Ulrich Seidl Talks Sparta Controversy While Presenting ‘Wicked Games’

Austrian director Ulrich Seidl has said it was always his intention to make “a single, long film encompassing the entire story” of his two previous projects, “Rimini” and “Sparta.”

The resulting film, “Wicked Games Rimini Sparta,” had its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and is a combined version of his 2022 diptych “Rimini” and “Sparta,” which follows brothers Richie (Michael Thomas) and Ewald (Georg Friedrich), respectively.

Speaking to Variety, Seidl went on to explain how the original single project was split into two separate films: “During the extremely long process of editing, I wasn’t entirely satisfied and thought it’d be interesting to explore the idea of making two different films out of it, using the same material. So we attempted to do just that as I wasn’t convinced the extended version gave the best possible artistic results given the material. We made two films out of it but it was always my intention that we would also release the complete extended version.”

While “Rimini” has been greatly praised following its Berlinale premiere, its twin film has not benefited from the same acclaim, largely due to allegations of impropriety published by German news magazine Der Spiegel. The claims led to “Sparta” being pulled from last year’s Toronto Film Festival, with Seidl retreating from most of the film’s subsequent festival run.

“The accusations that were levelled at the film are something so extraneous. It was a conscious manipulation on the part of the media to create a story about pedophilia and children in Eastern Europe being abused,” said Seidl about De Spiegel’s allegations, which claimed the director failed to communicate the film’s theme of pedophilia to its child actors, all of whom had no prior professional experience. It has also been alleged that the production exposed the young cast to nudity, alcoholism and violence, all without adequate preparation and psychological support.

“I was portrayed as the white man who goes there to exploit these children. It has nothing to do with my work. These accusations, this ‘schema,’ has nothing to do with my work,” continued Seidl.

The director noted that “none of these things actually showed up in the research,” and that an official inquiry in Austria by the Austrian Film Institute did not prove any of the accusations levelled against him.

“You have to realize the shooting took place over a very long time. We shot from winter to the following summer, and if at any time any parents had been concerned or uneasy about what was going on on set, or how the children were being treated, they would have had the time to pull the kids away and say something. Nothing like that ever happened,” said Seidl. “And, in fact, subsequently, when I showed the finished film to the parents and the children, everyone gave their complete approval, both of the shooting process, and the final film.”

When asked if he believed “Wicked Games Rimini Sparta” provided the audience with a different experience of the character of Ewald, Seidl said: “I don’t think the response is different if you watch the separate films or the extended combined version. My experience having spoken with people who have seen the film is that they develop a great deal of empathy for the character of Ewald and they also sense that this is a man who’s a prisoner who is suffering and will never be able to leave. He will never be able to lead a normal life and, like all of us, he dreams of leading a happy, integrated life and he knows that it will never happen. He is suffering from something for which there is no treatment, something which can never be healed.

“I always told myself that I didn’t want to deal with child abuse,” affirmed Seidl when speaking about his decision to tackle the true story behind Ewald’s character. “It was something I wasn’t ready to touch upon and always set aside. Then I read about this true story that happened in Romania, and Romania is a country I know very well for having visited repeatedly over the decades. At that point, I knew I had to write the story.”

Now that “Wicked Games Rimini Sparta” is out in the world, Seidl has already started working on his next project, which will continue his longstanding tradition of probing harrowing themes. “I wrote a script two years ago during lockdown. I am not going to tell you exactly what the film is really about, but it deals with black tourism and the fear of contagion.”

When asked to elaborate on what he meant by black tourism, the director said: “It refers to people who go to places of horror, places of torture. Chernobyl has become a classic black tourism destination. There are people who go to get locked up in KGB prison cells or go to Cambodia and pay to visit the museum of torture.”

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