Ulrich Seidl’s film “Sparta” – The limits of a staging method

Ewald playfully commands a horde of boys dressed up as Roman soldiers – in armor, helmets and underpants. The scene comes from Ulrich Seidl’s new feature film “Sparta”. Georg Friedrich plays an Austrian who comes to Romania to set up a youth camp for children from difficult social backgrounds. In the process, he discovers his suppressed pedophilic tendencies. The director of the film, Ulrich Seidl, was informed at the beginning of September in the “Spiegel” accused of serious misconduct during the shoot. The news magazine writes:

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“According to research by SPIEGEL, Seidl is said to have deliberately left the underage amateur actors, who were between 9 and 16 years old at the time of shooting, and their parents in the dark about the fact that the film is also about pedophilia. Apparently, they were exposed to alcoholism, violence and nudity during filming without adequate preparation and care.”

Abysses only play out in the head

Because of these allegations, the Toronto Film Festival canceled the planned world premiere of “Sparta”, but San Sebastian showed the film, but Seidl stayed away from the premiere. The “Spiegel” spoke with the families of the underage amateur actors in Romania and former employees of Seidl. The head of the culture department in the Austrian news magazine “Profil”, Stefan Grissemann, has researched:

“As far as I know and as far as I’ve researched, he was pretty clear with all of the families, what’s going on in the movie, that it’s a movie about a middle-aged man who struggles with himself, who has a dark secret, who is attracted to children and want to spend time with. Of course he didn’t use the word pedophilia, he didn’t want to describe it as drastically and dramatically as I understand him, so as not to mislead people. Because when you see his film, it’s a film where the abysmal only happens in the actor’s head.”

Retraumatized children from difficult families?

There are no scenes of sexualised violence involving children in the film. But you still have to take the context into account, says child psychiatrist Michael Schulte-Markwort, who has advised film productions with child actors such as “System Crasher”:

“The decisive question is always, even if that was of no importance to the child in the specific situation, it is still an encroachment on his or her personal rights that it is recorded and shown in this context.”

Seidl tries to refute the allegations, traveled to Romania and showed the film to the families. The main allegation in the “Spiegel” article is directed against the way Seidl worked with the children. The Seidl production would have selected boys from difficult families and then deliberately re-traumatized them in game scenes dealing with violence and alcoholism. Incorporating the life experience of his amateur actors into their film roles has been Seidl’s working method for 40 years:

“There aren’t any real scripts that he has to pass on, and that’s also a point that many accuse him of: The fact that he doesn’t give anyone a script is also declared a secret. But de facto that is of course also part of his way of working, which is based on the fact that you first make the real decisions on site and on the scene and then whatever happens or whatever the characters are like and what ideas the improvisers have in the game that it can be installed. So that he still wants to take everything that reality offers him and what lay representations offer him.”

Seidl film gives cause for discussion

Seidl’s protagonists allow themselves to be exposed to their most intimate experiences. Do these methods, which Seidl and other directors have been using for a long time, reach their limits with child actors? Can children distinguish between reality and role?

“It’s not fundamentally problematic, it depends a lot on what kind of child it is. There are very resilient children for whom, so to speak, encountering personal issues or personal scenes from their family life doesn’t have to be retraumatizing. You have to be a bit be careful, not every encounter with something that has burdened you in life is automatically retraumatizing. But you always have to check that in individual cases.”

Ethics boards for the productions

Schulte-Markwort misses a general discussion on the subject. If you take the well-being of children seriously, you really have to clarify in the form of ethics boards for productions what is ethically justifiable when shooting with children. Many film productions underestimate this task:

“If they then decide: Public interest in this topic is so important and we can do so much good, help so much with it or enlighten, we are willing to accept the burden of a child, then it may be that I carry that too.”

In such cases, however, psychological care and education of the children is essential. According to Schulte-Markwort, the allegations in the Seidl case offer the ideal opportunity to initiate a discussion on this topic.

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