Illustration: Tim Möller-Kaya / DER SPIEGEL

"Just a Bit More" Accusations of Child Exploitation Haunt Austrian Filmmaker Ulrich Seidl

Ulrich Seidl is a star director in German-language cinema, and his latest film addresses pedophilia. Shortly before the film's premier, accusations have surfaced that children were exposed to violence and nudity on the set.

Marian Nicolau is sitting on a sofa squeezed between two grown men who he hardly knows. He is doing all he can to hold back his tears. A delicate, shy boy, Marian is 10 years old on this summer day in 2019. The room in the small Romanian village of Necopoi looks extremely run down.

One of the two men is drunk, burly and covered in tattoos, and he is yelling at Marian. He is weak, the man bellows, not like his older brother. He pulls the boy to him and pours water into a shot glass, telling Marian to drink the "schnaps." Marian refuses. He is ashamed. He doesn't want people to think that he drinks alcohol.

The other man is pushed up against him. He is also quite heavyset and has a shaved head. He is speaking German, a language Marian doesn't understand. The man touches Marian's back and caresses his lower arm. Marian tries to push away the men's hands. He wants to get out of the room. At some point, he starts crying.

DER SPIEGEL 36/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 36/2022 (September 3rd, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Marian and the two men are not alone in the room. They are joined by a cameraman and the Austrian film director Ulrich Seidl, who allows the scene to continue for around 10 minutes before finally putting a stop to it. That is how a number of people describe the scene that the director allegedly filmed in 2019 and which is part of the screenplay.

Seidl, 69, is one of the best-known German-language filmmakers working today, and his films, like "Dog Days" (2001), "Import Export" (2007), and "Paradise: Love" (2012), have debuted at some of the largest film festivals in Europe, such as those in Venice, Cannes and Berlin. He has won numerous prizes for his work and been celebrated by critics, not least for the fact that his films are so extraordinarily realistic and break taboos.

The shoot in Romania was part of his current project. The working title of the screenplay, of which DER SPIEGEL has obtained a copy, is "Böse Spiele," or "Wicked Games." The project is receiving support from the Austrian Film Institute, the Council of Europe's Eurimages fund, the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg and the German cultural funding organization Mitteldeutsche Medienförderung.

The film is about two brothers who meet at the Austrian home of their father, who suffers from dementia, and then return to their normal lives. For one of the brothers, Richie Bravo, a washed-up folk-pop singer, that means performing for seniors in Rimini. The other, named Ewald in the script, runs judo courses for children in Romania and discovers his pedophilic tendencies while doing so. Ewald is played by the Austrian actor Georg Friedrich.

Originally conceived as a single film, it was later split in two. The first part premiered at the last Berlinale under the title "Rimini," while the second part, which was filmed in Romania and is called "Sparta," is to be shown for the first time on Sept. 9 at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will then be part of the competition at the film festival in San Sebastián, Spain.

"Meticulously Monitored"

"Sparta" hasn't been screened yet. The program of the Toronto festival describes the film as the story of a "seemingly impotent" pedophile who teaches judo to "prepubescent boys" in abandoned school buildings. The program notes that the film uses "local non-actors" whose participation was consented to by their families and was "meticulously monitored."

Now, though, many of those who participated in the film are leveling serious accusations at the director. DER SPIEGEL reporting has found that Seidl is alleged to have intentionally left the underage amateur actors, who were between the ages of nine and 16 at the time of filming, in the dark about the fact that the film addresses pedophilia. During film shoots, they were allegedly confronted with alcoholism, violence and nudity without sufficient preparation and adequate support.

Journalists with DER SPIEGEL spent more than half a year looking into the accusations surrounding the production of "Sparta" in Germany, Austria and Romania, speaking with dozens of Seidl's film crew, including nine people who were present on location in Romania in the winter of 2018/2019 and in summer 2019. They include nine local non-actors, seven of them underage and two adults. DER SPIEGEL also interviewed the guardians of eight children involved in the movie. All names of the children and their guardians have been changed in this article. They, along with members of the film crew, are concerned about legal troubles with Seidl's production company.

DER SPIEGEL has contacted Ulrich Seidl Filmproduction GmbH and the director himself for their response to the accusations. Through his lawyer, Seidl claimed that the parents and the underage local amateurs were informed of the subject matter of the planned film. They were told, according to the statement from Seidl's lawyer, that the film was about an adult "who feels attracted to boys and takes on a kind of fatherly role." It remains unclear, though, how and when that information was communicated. "If the parents had had any concerns about the filming, or had the children … felt uncomfortable, they likely would not have, over such a long time period … remained involved," the statement says, referring to the extended filming period from winter 2018 to summer 2019. But the accusations that are the subject of DER SPIEGEL's report primarily concern the end of the shooting period – in summer 2019.

