SPARTA - A statement by Ulrich Seidl

In its latest edition, the German newsweekly magazine DER SPIEGEL has made serious accusations against me, my method of working and my feature film SPARTA. In their text, which appeared on September 2, incorrect descriptions, rumors and events on the set of SPARTA taken out of context have been woven into a distorted picture that in no way corresponds to the facts. The journalists, without bothering to take into account the film itself, vilify my method of working and ascribe to me intentions that could not be further from the truth. I can not allow this to go unanswered.


Based on a true story, the film follows Ewald, who left Austria for Romania several years ago. Now in his 40s, he seeks a fresh start. He breaks up with his girlfriend and moves to a remote part of the country. There, with a group of young boys from the area, he transforms a dilapidated school into a fortress. The children enjoy a new, carefree existence centered around sports and play. But Ewald is forced to confront a truth he has long repressed, one that neither the boys nor the outside world suspect. On the inside he is secretly struggling against his pedophile urges.


In my work I have always sought to plumb the contradictions in our thoughts and actions that are the essence of being human. I am aware that my world view as an artist, and how I express the latter in my films, is in blatant contradiction with the contemporary zeitgeist that demands a simplified, context-free “either-or,” when a “both-as well as” far better expresses human experience. 


All my films, my entire artistic work is an appeal for empathy for the battered and fallen, the marginalized and ostracized: Rather than pillory them morally, I instead demand that they be viewed as complex and even contradictory human beings.


To recognize and describe the resulting ambivalence between benevolence and abuse, to look at rather than away from, and thus exclude – I see these as a crucial responsibility both for me as an artist and human being. Unlike what the SPIEGEL article suggests, my films are not the product of my manipulating my actors, misrepresenting the film to them, much less abusing them. On the contrary: Without the trust that we build over weeks and months together, the long shooting periods my films require would be impossible. I have the greatest respect for all my actors and would never take a decision that could in any way endanger their physical and psychological wellbeing. 


In the case of SPARTA the shoot extended over more than a year. If, as the SPIEGEL claims, the parents had had objections about the shoot or the way we treated their children, or if the children had stopped feeling comfortable with us, they would not have continued to collaborate over the long period spanning winter and summer shoots. Needless to say I never pushed the children (or any of the other actors for that matter) to do things on camera that they did not wish to do. 


The young actors were under constant supervision. Next to the set we furnished rooms where they could rest or play, just as we had done on other films of mine. When not on set they could spend time there, accompanied by trained educators.


Unlike what the SPIEGEL claims, I also explained all the essential elements of the film to the parents in numerous one-on-one conversations (with an interpreter) prior to shooting. Including the ambivalence of the character of Ewald, the Austrian protagonist, and his relationship to children. 


I also wonder what the SPIEGEL reporters claim to know about SPARTA and told the parents. They didn’t ask us for a copy of the script that Veronika Franz and I wrote – and which in any event constantly evolved during the shoot over the course of my collaboration with the actors, and was only intended as a starting point for improvisation. Nor did the journalists request to see the film.


Therefore they can only have confronted the Romanian parents with incomplete information. Were the parents led to fear that the film might contain sex scenes involving pedophilia? It doesn’t. No child was ever filmed naked or in a sexual situation, pose or context. Such scenes were never my intention and none were ever filmed. During shooting we never crossed the line of ethical and moral boundaries. 


In the summer of 2019, a few days after we wrapped shooting, I visited all the children and their parents at home to thank them for their participation in the film. None of them voiced any complaint, discomfort or criticism. I hope that SPARTA, when the film has opened in theatres, will dispel the objections that have only been leveled by outsiders in this article. 


Ulrich Seidl