Dog Days

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Apr 3 08:25:12 MST 2002

As I sat watching Ulrich Seidl's "Dog Days," I was reminded of the affluent
but unhappy northern Europe show in such films as "The New Country," whose
point of view is that of the newly arrived and desperate third world
immigrant. Unlike "The New Country," also shown at this year's New
Directors/New Film Festival, there are no immigrants in this film--just
tortured locals whose material possessions cannot satisfy a hunger of the
heart. At the conclusion of this review, I will reveal why my impressions
were not accidental.

Set in the suburbs of Vienna, the camera reveals a middle-class capitalist
utopia. As late-model cars drive back and forth, we see an endless
procession of shopping malls with well-stocked chain stores. Serving as a
kind of Greek chorus, a mentally unbalanced hitchhiker pesters each driver
with a series of quizzes about this brave new world. What are the ten most
admired department stores? Before they can answer, she rattles them off.
Who are the ten sexiest on-air television hostesses? Again, she has the
answer. She teaches one driver the words to an advertising jingle for soap.
Before long, the driver and the audience realize that she is not only a
victim of obsessional thinking, but of the late capitalist variety.

"Dog Days" takes place during a heat wave. The characters, living in
immaculate, well-furnished townhouses where nothing is out of place, try to
cope with the heat as best as they can, but clearly they are at the end of
their tether. Sex--but of a particularly unsatisfying type--appears to be
their only release.

One character is an elderly widower whose only passion seems to be for
returning packages to grocery chains that are short of the weight indicated
on the label, even if it is just a gram. He goes through a ritual each time
he returns from shopping, putting each item on an electronic scale. He has
the same kind of shopkeeper mentality when it comes to the opposite sex. He
plans to buy an evening of sex with his housekeeper, also elderly, by
showering her with mostly negligible gifts, including dresses from his dead
wife's closet.

Nearby, a fortyish ex-husband and wife continue to occupy the same spacious
home, despite being separated. So deep is their alienation that they refuse
to put flowers at the same time by the roadside memorial to their daughter,
who died in a crash. He waits in his late-model car until she departs, also
in a late-model car. Whether to get back at him, or to find momentary
relief from the dog days, she brings home a young masseur. The two pretend
that the husband does not exist, walking around naked. As the two make
highly vocal love in her bedroom, her husband paces up and down the hallway
bouncing a tennis ball up and down.

Another group of characters also seek empty solace in sex. A middle-aged
schoolteacher is visited by her loutish younger boyfriend and his
psychopathic pal. Expecting an evening of hot sex (she shaves her pubic
hair in anticipation), she gets nothing but abuse from the two men who have
drunk themselves into a violent, misogynist state.

Despite the ugliness of the human relationships, the film has an awesome
formal beauty reminiscent of the sort of urban landscapes of Antonioni's
films, with townhouses, swimming pools and lawns serving as a kind of
neo-expressionist sculpture.

Despite the fact that Seidl has never made anything but documentaries
before this film, he has an exceptional talent for directing a largely
non-professional cast. Victor Hennemann--in real life a Viennese porn
magnate and the owner of a club for swingers--plays the lout who humiliates
his teacher girlfriend. Erich Finsches, a 75-year-old Austrian tenement
landlord, plays the widower.

A kind of deliverance takes place in the conclusion of the film during a
rainstorm that breaks the heat. After all the emotional carnage that we
have seen, it is doubtful that it will be long lasting.

One suspects that Seidl sees his characters as emblematic of a deep malaise
in Austrian society. His first film was "Good News," which explored the
position of lives of Asian street cleaners and newspaper sellers, who came
to Austria in search of a better life. Seidl described his goal as follows:
"For every image of a well-dressed Viennese lady walking through the
streets with her pampered dog, I present two of the underbelly of Viennese
guestworkers. To me that's a fundamental aspect of the real day-to-day

Louis Proyect
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