Real Emotions

Three years after that summer, Marian, now 13 years old, is sitting on the sofa in his mother's home and talking about the shoot with the two men. "It felt real," he says quietly, but firmly. What happened for Seidl in the script had happened to him in real life: The drunk man, who also was not a professional actor, reminded him of his father, says Marian – a violent alcoholic from whom his mother had escaped with him and his brother just a few months before shooting began.

Several people who worked on the set say they were aware that Marian had grown up with an violent, alcoholic father. One claims that he had been informed by colleagues that the boy was from a family like the one portrayed in the film. "And that Seidl knew precisely how to trigger Marian and to ensure a result that will somehow be emotional." Seidl, the man claims, had wanted to film real emotions, which is why Marian was chosen. Seidl and his staff did not comment on these allegations when contacted by DER SPIEGEL.

Deeply Unsettling

The set worker was not the only one who found that day of filming to be deeply unsettling. After the scene was stopped, recalls another person who was there, Marian left the house crying. A crew member remembers the boy saying that he didn't want to keep filming, but someone from Seidl's team, the crew member claims, pressured Marian. One of Seidl's assistants, the crew member claims, told Marian: "Just a bit more. Then you can go home." The assistant did not respond to a request for comment from DER SPIEGEL.

Seidl's lawyer writes that two people took care of the crying child, adding: "The child and his parents then decided to continue." Marian's mother, however, told DER SPIEGEL that she wasn't even there during the shoot that day.

The lawyer also writes: "We suspect that your source falsely informed you of the content of the scene and of the reason the child was crying." In fact, though, it was Marian Nicolau himself who described to DER SPIEGEL that he had felt uncomfortable and why that was the case.

Adriana Steiner – her name has also been changed for this story – was present on the day in question. She says the boy's reaction was definitely not acted. "He just started crying and wanted to get out." She says she saw him vomit several times that day and is convinced that it was a physical reaction to the shoot.

DER SPIEGEL is in possession of a screenshot from an internal WhatsApp group from the crew, showing that in the evening, somebody wrote – apparently as a joke – that "Marian's lunch is still in his nose. And in our car as well." One crew member says: "It was clear to me that it was a traumatic experience for this boy."

Seidl's films have always been the subject of controversy and debate. They frequently address issues that are seen as taboos: sexuality, bodies, desire, death. His style is reminiscent of documentary films and relies on non-actors essentially playing themselves. The result is a reputation for artistic genius, one who "illuminates the depths of humanity" (Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper) with an "unsparing" (Austrian broadcaster ORF) approach.

Staged Reality

His work frequently addresses power and sex. The films are often shot abroad, in places like Ukraine or Kenya. In "Import Export," for example, the story revolves around Eastern European sex workers and their Western European johns. In "Paradise: Love," he depicts young Kenyan men having sex with older women from Austria. His success is rooted in pushing the boundaries in this manner.

In an April 2021 interview with the influential German weekly paper Die Zeit, Seidl said: "I stage reality, and deliberately intervene. But there are limits, of course." But where are those limits? "You can't induce people to do or say something that they wouldn't otherwise do or say. And you can't conceal anything."

It would seem that Seidl did not adhere to these self-imposed limits during the filming of "Sparta." Rather, the information Seidl supplied to the non-actors involved appears to have been inadequate. The director also seems to have violated rules and guidelines that apply to working with children on film sets.

Seidl's primary film location for "Sparta" was Baba Novac, a small village located a few kilometers away from the city of Satu Mare in northern Romania. Only the main road through town is paved and the homes are small and shabby. Goats, pigs or chickens are kept in many of the front yards. The village has a city hall, a cultural center and a schoolhouse, which stands empty. Many of the scenes from "Sparta" were filmed in the school.

Almost all of Seidl's local non-actors were cast here in the area. One of them is the son of Sandu Popescu. The man first heard of the upcoming film shoot when his son told him about it. Members of the Austrian casting crew had distributed flyers and informational material in schools surrounding Satu Mare. DER SPIEGEL is in possession of copies of those materials.

Seidl was searching for "athletic boys between eight and 17 years of age" for his film. The informational material says: "Our goal is that of portraying Romania realistically and avoiding all prejudices or stereotypes." There isn't a word about pedophilia.

In response to a query from DER SPIEGEL, Seidl's head of production wrote that there are no scenes of active pedophilia in the film and that such desires primarily take place inside of the main character's mind – which is why this aspect of the film may not have been mentioned explicitly. "During filming, though, my understanding is that discussions did take place in which Ulrich Seidl explained this aspect of the film to the parents." Still, sufficient transparency doesn't seem to have been provided. Even the response from Seidl's lawyer, according to which the main character takes on a kind of "fatherly role" and feels "attracted to boys" leaves plenty of room for interpretation.

