Import/Export(Palisades Tartan Video, 1.26.2010)
Six full years after completing his first fiction feature (Dog Days), acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ulrich Seidl returned in 2007 with Import/Export, a bleak but rewarding look at the rock-bottom struggles of a young man and woman in the industrial wastelands of Eastern Europe. Paul is a struggling Austrian who lives with his mother and stepfather, while unsuccessfully seeking steady employment and attempting to avoid his seedy, underworld creditors. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, a nurse and single mother named Olga similarly struggles to make ends meet. While their lives are unrelated, Paul and Olga eventually switch countries in a futile effort to find better lives for themselves.
Pleasure is generally absent from the experiences of these characters, but it is ultimately the subject of Seidl's film. Paul refuses to seek pleasure because, on some level, he understands that all pleasure comes with a human price. Olga's story bears this out: everywhere she goes, she is physically abused, exploited or otherwise mistreated. But her grimmest experiences -- as a maid, a nurse and a cyber-prostitute -- pay the bills precisely because they provide pleasure (or at least reduced discomfort) for others.
The film's title refers to the protagonists' country swap, but it also refers to the parallel despair of entering and exiting adulthood. This comparison comes to the forefront in the second half of the film, as Olga lands a job in an Austrian geriatric hospital. In the more sedentary realities of old age, the enemy isn't the exploitation of the body by others, but its own natural decay. In these sequences, Seidl draws heavily on his documentary background, photographing real patients laid out in their beds like animals in cages, leaving Olga very little to look forward to on her way to work -- or the future.
Between the young and the old, Seidl offers a cross section of human misery that leaves little room for optimism. And yet, in a very real sense, Import/Export is a hopeful film. Driven by a persistent sense that happiness is just out of reach, Paul and Olga press on and, through a few small but significant gestures, re-discover the freedom of their youth. As the film progresses, both characters boldly declare their independence, a mixed blessing that brings with it the uncertainty of self-reliance in a harshly indifferent world.
Seidl conveys this sense of indifference through the film’s narrative events, but also through his stylistic choices. As these characters suffer through various traumatic experiences, the director foregoes editorializing flourishes such as music, kinetic visual maneuvering or dramatic emphasis. The resulting detachment creates the sense that these tragedies are utterly normal and commonplace. Seidl isn't interested in pandering to an audience's appetite for conventional engagement or amusement, but he is interested in dissecting it.
While Seidl's worldview is as grim as any filmmaker working today, he's mature enough not to assign blame or offer simple solutions. This is a conflicted film that acknowledges the paradoxical complexities of the human condition and the discomforting fact that misery is as natural as happiness. Whereas most filmmakers (and filmgoers) prefer palatable, tasteful depictions of suffering -- or leave it offscreen altogether -- Seidl creates complex, detailed and tangled webs of unhappiness that challenge the comforting, easily-resolved despair found elsewhere on today’s cinematic landscape. His is a cinema of anti-escapism with absolutely no interest in heartwarming, reassuring sentiment and this brings a refreshing dignity to the proceedings. In Seidl's world, survival is an achievement.
Ultimately, Import/Export concludes on a characteristically difficult, confrontational note. While we're subjected to an unflinching depiction of the suffering elderly and a cloud of impending death, Olga manages to escape this debilitating environment. But even as she experiences individual relief, Seidl chooses to leave his camera -- and, by extension, his audience -- to confront and consider the inescapable destination of every life. Death hangs over this film as an inevitable consequence of life, but also as a reason to make the most of the present, even in the face of a dire, hopeless future. As Seidl reminds us, it can always get worse. Import/Export certainly isn't pleasant, but it provides a fascinating, uncompromising and humane glimpse into darkness.
While the more high-def-inclined should probably consider ordering the region-free UK Blu-ray, Palisades Tartan's DVD is more-than-adequate. In addition to the film's theatrical trailer, extras on this disc include brief interviews with Seidl and virtuoso cinematographer Edward Lachman, who's worked with more major international filmmakers than I previously thought possible. In just over thirty years, he's shot films by Robert Altman, David Byrne, Larry Clark (actually, he co-directed Ken Park), Sofia Coppola, Todd Haynes, Werner Herzog, Dennis Hopper, Nicholas Ray, Volker Schlöndorff, Paul Schrader, Steven Soderbergh, Todd Solondz and Wim Wenders... to name a few. As Import/Export proves, Ulrich Seidl is a worthy addition to the list. -- Jonathan Doyle