Ulrich Seidl Sparta blurred

Wrestling with Morality in Ulrich Seidl’s Sparta

It has been over a week since I watched Ulrich Seidl’s new film, Sparta. The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) pulled the film hours before its world premiere on September 9 due to the German magazine, Der Spiegel‘s accusations of on-set child abuse. I was part of a small handful of people who watched the film during a Press and Industry screening that evening; I had no idea TIFF had withdrawn the film until the next day when I stumbled across trade publications with headlines of foul play.

Ever since, I’ve been reconciling what I’ve watched with whether this is a film I should have watched, and what it means when I *like* a film that presents a controversial subject matter that now has been stained with allegations of abuse.

Sparta is a sensitive portrait of Ewald, a pedophile, and his struggles with a disorder that he knows is wrong. Ewald is more at ease interacting with prepubescent kids than with adults. He appears listless around people but is elated when he plays with boys. In one scene, he bumps into a group of boys in a snowball fight. Ewald joins them innocently, becomes excited (perhaps sexually), and quickly withdraws himself from the situation. We see him crying in his car and I cannot help but feel an immense sadness for him. We all want to be happy, but what happens when what makes you happy is very, very wrong.

Ewald leaves his girlfriend as he is unable to engage emotionally, and sexually with her.  He retreats to rural Transylvania and finds an abandoned school that he renovates and converts into a dojo. He gains local families’ trust and begins to spend time with young boys in their makeshift “fortress” without immediate social scrutiny. At practice, Ewald takes photos of these boys topless, instructs them to flex their not-yet-developed muscles, even taking photos while they are in the shower. While the boys are clothed, many of them are in white underwear that becomes semi-transparent when wet. One of the young boys on screen was topless and shares a shower with Ewald, played by Georg Friedrich—a fully naked adult actor. This is an uncomfortable watch. 

On TIFF’s website, the film’s description has been replaced with “This film has been withdrawn from the festival.” Luckily, I have a printed copy of the programme book so I can revisit what was originally disclaimed. Dorota Lech, the programmer writes, “this film was developed and made alongside child actors and their families in a region where this issue is rampant. The fictional story explored in this film is inspired by true events” and that “[…] the prepubescent boys [are] played by local non-actors as a part of a participatory and meticulously monitored production alongside consenting families.”

However, Der Spiegel’s six-month investigation contradicts this programmer’s note.  The article alleges children were exposed to “alcoholism, violence, and nudity without sufficient preparation and adequate support.” Accusations also include parents and guardians were not informed of the subject matter of the film. 

I watched topless young boys wrestle in their sometimes semi-transparent underwear with the belief that these scenes were shot safely, with consent, and that the child actors were protected. I was mortified when I learned of these allegations of abuse.

Per Der Spiegel’s report, the Romanian authorities closed the investigation in February 2022 after the police concluded child actors were not “”verbally, physically, or sexually harassed during filming.” This aligns with Seidl’s statement that “the young actors were under constant supervision […]. 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.”

I am not privy to the set protocols on Sparta, nor the findings from the Romanian police investigation; I can only reconcile allegations of foul play using the best available information.  Police concluded child actors were not abused, and as such, I must take this at face value. As a producer on numerous productions big and small, I can attest to most, if not all productions’ adherence to best practices whenever possible. This is especially true when it comes to actors; if actors are in fact in danger, production will also be in danger. A shutdown equals a delayed schedule, jobs lost, and missed delivery milestones which all have detrimental financial impact.  To put it bluntly, productions protect actors because it protects the bottom line. It is an act of self-preservation first and foremost. It is illogical Seidl would put child actors in dangerous situations thereby putting his production in jeopardy.

That said, Seidl did not address Der Spigel’s allegation that “several children claim that, at some point, they could no longer distinguish between fiction and reality.” Though I do not believe Seidl would purposely inflict physical harm, he may have potentially traumatized his child actors.

In a multi-episode arc in the recent divisive HBO series, The Rehearsal, Nathan Fielder helps Angela “rehearse” motherhood by raising a “pretend” son. Due to child labour laws, Nathan employs several actors at different ages to simulate what is like to raise a child from infancy to adolescence.  In the season finale (minor spoilers ahead), Remy, a child actor cast as 6-year-old Adam, cannot separate reality from pretend. He refuses to acknowledge Nathan as “Nathan,” but instead, calls Nathan “Pretend Daddy.” Remy genuinely wants Nathan to be his real daddy, and would refuse to leave the set after filming.  Remy’s mother even admits she is not even sure her son knows what acting is. In the end, she assured Nathan that Remy will be fine. There were even social media posts after the episode aired that show a seemingly happy Remy, not traumatized from “The Fielder Method.” Then again, social media is not reality. I cannot help but wonder, would there be permanent damage for Remy, as well as the child actors in Sparta?

Dorota describes Seidl as someone who “does not shy away from controversy, and pushes his oeuvre examining the most disturbing aspects of humanity.”  As a character, Ewald wrestles with acting on his impulses while full-on knowing that it is absolutely not okay.  Ewald’s disorder is morally reprehensible, but through Seidl’s non-judgemental lens, the filmmaker suggests even a repressed pedophile may be deserving of our empathy.  Sparta challenges viewers such as myself to actively engage and question our own understanding of right from wrong, and acknowledge life is not so black and white. Instead, we live in various shades of grey.

According to Film Twitter, perhaps this is the only ethical way to portray kids in the media.

If you’ve been affected by any of the sensitive issues raised within this article, head here for a list of helpful resources and organizations that offer advice and support