The parents of the underage local non-actors with whom DER SPIEGEL has spoken say that Seidl did visit them, but insist that the casting crew told them the film was about "football" or "Greek wrestling." Neither Seidl nor the casting crew, they say, mentioned pedophilia. Those claims are confirmed by people who were part of the casting effort. When Popescu's son asked if he could participate in a film at the school, Popescu says he gave his permission. The casters, he says, told him the film was about judo. What could go wrong, he thought, at the school in their own village?

The Popescu family, like many of the families, are quite poor. Popescu is a goatherd and spends most of the day with his animals. Some families of five have to share a single bedroom or live in homes without a toilet. The mother of one boy works as a caregiver in Austria, while Popescu once worked on a pig farm in Germany. In 2019, the minimum wage in Romania was around 400 euros per month. On a single day of filming, their children could earn between 50 and 60 euros.

When film shoots involve children in Germany, the child's parents, the youth welfare office, the child's school and a doctor must all sign off. Inga Brock, a media pedagogy professional, looks after children during the filming of scenes in Germany that involve sex and violence. "You have to request the script in question to understand how these scenes are going to be implemented. The parents also have to be aware of that. Their approval is paramount."

Turned Away from the Set

In Romania, parents must contact the child welfare office themselves when their children want to be in a film. As in Germany, they also need the approval of both a pediatrician and a psychologist in addition to a copy of the contract. The parents of the local non-actors in Romania weren't aware of that. And they apparently weren't told by Ulrich Seidl Filmproduction GmbH either. When contacted by DER SPIEGEL, Seidl's head of production says he also was unaware of the conditions. "During our wintertime filming, we had a local production service that informed us in writing about the conditions for working with minors. No mention was made of the conditions you have named."

But some parents did try to inform themselves. Several claim that they went to the set to watch the children. And they claim that they were turned away by the crew there. Seidl's lawyer justifies this by saying that the children were not to be distracted.

What Is Reality and What Is Fiction?

During the filming in the summer of 2019, two teachers were hired to provide support to the children, but according to DER SPIEGEL's reporting, they also knew nothing about the content of the film and were not allowed to enter the school where the filming was taking place. They also weren't present on every day that shooting took place. This applied especially when filming was done in Baba Novac or when shooting took place in the evening and at night. Addressing this, Seidl's lawyer wrote: "It is not true that the protagonists were not provided with support." But he did not specify who had taken responsibility for the children. The production manager wrote: "Without exception, the children were always provided support by a trusted person they knew. If, in exceptional cases, the care provider was also responsible for castings of the film, then it was not on the days they were supposed to provide support."

One of Seidl's workers contradicts this account and states that during the wintertime filming, one person was definitely responsible for casting and supervision at the same time. No psychologist was present on the set during the summer or the winter, nor, apparently, did anyone prepare the children for their roles. Several children claim that, at some point, they could no longer distinguish between fiction and reality. Often, the children didn't even know they were being filmed, reports one of Seidl's former crew members. "It just wasn't shot in a way where someone said: Ready, set, action. The children didn't even realize."

There are also allegations that physical assault occurred during the filming. Two set workers, for example, observed a scene in which a boy was to take off his tank top during a scene outside the school. But he didn't want to, they say, and resisted. Ultimately, according to their account, the assistant director tore the boy's shirt off. "She stripped him and he tried to fight back," they claim. "But she left with the tank top and then threw it somewhere in the corner." The boy then tried to get the tank top back, they say, adding that she grabbed him by the shoulders, shook him and told him he had to do it.

When contacted for comment, Seidl's assistant director wrote that the children had "playfully explored our limits" on several occasions. The assistant director claims she threw away the shirt in response to a childish provocation. "I realized myself during the filming of the next scene that it was a mistake, and I got the shirt after the scene was shot, gave it back and apologized," she claims. She denies grabbing or shaking the child.

When filming, you must stop immediately if you have the feeling that children are uncomfortable, says Tatjana Dernbecher, who works as a children's' coach in Germany. "Children always need to have a veto." The children in Romania, though, apparently weren't granted that veto right.

No Sense of Responsibility

When speaking to people who worked on this film, one gets the impression that the director lost his sense of measure and responsibility in this case. The few close confidants around him cut off other crew members from the flow of information. Even the most experienced employees didn't dare to contradict him.

During the summertime shooting period, Seidl shot another scene included in the script, in which a group of villagers attack Ewald and the children. The villagers are played by men described as "alcoholics" by people interviewed by DER SPIEGEL. One of them, Iulian Albescu, says he was uncomfortable in his role, but had no money to pay his rent at the time.

