cavorting with great gusto.
You would be surprised if I suggested that these films have optimistic endings. But there is a development across the trilogy. We move from the neo-colonial setting to the European heartland of Austria. We also move from older women [Teresa and Anna Maria] to a younger generation, Melanie. And despite the travails suffered at the ‘dietcamp’, there is a warmth and tenderness among the young people. They seem very accepting of their situations, something that does not seem to apply to the mother and her sister. As with the first two films of the trilogy, we finish on the main character, in this case a tearful Melanie. But the repetition over the end credits of one of the youngsters ‘work songs’ from earlier in the film does seem slightly upbeat.
These three films are among the most impressive that I have seen in 2013. I was immersed completely right through the films. Clearly they are not to everyone’s tastes. Seidl, “offering a cautionary footnote, [he] adds:” I should point out that, as far as humour is concerned, it depends very much on the individual spectator. In cinemas, you often have one person convulsed with laughter while the person next to him [or her] feels absolutely scandalised.” [S&S July 2013] But they are immensely rewarding if you stay with them. And they are stimulating: ‘I am still thinking about it’ was the response of one friend after the final screening.