For its first half, Ulrich Seidl's documentary In the Basement is a brisk, bracing, and often very funny film about the seeds of fascism in contemporary Austrian society. The people Seidl observes in his short, sketchlike sequences are generally obsessed with order and domination, yet he renders their obsession nonthreatening, if not comically pathetic, by presenting them like characters in a comic strip, centering each of them in symmetrical or near-symmetrical compositions with lots of negative space at the top. They look small in relation to their environments, which is one reason they come across like children. Another is that Seidl presents their narrow-mindedness as childish and naive, not actively malicious. These are simple people with simple outlooks; the cramped, meticulously arranged suburban basements where most of the film takes place seem like their natural habitats.
Such people are capable of electing an Adolf Hitler, as Seidl reminds us through his portrait of Josef Ochs. A mild-mannered man in his 60s with a shockingly large collection of Nazi paraphernalia, Ochs makes the strongest impression of all the subjects in the documentary's first half, and his segments are among the funniest. Showing off his collection, he conveys the enthusiasm of a teenybopper admiring photographs of her favorite pop stars; practicing his euphonium and beaming at the end of a piece, he suggests an overgrown high-schooler (like many of them, he belongs to a marching band). Ochs drinks heavily, he admits at one point, and Seidl hints that his Nazi paraphernalia offers him the same thing as alcohol: the chance to lose himself.
One can imagine Ochs, in an earlier era, expressing nationalist fervor with the same abandon, yet that era has passed—now he just seems like a kook. The Holocaust is never mentioned (nor are Wolfgang Priklopil or Josef Fritzl, Austrians who, not long before Seidl began shooting the film, were revealed to have enslaved young women in their basements). Because of this, Nazism here seems like mere kitsch, much as it does in the films of Mel Brooks. Ochs seems as harmless as an exercise nut or a collector of model trains (to seal the comparison, Seidl shows us some of those too). As the film goes on, he seems ever more lonely and foolish.
In addition to Ochs, Seidl profiles three other people in the movie's first half, all around the same age: the proprietor of an underground shooting range, a wild game hunter, and a woman who dotes on baby dolls as if they were real children. The shooting-range proprietor, who shares his name with the great director Fritz Lang, takes up most of this section, his scenes imbued with the same gallows humor as the Ochs sequences. Seidl introduces him singing opera in the empty, cavernous range; soft-spoken, sunken-featured, and nebbishy, he's the kind of small, weak-willed person who's influenced by more dominant personalities. In one early scene Lang banters about Muslims with a couple of xenophobes at his range; he doesn't believe that all Muslims want to stir up violence, but the other men easily turn him around. Like Ochs he's obsessed with protocol and tidiness (Seidl often shows him gathering empty shells); he seems like another "good Austrian" born in the wrong era.
The woman with the dolls seems at first like an outlier in the film, her mania unrelated to fascism. Yet her scenes, which can be embarrassing to watch, color the rest of the movie with their naked expressions of loneliness. She wants intimacy with another person, yet her means of satisfying this desire are pathetic. Watching her, you wonder if Seidl's other subjects aren't similarly motivated and whether they would be so obsessed if they felt loved. In any case his long takes of the woman mothering her dolls in cramped-looking storage rooms are increasingly hypnotic.
The S-M enthusiasts introduced in the second half of the film show a similar need for connection. They're more self-aware than Ochs and Lang, articulating their desires to inflict or receive pain, yet their loneliness is hard to overlook. One woman, a professional submissive, says she used to work in sales but prefers her new line of work because it doesn't make her feel like a machine. Another submissive—a male "love slave" who performs chores for his mistress while wearing weights attached to his scrotum—is introduced working his sad day job as a security guard at an opera house. Seidl hints that the banality of his job informs his S-M routines, that it's only an exaggerated version of what he endures at work.
The film concludes with a short profile of another submissive, a middle-aged woman who likes to be bound and whipped. She speaks with remarkable candor about her history of abusive relationships; one senses that S-M provides a healthy outlet for her need to be dominated. She's a productive member of society who works at a Catholic charity for abused women, and though what she does in her basement sex dungeon might seem at odds with this, she comes across as a relatively normal, well-adjusted person. Thank God for basements, which can harbor all sorts of perverse secrets—they provide not only an outlet for antisocial behavior but a place where it can be safely contained. v