Paradise: Hope

The last movie in Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, Paradise: Hope, has, at its centre, the relationship of a teenage girl with a doctor. She is about 17, he must be at the far end of forty. The girl is Melanie, and she is the daughter of Teresa from the first movie. Melanie is curious about her effect on boys; her bunkmate’s tales about blowjobs and shaved vaginas not only educate her, but seem to make her eager to go out and explore on her own.

Melanie is pretty. She is also overweight. The movie takes place at a camp for overweight teenagers. One of the saddest scenes I’ve seen lately is the one where the teenagers stand in line in the courtyard and have to sing: “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your fat.”

Melanie is aware of the camp’s doctor. He is a bit of a joker, not bad-looking, but far too chummy with Melanie. She fakes mysterious stomach aches in order to see him. There might also be moments where he engineers their encounters in the camp’s changing rooms. That guy is trouble of the creepy kind.

The camp is full of teenagers trapped in a loveless environment, dumped there by their parents. They sneak food, fags and booze into the camp. They get caught, and Melanie is mortified because the doctor tells her off like an unruly child.

There is an away day at a lakeshore. Melanie wanders off into the nearby woods, maybe hoping for the doctor to follow her. He does so. It’s a very uncomfortable scene, because Melanie is looking after company, a kind word, a connection, some appreciation. The doctor might hope for more. He follows her to a clearing, and she approaches him. Then she hugs him, which seems to come as a surprise to him. After some hesitation, he hugs her back. That must be enough. This time.

Later, he sneaks into her room and goes through her things. He lies in her bed, then leaves before she comes back. The same evening, she waits by his car until he appears. He tells her off – not because they are off limits to each other, but because he could be seen talking to her.

Melanie and her bunkmate escape to a local bar where they get picked up by two horny teenage boys. They slip something in her drink, and her friend takes off because Melanie gets all the attention. They feel her up while she tries to dance under the effect of the drug. Then she collapses and is saved by the barkeeper. This time.

The barkeeper calls the doctor to pick up the unconscious girl; he must have seen this kind of thing before. The doctor appears, and one danger of abuse is replaced by another. He drives into the woods and stays there with an unconscious Melanie until morning. He lays her down gently in a mossy clearing, lies down beside her and starts sniffing her. This time.

He brings her back to the camp and tells her that they cannot have any more contact. High time for that, but get this: He severs ties not because she is infatuated with him, but because he is afraid that he cannot handle her infatuation much longer.

I struggled a bit with the movie, because there seemed to be little hope: Does Melanie really still hope for good friends and acceptable partners? Maybe, but that would be against the odds. On the other hand, it must be an excellent kind of hope, with such a long shot.

One thing that still bugs me: In all three films, the women are somehow exploited by men, and they barely recover. Maybe it’s one of the formal points Seidl makes; maybe it’s also his way of finding out how his characters fare under pressure. But the coincidence haunts me, and it is only partly solved by the fact that he made all three protagonists women. There seemed to be so little joy in any of their lives. Teresa is still in Kenia at the end of the movie. Anna is whipping her savior, and Melanie is still at fat camp, having no clue how close she was to being raped. Neither of the three women has escaped their trap, but did anyone really think they would?

Or maybe Melanie is hard-wired like her mother and her aunt. They do what they must, and joy or relief doesn’t really have anything to do with it. Like Teresa, who will go on looking for love in dubious places. Maybe the paradise of the title is the one time where you really find what you are looking for. Like Anna, who might come to some kind of truce with her religion, which demands everything of her, whether she gives gladly or no. For Melanie, hope is the one red line going through her life. At least that. Living without it must be hell. There is no sure way to reach paradise, and most of us won’t reach it, but the movies seem to suggest that we must at least try, or we will fail miserably. It could be possible that some kind of truce is the best we get. Maybe hell isn’t other people; maybe hell is you, but it’s not your fault. It’s just the way you are.

Paradise: Faith

I’ve been in love a few times, and I imagine I’ve been loved a few times as well. Sometimes the feeling wasn’t mutual. That’s the way it is sometimes. With belief, it’s a different story: I am not really a religious person. The things I believe don’t believe back in me. This is a suspicion, not a complaint: Belief seems to be such a one-sided affair.

