Ulrich Seidl’s ‘Import/Export’: A movie for anyone who thinks Michael Haneke has gone soft

If there’s one thing Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl’s Import/Export aims to do, it’s to make the comfortably middle-class viewer — or really, any viewer who isn’t struggling to survive in the global 21st-century economy — painfully aware of the privilege that he takes for granted in his life. And if you happen to be an aficionado of Viennese culture, the movie also seems bent on extinguishing any fanciful notions you might have of Vienna as a city of charm.

Co-written by Seidl (a documentary filmmaker making his second fiction feature here) and Veronika Franz, Import/Export tells two parallel stories: that of Olga (Ekateryna Rak), a young Ukranian woman who migrates to Vienna in search of work, and who ends up suffering every indignity imaginable in a series of demeaning jobs, and Pauli (Paul Hoffman), a college-age lunkhead from a Viennese housing project who flops around in dead-end jobs before finally accepting his stepfather’s offer of a two-bit gig that will take him East, to spectacularly unscenic regions of Slovakia and the Ukraine.

Parallel stories that head in opposite geographic directions, intercut with each other; the conventions of international indie cinema might lead you to suppose that Olga and Pauli’s paths will cross, if only briefly. They never do, however. There are no cutesy moments of connection here, no hints of magical realism to burnish the narrative and comfort the audience. (This is very much a film from the land of Michael Haneke and Elfriede Jelinek. Not for nothing did Variety deem Import/Export “miserable but masterful.”)

Ekateryna Rak as Olga. © Copyright Palisades Tartan.

A few grimly succinct early scenes of Import/Export establish Olga’s predicament in her native Ukraine, where she works as a nurse. Given how little evidence of material progress is to be seen anywhere on screen, you would think Communism fell six months ago, not more than a decade and a half earlier. Perhaps there is some small elite in Kiev enjoying the benefits of capitalism, but the people in Olga’s provincial city seem to experience capitalism solely as never-ending stress. The dashed hopes of the 2004 Orange Revolution don’t even seem to be a memory here.

A Ukranian friend in Vienna offers to help Olga find a job as a cleaning lady as well as a place to stay. The fact that working as a cleaning woman in Vienna makes more economic sense than working as a nurse in the Ukraine, and is even an attractive offer at all, is just one sign of the huge imbalance between the former Eastern Bloc and the comfortable ‘West’ that is Seidl’s subject here.

Not surprisingly, the job of cleaning office buildings in Vienna is hardly the deliverance or even the foothold Olga had hoped for. Instead it’s just the first in a series of demoralizing jobs for her (all jobs that educated, affluent people not only don’t want to do themselves, but that they don’t even want to take notice of), and situations that go bad. Olga is well intentioned and industrious in every position she gets, whereas each new workplace allows Seidl to expand on his scathing cumulative portrait of the Viennese bourgeois as uptight snobs and petty sadists.

Not the Vienna of the beautiful blue Danube: Paul Hoffman as Pauli. © Copyright Palisades Tartan.

Olga’s story is actually easier to bear than the other narrative of Import/Export, wherein young ne’er-do-well Pauli flails around Vienna before embarking on a disastrous trip East. Sullen and oblivious Pauli is in no position to say Nein when his unstintingly crass and gregarious stepfather Michael (Michael Thomas) proposes that Pauli join him on a “business trip.”

Cut to their first stop in Slovakia — a bleak, unnamed provincial city, frigid and windswept. Pauli and Michael stop in at a local bar, and Michael instantly starts chatting up the local women, smugly confident that his status as a Westerner will make him irresistible.

Michael and Pauli move on to the Ukraine, back to where the movie opened with Olga, only now we experience the milieu from the POV of these two Western expats. The Ukraine is farther down the economic scale than Slovakia, therefore Michael has more contempt for the locals. Here Import/Export builds to a crescendo of ugliness — thus it comes as a relief (and a surprise, given Seidl’s penchant for making viewers squirm) that Pauli’s story ends with him taking fitful steps toward redemption, and perhaps some kind of future. The open-ended conclusion leads the movie away from the schematic, and away from being a Westerner’s self-hating diatribe.

Hitting the hot spots of the Ukraine. L-r: Paul Hoffman, Michael Thomas. © Copyright Palisades Tartan.

Director Seidl films both Olga and Pauli’s stories at a literal remove, in wide shots and long takes. This might sound like par for the anti-fun indie cinema course, given the popularity of “aquarium shots” and leisurely edits among serious-minded filmmakers all over the world these days.

Ekateryna Rak as Olga. © Copyright Palisades Tartan.

But the style that Seidl and cinematographer Ed Lachman have chosen is no fashionable conceit. It’s like they’ve taken Antonioni’s attention to architecture and updated it for the 21st century: they frame each new location in the story with a pitiless scrutiny, the camera carefully positioned to show how dehumanizing each new space is. The film could be described as a passage through a series of non-spaces that are pure brute functionality, with aesthetics and livability not even a concern.

Economically marginalized figures like Olga and Pauli find themselves in one spiritually deadening environment after another, and the way the movie is so finely attuned to these barren 21st-century surroundings is essential to its cumulative effect. We observe Olga and Pauli, but Seidl’s mise-en-scene also forces us to think about them. (Whereas if the movie had been filmed like a melodrama, we might shed a few cathartic tears at the low points… and then move on and forget about the predicaments of these characters.)

Import/Export is bracing, and admittedly exhausting, and no one’s idea of entertainment, not in any country. But it’s also an all-too-rare example of a contemporary filmmaker fusing his themes with an inspired use of form.

Ulrich Seidl’s follow-up to Import/Export is the Paradise trilogy. The first part, Paradise; Love, is now playing in theaters in the U.S. Click here for info.

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