Fremdschämen is the guiding star of Ulrich Seidl’s paradisiac trilogy and the source of its liberating force from social convention. Each of the three films aims for the jugular, and latching on to its target – Love, Faith, Hope – with a bulldog’s tenacity, rains shame after shame down upon its protagonists until the provocation of hilarity. Through this emancipating laughter, his films displace us from our natural role as passive moral judge, inciting us into a critical position of amorality.
In this third and final episode, the young, pretty, but obese Melanie is sent to a diet camp for the summer holidays. As she and her overweight comrades yield to one embarrassment after another (being weighed and measured, obliged to wear spandex, deprived of candy), our sympathy for them grows with each injustice suffered. Yet Paradise: Hope never confuses this sympathy with mercy. The staccato of painfully ironic face-wincing sequence shots brings us to mock the marginalized as we witness them yearn for love, friendship, or a self-image of beauty. This episode (like the other two) can be crude, painful, even cruel towards its characters, presenting their undisguised stupidities, prejudices, and hypocrisies.
This healthy vulgarity is the guarantee of the Paradise: Hope’s integrity and of its potential to provoke. By measuring out small doses of kindness with heaps of humiliation, by activating both our mockery and sympathy through the complex operation of Fremdschämen, we are squarely placed on both sides of the equation as both spectator and spectated. Seidl’s films challenge, by liberating a socially unacceptable laughter at the marginal (the retarded, the fat, the old, the lonely), laughter which requires cruelty in order to empower (for how can they be equal if they are too delicate to be laughed at?). The Fremd (the stranger or other) in whose shame we take pleasure becomes the proxy figure which strips away our own fraudulent veneer, and allows us to see ourselves bare.
Our simultaneous duality as both mocker and mocked dismantles the idealized social and physical being – although the ‘healthy norm’ is only a hypothetical construct which none can attain, our position as outsiders does not exclude us from sanctimoniously upholding the middle-class morality which sustains this ideal.
Through mastery of the deadpan frontal shot (a row of fat children hanging for their dear lives on pull-up bars) and an sardonic application of color (the relinking of bright girly pink to its vaginal origins), Seidl’s film disassembles conventional social mores, discreetly reconstructing an amoral perspective. Only once we have assimilated (often unwittingly) this amoral outlook, can we cheer on the budding love between the 13-year-old Melanie and the fifty-plus doctor as we accept Melanie’s blossoming sexuality just like that of any other adolescent, fat or not.
Seidl’s provocations are always more than knee-jerk displays of ‘what must not be shown,’ but rather coercions to prefer the socially unacceptable truth of Melanie’s love to the moral judgment of such a relationship as pedophilic. This extraordinarily audacious revolution of norms in Paradise: Hope operates somewhat like the ballads of a court jester, who is permitted to unveil society’s failings only because the criticism is cloaked under the garb of laughter. Watching Paradise: Hope is like being shamefully humiliated in a state of nudity in a dream, except that here, we are reminded that no matter how innocent we would like to believe ourselves, we are not only the unclothed, shamed victim but also the cruel, mocking perpetrator.
Paradeis: Hoffnung (Paradise: Hope)
Austria / France / Germany 2013, 91 min
Director: Ulrich Seidl
Cast: Melanie Lenz, Vivian Bartsch, Joseph Lorenz, Michael Thomas