This explains already why I had more difficulty in understanding Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith, the middle film of his Paradise trilogy. There are other problems with this installment, but we’ll come to that eventually.


This film’s protagonist is Anna, Teresa’s sister. She is devoutly Catholic, and it is her and her bible group’s sworn objective to make Austria wholly Catholic again. Anna herself is convinced that the world is full of sex-obsessed people, and she asks that they be forgiven by whipping her own naked upper body with a whip while kneeling in front of her crucifix in a cheerless room in her house. Then she thanks her savior for the chastisement. Sometimes she goes as far as to tie a belt with iron thorns around her waist and make rounds through her flat on her knees while praying, and the kitchen timer telling her when to stop. She works as a radiologist’s assistant, but during her holiday, she goes from door to door in run-down apartment complexes and tries to convert people. She doesn’t stop at anything – there is a family of foreigners, non-Christians, of which only the eldest daughter speaks German. The whole family kneels in front of the Mother Mary statue. Anna can be very convincing.

One evening she comes home, and a Muslim is sitting on her living-room sofa. This is Nabil. They seem to know each other. It will later transpire that this is Anna’s husband. To Anna’s mind, this not at all a contradiction to her Catholic zeal – it is simply a test of her faith. She is happy to be married to her pet project, and she thinks it’s an excellent thing that two years ago, her husband had an accident and is now in a wheelchair – if only Nabil could see that true faith has entered her life that way.

Nabil, of course, is less delighted about his situation. He can no longer have sex with her, which is what Anna considers the right path: no sex, but a test of faith instead. Nabil thinks that a wife must serve her husband in all walks of life, and Anna agrees – except that Nabil asks for intimacy and a little more of her time. He is her project and is not supposed to develop human needs, and particularly not such disgusting ones like sex. Nabil’s every attempt is thwarted by Anna; although she can brush him off easily, she must bear his presence because her faith tells her to. Turn the other cheek. She politely refuses him at first, but when he insists, they trade blows. He wants sex he probably cannot have, she has a country to convert. This relationship will end badly.


One night, again on her way home from trying to convert people, Anna’s greatest conviction seems to become real in her own neighbourhood. She walks past a public park and sees a dozen people involved in a gangbang. She knows she must interfere, but she cannot, and while not really consciously aroused, she must become aware of her own suppressed sexuality. Nabil asking her to sleep in the same bed and those gangbangers entail the same horror to Anna: the world is really only after one thing. It is here that Seidl’s strictly geometrical, static camera lets go and adopts Anna’s point of view. There is a possibility that Anna might only imagine the orgy. There is very subtle irony here: Anna is the one person who cannot tell whether she imagines the whole thing or not because for her, this was bound to happen. She staggers back home, utterly shocked, but proven right.

Anna’s zeal remained impenetrable to me. This movie must play like a horror flick to some Catholic audiences. To me, a former Protestant, Anna is very far from my own walk of life. That’s not to say that I don’t know about being passionate about something, way more passionate than is good for me. I understand obsession. I utterly empathize with trying to fulfill that passion, but I also empathize with the despair of not getting any rest about being passionate all of the time. I seem to be able to stop before I damage myself or others; for Anna, it’s all or nothing. She has subscribed to her faith, and if that involves more than she can take, so be it. It’s God’s will. She is so far out there that I can hardly see her. The actress playing her, Maria Hofstätter, disappears completely in her role. She is Austrian, friendly, with a quick smile. There is nothing in Anna of her.

Back at home, there is undeclared war. Nabil takes down her crucifixes, asks to watch TV, listens to Islamic prayer tapes and even puts a framed photograph of their wedding on her nightstand. He insults her faith and asks her, not to convert to Islam, but simply to find a better religion. He has a point, of course, although if you look past the object of her obsession, religion is not Anna’s problem. She enters a similar situation as her sister Teresa: She might still love Jesus, but there are moments when she despises her faith, but she cannot not believe. She is hard-wired that way, and there is no escape. The movie ends with Anna not whipping herself for a change, but whipping the crucifix on the wall.