Dog Days (2001): Seidl’s Astonishing Feature Debut

Dog Days, Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s astonishing feature directorial debut, is a dark, probing, truly disturbing exploration of angst, anomie, and alienation, as they manifest themselves in Vienna’s upscale suburbs.

Easily the most provocative movie in this year’s Venice Film Fest, deservedly winning a Special Jury Award, Dog Days announces the arrival of a visionary, uncompromising director, whose film blends successfully methods from his well-received documentaries with the requirement of feature moviemaking. With strong, supportive reviews, an entrepreneurial American distributor should be able to position this insightful but tough material as a must-see film for educated viewers interested in non-mainstream fare that showcases an innovative cinematic imagination.

The title, which refers to the hottest season of the summer (July 24-August 23), derives from Canicula/Orion’s Dog, the constellation in the sky at that time. Like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which is also set during the hottest day of the year and deals with all kinds of tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood, Dog Days presents a social portrait of a whole community on the verge of bursting into intense violence, both emotional than physical, partly as a result of the stifling temperature that brings to the surface latent, mostly negative instincts.

The film begins with a series of brief snapshots of men and women in underwear, bikini bathing suits, or even naked, trying to cop with the unbearable heat over one long weekend. Dog Days could as well have been titled Weekend, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 masterpiece, for like the Gallic movie, a poetic satire of the bourgeoisie, it’s a fully-realized exploration of the effects of materialism, boredom, and complacency. In Seidl’s film, the residents live in what looks like symmetrical buildings in suburbs that are located between the autobahn and exit roads, hypermarkets and meticulously clean and sterile houses. Gradually, Seidl and co-scripter Veronika Franz introduce six interwoven stories that reveal an utterly depressing existence, defined by disillusionment, loneliness, and alienation.

The six characters, each in search of a more meaningful, not to speak of happier, existence, begin alone, though later Seidl intermingles and groups them in some interesting, unexpected ways. Mr. Hruby (Mrva) is an alarm systems salesman, who drives around, going from door to door informing people about the increasing risk of burglaries. His routine is thrown out of balance, when he’s put in charge of catching a vandal who’s been destroying cars.

We first meet Klaudia (Weib), a young, fragile former beauty queen in her car, making love with her hunky boyfriend, Mario (Wanko), an angry man who adores women as much as he does fast sports car. Their outing to a disco one evening, which begins with loving tenderness, escalates into insane jealousy that leads to both physical and mental abuse.

The Greek and his wife are divorced, but they still live in the same house, each anxiously waiting for the other to move out. Living separate lives, side by side, without ever exchanging a word, she (Martini) entertains her new masseur-lover (Bakonyi) at home, while he (Rathbone) is playing ball by himself in the yard. Clearly, it’s only a matter of time before an inevitable confrontation will erupt, one in which the former husband forces the lover to have drinks with him at a gun point.

Not neglecting the elderly, the story includes Mr. Walter (Finsches), a widower who insist on being in complete control of every aspect of his life. After shopping in the supermarket, he weighs the groceries at home, furiously complaining to the manager if he feels cheated. About to celebrate his fiftieth anniversary with his (dead) wife, Mr. Walter exhibits the same freakish control at home over his neighbors, whom he detests, and his housekeeper (Lehner), whom he now fancies. In one climactic episode, Mr. Walter forces his housekeeper to wear his wife’s favorite dress. At first resistant, she later complies and, in turn, shocks him when she unexpectedly bursts into a striptease.

Most violent and disturbing segments involve a triangle, centering on a lonely, middle-aged teacher (Jirku), who anxiously pretties herself up (shaving her pubic hair, posing in front of the mirror with sexy lingerie) for her much younger lover, Wickeri (Hennemann), who brings along a friend (Friedrich). What begins as a fun evening, with card-playing, singing, and drinking, soon escalates into rough sex, excessive behavior, and emotional humiliation. The next day, the young friend returns to seek vengeance for the brutally disgraced teacher.

The character that provides the link–and continuity–among the various persona is Anna (Hofstatter), a hitchhiker who spends her time in the parking lots of supermarkets, and on the road, where she approaches strangers. Once in their cars, Anna forces her drivers to listen to her favorite song and monologues, which are basically Top Ten Lists of everything, from the most common ailments to the most popular stores. Seidl leaves it up the viewers to decide whether Anna, who holds nothing back, is truly crazy or mentally disturbed.

Seidl fulfills the promise he has shown in his award-winning documentaries, such as Models and Animal Love, after which filmmaker Werner Herzog is supposed to have said: “I have never looked so directly into hell in the cinema.” He succeeds in variegating his black serio comedy, alternating scenes of staggering and tormenting intensity with lighter ones that allow the viewers to breath, if only for a few moments. For long stretches of time, Dog Fight is silent, relying on sharp but minimalist imagery to convey the characters’ innermost feelings and thoughts. The final scene, in which the divorced couple swing in a seesaw during a rain storm, brings the cold, detached, utterly coherent tale to an arbitrary if also satisfying halt.

Very much an auteurist movie, in which Seidl shows complete control over every aspect of the production, Dog Days mixes effectively amateur and professional actors in creating an authentic portrait of a specific social milieu, Vienna’s suburbs, that are meant to embody for any upscale, impersonal, and alienating environment.

Cast: Maria Hoftstater, Alfred Mrva, Erich Finsches, Gerti Lehner, Franziska Weib, Rene Wanko, Claudia Martini, Victor Rathbone, Christian Bakonyi, Christine Jirku, Victor Hennemann, Georg Friedrich.