He says he gets very aggressive when he drinks. Nevertheless, he claims to have been offered alcohol by the film crew before shooting. "They said: If you want to drink a beer, you can order one. I then drank a few beers and a glass of schnaps. But not too much, so that we could still shoot," Albescu claims. One crew member who observed the filming that day, claims that two "vulnerable groups" were pitted against each other. "That's when I first saw this sadistic pleasure in Seidl in setting these alcoholic men loose on children," she says.

Albescu says he grabbed one of the children by the ear, but claims it wasn't hard enough for the director. "He told me to pull the child harder on the ear and shake his head and be rougher," he claims. Seidl only approved once he had done so, Albescu says. Seidl himself did not comment on the matter when contacted by DER SPIEGEL.

Official Investigation

It is likely this incident that put the Romanian authorities on alert. Criminal investigators in Satu Mare received a tip on July 23, 2019, that during a film shoot in Baba Novac, "various acts of violence" had been inflicted on children. They launched an investigation and interviewed several, but not all, of the children involved in the filming. The final report includes testimonies from six minors who state that they weren't verbally, physically or sexually harassed during the filming. The name Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion doesn't make a single appearance in the report. Police closed the investigation in February 2022.

The father, Sandu Popescu, still can't let go of the investigation. When DER SPIEGEL visits, he is standing in his backyard in a white undershirt and a faded cap. He says he was shocked when the police officers showed up at his front door. "The police officers accused me of selling my child," Popescu says, agitated and shaking. "I told my wife they could put me in jail for this, that they could have claimed I tortured my child." He struggles to calm down. He says trusting the director was a big mistake.

His son claims that had to be filmed in his underwear with the Austrian actor Georg Friedrich and other children and that doing so made him uncomfortable. He says this quietly and then stops speaking. Did he tell the police about this scene? "No," the boy says.

"Then he asked me if I wanted to take off my underwear, too."

Seidl filmed several scenes in which the children were undressed down to their underwear, apparently without warning or their parents' knowledge. One boy says that in one scene, he was with Friedrich in the shower while Friedrich was undressed and shaving his private parts. "Then he asked me if I wanted to take off my underwear, too." And? "I said no and laughed," he claims.

Georg Friedrich did not answer a request for comment from DER SPIEGEL. Seidl's lawyer stated that there is no sexual context in the film, nor are there any pornographic or pedophilic scenes, and that no child was "filmed naked or in a sexualized situation, pose or context." Nonetheless, it is still an open question as to how the children themselves perceived the filming. And whether they and their parents had been sufficiently informed about why certain scenes were shot and in what context they would later appear in the film.

According to statements from the children, at least two scenes were shot with several children in the school shower room. In one scene, the children had to take a shower after a long day, they claim. In another, the main character was waiting for them in the shower. They say they chased each other with towels and laughed. One boy says it made him feel uncomfortable to be filmed like that. "I wasn't used to someone filming me in shorts and a T-shirt or in my underwear," he says. It's the same boy who claims to have been filmed alone in the shower with Friedrich. Of that scene, he says: "They didn't explain to me why that scene was shot."

When contacted for comment by DER SPIEGEL, organizations that provided funding for the project, including the Austrian Film Institute, Austrian public broadcaster ORF and the Vienna Film Fund, said that they were not aware of the allegations but that they take them seriously and will look into them. German public broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk also provided funding for the film. When contacted, the broadcaster wrote: "We are completely surprised and dismayed by the allegations that are being made."

Even as Seidl is scheduled to screen "Sparta" at film festivals in Toronto and San Sebastián, Marian Nicolau, Sandu Popescu and the parents of the amateur actors say they still don't know what became of the footage featuring their children. One mother told DER SPIEGEL that she contacted Seidl's Romanian assistant to ask when the film would be released and was told it wouldn't be because "the material was too poor."

The parents are furious with the director. It was only through DER SPIEGEL's reporting that they learned that the film addresses pedophilia. They feel as though they were deceived. The parents of eight underage amateur actors say they wouldn't have agreed to the film shoot if they had known about the subject matter. Now, they don't want the film to be released. "I think they deceived us because we're poor," says Popescu, his voice trembling as he speaks. "It wouldn't have been a big deal if our children had just been in a nice, peaceful movie. But pedophilia! Heaven forbid!"

About the Reporting

Two years ago, freelance journalists Pascale Müller and Bartholomäus Laffert were tipped off about accusations against Ulrich Seidl pertaining to his alleged treatment of underage amateur actors in Romania. In spring 2022, the issue was once again brought to their attention by two crew members who had been on the set at the time. In May, a team of DER SPIEGEL journalists, together with Romanian colleague Delia Marinescu, traveled to the region around Satu Mare, where they spoke with families, amateur actors and, later, also with people who had worked on the set. In Romania, it was primarily children who helped move the research forward. They knew the neighbor children who had participated in the film and directed the journalists to their homes. Many of the references and observations in the article came from them.

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