BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 03 FEB 13
Featured in
Issue 8

Loved by the Lord

Ulrich Seidl’s Paradies trilogy brings the moving image to a standstill

BY Bert Rebhandl in Profiles | 03 FEB 13

Still from Paradies: Liebe, 2012 (courtesy: C/O Berlin)

You won’t find this song on any music chart: ‘The Earth is beautiful, loved by the Lord, those who love are born anew…’ Anna Maria, a middle-aged woman accompanying herself on a home organ, sings these lyrics in Ulrich Seidl’s film Paradise: Faith (2012). Religious songs are part of an increasingly marginalized subsystem within modern society and make a trenchant point about paradise. The Earth itself, our so-called reality, is characterized as beautiful – and not just some realm in the hereafter where everything will be better. The idea that someone ‘born anew’ in love can contribute to this beauty (alongside the creative love of God) is in the best Catholic tradition. In a film about this female character (played by Maria Hofstätter) whose life is radically shaped by devout religiosity, the song’s inclusion is richly allusive: we hear her droning voice, not unlike someone praying a rosary; we see someone who blocks the view from her suburban house with blinds because she doesn’t trust the manifest beauty of the world outside; and we sense the fear that she seeks to drive out with her singing – a fear of everything life brings with it, especially ‘trials’, all the things that must be integrated into the logic of faith, day after day.

Still from Paradies: Glaube, 2012 (courtesy: Ulrich Seidl Film Produktion GmbH)

Paradise: Faith is the second film in a trilogy which takes its cue from an ambivalent concept, illustrating and deconstructing it in the form of specific stories. In the first part, Paradise: Love (2012), we see Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), an unmarried, middle-aged Austrian woman, who discovers sex tourism in Kenya. In the third part, Paradise: Hope (2013), Seidl tells the story of Melanie (Melanie Lenz), Teresa’s teenage daughter, who visits a weight loss camp while her mother is away. All three films make it clear that Seidl views religion (or the need for transcendence) as a technology of the self which he meticulously breaks down into its component parts.

But the trilogy also allows us to identify something more fundamental: a unifying motif for the aesthetic that has, in the years since 2001, made Seidl a significant figure in cinema (and the most important Austrian successor to Michael Haneke, who over the same period has worked hard to dissociate his work from any specifically Austrian identity). With the premiere of his first feature film Dog Days (2001), Seidl made the transition from the documentary genre in which he started out (Animal Love, 1996) to a narrative form characterized by exuberant artistry. His films are strikingly composed in terms of both visual content and rhythm. They contain strongly performative moments in which film technology is subordinate to the intensity of the acting. But the framework is always defined by a strict visual concept whose key unit is the symmetrical, contemplative shot, with barely any movement or merely a monotonous one.

Still from Paradies: Hoffnung, 2012 (courtesy: Ulrich Seidl Film Produktion GmbH)

In light of this method, it seems logical that Seidl should accompany the cinema release of the first two parts of Paradise with an exhibition of photographs (at C/O Berlin until 17 March). Cameraman Wolfgang Thaler should be mentioned here as a shaping influence on the development of Seidl’s aesthetic over many years (Ed Lachmann also recently joined the team). Sixty stills from the three Paradise films reveal a principle of staging which is oriented, not so much towards the moving image specific to cinema, but rather towards the halted time of photography. They convey an identifiable religious motif of renouncing the world, which also acts as a confirmation of immanence. The visible is the transcendental. ‘The Earth is beautiful’ in Seidl’s work, that much is certain. The only question is how people relate to this beauty, not just as individuals, but as a species. Seidl transposes the notion of analogia entis (analogy of being), a central tenet of Catholic theology, into a post-religious age. Analogia entis implies that the great blueprint on which Creation is based can be seen in earthly reality, if one knows how to look. In his cosmos, Seidl takes the place of this Creator, often quite literally when the characters address the camera directly, as lead actress Maria Hofstädter often does in Paradise: Faith.

There is a cinematic gaze in Seidl’s works where things and people become ordered, take on structure and reveal a pattern that runs through the coincidences of everyday life. This gaze is punctuated by long, sometimes seemingly improvised scenes, filmed with a hand camera, which show the unruliness of the body, of emotions and urges, asserting themselves. By mapping this moment back onto the structure of the mythology of paradise, Seidl might be said to film the fallen world, the world after the ‘knowledge of good and evil’, where nakedness is not natural but shameful. But he films this fall in such a way that some part of the original plan of perfection can still be recognized. This plan reveals itself in the framing of the scenes: in their composedness, they come to a standstill and seem to offer themselves up for contemplation. Aesthetics takes the place of religion. In its ‘painterly’ quality, the image becomes the site of an ontol­ogy of inner turmoil. The stricken characters in the Paradise trilogy – three women suffering because of their need for love – are at odds with the cinematic world where they are held captive. It is no coincidence that the second film, which focuses directly on religion, is the part in which Seidl’s aesthetic regime is mostly strongly formulated, while the other two parts give more space to the contingent experience of the protagonists.

Still from Paradies: Hoffnung, 2012 (courtesy: Ulrich Seidl Film Produktion GmbH)

In Paradise: Faith, which can be seen as a fictionalized remake of Seidl’s own documentary film Jesus, du weißt (Jesus, you know, 2003), religion itself becomes the scene of an aesthetic statement by the director concerning the transcendental potential of cinema. This becomes clear when composition reaches its limits, when the missionary Anna Maria meets people who defend their small, untidy, deficient world, even to their own detriment. Almost imperceptibly, the film turns away here from the principle of analogia entis. The Earth is beautiful, precisely because it is not based on a plan. That leaves one radical possibility for the characters: not to seek paradise, but to leave it. To step out of the picture, thus pointing Seidl’s ambivalent aesthetic towards its original motif: allegory and the analogy of death.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Bert Rebhandl is a journalist, writer and translator who lives in Berlin. He co-founded and co-edits Cargo magazine.