San Sebastian 2022 review: Sparta (Ulrich Seidl)

“The title serves as a beautiful microcosm of both Seidl’s ethos as well as the force and flaws of his directorial instincts — civilisation and its discontents are not just predisposed to evil, but do it merrily and banally.”

Böse Spiele, or Wicked Games, was the original title for what would later span two separate but similar feature films. Rimini and Sparta, both directed by the Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl, were shot around the same time back in 2017 and culled from the same seven hundred plus hours of footage, jointly comprising a diptych of familiar but no less distressing reflections on human interiority pitted against the world. This title serves as a beautiful microcosm of both Seidl’s ethos as well as the force and flaws of his directorial instincts — civilisation and its discontents are not just predisposed to evil, but do it merrily and banally.

Those familiar with Seidl’s work, however, will hardly recoil from his latest. As it stands, both Rimini and Sparta tread on frigid but familiar ground, content with their voyeuristic, unforgiving, but simultaneously humanising portraitures of civilisation within its basements. “Two men, two brothers, their childhood home in Lower Austria,” the working synopsis reads. “They drink to their late mother, they bury her. Then they drive back to their real lives. But sooner or later both their pasts will catch up with them.” One of them is Richie Bravo (Michael Thomas), Rimini’s has-been pop singer who haunts the eponymous winter town, accompanied by sadness, sleet, and song-echo. His long-lost daughter, if ever he had one, has come looking for him, requesting financial compensation — for his abandonment of her — and a place to stay. The other is Ewald (Georg Friedrich), a power station engineer and expatriate living in Romania. His reign, as Seidl paints it in Sparta, stretches across winter and into the summer; in a sparse Transylvanian village he now calls home, Ewald settles down, blends in, and pursues a freedom forever dressed in chains.

That freedom, of course, is paedophilia: Ewald’s fascination for prepubescent boys has, as far as Sparta is concerned, been a lifelong one. Having left his girlfriend (and ostensibly his job at the power plant), he emigrates south of an already derelict nexus of Soviet-era nostalgia and stalled consumerism. Checking into a grand but otherwise desolate hotel, drawn up and decorated with concrete brutalism and marble idealism, Ewald soon furnishes a mirror-double of his brother; where the latter, in all his maudlin visions of glamour and lost youth, tries to stave off loneliness by seeking refuge in the past, the former’s loneliness is far more muted. The solace to be found lies in the future, if it is ever found, and the youth in question isn’t quite a possession to have, but instead a desire to be consummated.

As Sparta follows its unhappy protagonist deeper into the recesses of his misery, something striking occurs. Nothing we see on-screen particularly jumps out as fabulistic; nothing steps into frame as contrapuntal to its happy indifference. Rather, the approach Seidl adopts is one of direct, unabashed realism — a realism that, in its sometimes excessive disclosure of naked truth, confronts the viewer through the hitherto impenetrable walls of fiction. It is not that Sparta, or Seidl’s filmography in general, exploits banality to showcase evil; the darker reality is really the converse, with the explicitly exploitative, explicitly documentarian unveiling of moral turpitude acting as herald for the realisation that such turpitude is intrinsically and uniquely human. The camera does not linger on the boys or on our perceived imagination of Ewald’s lust and guilt. It does something far less welcoming: namely, forcing complicity through our gaze as we imagine Ewald’s imaginings, feel his feelings, think his thoughts, all without us or him actually enacting anything. To depict an instance of criminal activity on-screen would arguably have been more cathartic.

Seidl’s fascination with Ewald’s character has its roots in his earlier works, which examine not just the idea of marginalised persons or communities with blanket judgement or sympathy, but — crucially — the ethics and politics of their maligning as well. From his 2012-13 Paradise triptych, eyes trained on three women from the same family, to 2016’s Safari, about hunter tourism in Africa, the filmmaker’s thematic concerns have traditionally converged on themes of sociological agency and religion amidst secularism. As Austrians — typically middle-aged and middle-class in his films — who bear in their name both national and global identities as affluent, educated, and indomitable cosmopolitans by virtue of historical precedent, how do they, ordinary inhabitants of this cosmopolitan identity, live their lives, fashion their prayers, and absolve their sins? Whence do they seek carnality and religiosity? To whom do they turn for either intimacy or commiseration?

In Sparta, Ewald befriends a group of ragtag boys, many under ten. They while away time in the snow and in the sun, aimlessly tending to their immediate chores and games as the village school — long abandoned — sits in further disarray. He befriends some of their parents too and, on the pretext of offering free judo lessons, recruits the children into his personal academy, launched on the grounds of the school he soon refurbishes into a gated fortress. This fortress, also entitled “Sparta,” mimics an idyll for Ewald’s secret love and forestalls his inevitable reckoning with repression. “Molon labe [‘come and take’],” he instructs his pupils to chant — in defiance of the incognisant, unkind, intolerant world outside, but also in defiance of love’s greatest enemy, the future.

This future never quite comes. As the credits roll, we are privy only to the suggestion, not confirmation, of Ewald’s fate. He skips town, “Sparta” in shambles, the children unsoiled. All that is taboo is in the mind — and not once, in fact, does anyone in Sparta reference the taboo of young, boyish love. It’s this overwhelming deferral, this stubbornness towards moral certainty and condemnation from those other than Ewald, that engenders such resistance towards the film’s perceived ethical deficiencies. Coupled with allegations of child abuse on-set, Sparta has thus far been embroiled in a controversy far too suggestive of its hidden potency to challenge and disquiet. As Seidl’s oeuvre goes, the film is comparatively mild in innuendo and gratuitousness, with its explicit sequences occasional and beyond its central moral purview. What remains genuinely tragic and affecting is the solitude of Seidl’s Austria, a land of sexual loners, deviants, and solipsists. Just as Ewald flees his brief heaven and hell, his ageing father (the late Hans-Michael Rehberg) rots in a care home, crooning Nazi anthems and crying for his own mother. The past does catch up, and when it does, it’s hard to let go.