Accusations of Child Exploitation Haunt Austrian Filmmaker Ulrich Seidl

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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.

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