Import Export (2007)

Rating: C+

Dir: Ulrich Seidl
Star: Ekateryna Rak, Paul Hofmann, Michael Thomas, Maria Hofstätter

It’s interesting to compare Seidl to Nick Broomfield: both men’s careers have taken him from documentary to features, with this film directly paralleling Broomfield’s Ghosts, both movies telling the story of a woman who abandons her home country and her son, in search of a “better” life in Western Europe. And, in both, the use of non-professional actors and improvised dialogue gives the fictional story a documentary feel. [It’s also worth a look at the producer’s shooting diary for Import, with some memorable anecdotes of shooting in the Ukraine, and dealing with corruption, the local mafia and -30C temperatures.] Ukrainian nurse Olga (Rak) heads to Austria, while at the same time, former mall-cop Paul (Hofmann), goes into the Ukraine with his step-father and a truck full of vending machines. Neither quite finds what they hope for, but despite a grim portrayal of life in the former Eastern bloc (not least the horrendous Slovakian gypsy ghetto of Lunik IX), it’s not entirely hopeless. Both participants find, if not prosperity, perhaps more of themselves and the humanity they almost lost in their home lands.

It’s the kind of film which I have little or no interest in watching ever again. But it’s also one I don’t mind having seen, and will probably remember it long after less acerbic films have faded from my memory. This is largely thanks to a number of scenes which seem specifically designed to make the viewer as uncomfortable as possible – most obviously, a lengthy scene in a Ukrainian hotel-room involving Michael, his stepfather and a (real?) Ukrainian prostitute. I use the question-mark advisedly, since it’s known that some of the senile and geriatric old people in the home where Anna finds work were certainly not acting, and the film does seem to step over the line of exploitation in a number of different ways. Knowing Anna works in an Internet sex-cam business is one thing; do we really need to see it? In glorious, grimy detail? Often, Seidl comes across like one of those roadshow cinema hucksters, pretending to tut-tut disapprovingly, simply so he can show us the depravity. [And so we, in turn, can tut-tut disapprovingly, then post the pic on the lower left…]

Once Anna leaves her home country, that side of the story settles down, and there are some nice vignettes depicting life at the bottom of the immigrant ladder. Her superior in the hospital refuses to let her even touch the patients, despite her medical training in the Ukraine, and generally treats Anna little better than the soiled sheets she pick up. Yet, our heroine persists, befriending one of her charges to the point that he asks her to marry him, knowing this will give her permanent residency. Of course, Seidl is too much of a pessimist to let that happen. Similarly, Paul’s adventures in the Ukraine consist of a series of more or less unpleasant obstacles, through which his basic goodness still ends up shining. I guess it’s a glimmer of hope, but the overall tone is more or less relentlessly-downbeat. Seidl simply abandons his characters to their fates, rather than provide any sense of closure. While probably a realistic portrayal of life, if I really wanted that, I’d probably watch one his documentaries. Werner Herzog said of Seidl’s first work, Animal Love, “Never have I looked so directly into hell.” Seems an appropriate comment for this one, too.