Import/Export: Seidel’s Double Tale, from Ukraine to Austria and Back

Cannes Film Fest 2007 (World Premiere)–The grimmest, most intense and depressing film in competition this year, Ulie Seidl’s “Import/Export” begins by juxtaposing two different characters, Olga, a Ukrainian nurse and single mom, and Paul, a security guard from Austria.

It’s wintertime, cold and gray, and people are freezing in both Austria and the Ukraine. Initially, geographically and culturally, Olga and Paul represent two different worlds. Nonetheless, in the course of the film, the two worlds and their cultures would come to resemble each otherdespite use of different language. In other words, in the new geopolitical world we live, one that’s supposedly without borders, the East looks more like the West, and the West looks more like the East.

Against this somber atmosphere, two stories take place. At first glance, they appear unrelated. One is an import story, which begins in the Ukraine and leads to Austria. The other is an export story, which begins in Austria and ends in the Ukraine.

The first story is about Olga (Ekateryna Rak), a nurse and single mother, who wants more from life than her region and condition allow. Olga wants to get out of the city, and out of the country. She decides to go to Austria, where she finds work and then loses it. Beginning as a housekeeper, she ends up as a cleaning lady in a geriatric hospital, and in between holds various jobs, including as a sex web-gaming industry that services men.

The other story is about Paul (Paul Hoffman), a young, handsome Austrian with violent temper, who finally lands a job as a security guard. Unfortunately, he gets fired almost immediately and finds himself back at the employment office. Though already full of debts, Paul borrows more money from friends, his stepfather, and strangers. Paul’s step-dad Michael (Michael Thomas) takes him along to the Ukraine for a job that involves setting up gambling machines, and in the process subject him to all kids of painful pleasures, like watching him (the father) have sex with a Ukrainian prostitute and forcing him to do the same.

The film unfolds as two disparate yet linked journeys, depicting in detail Olga’s and Paul’s travels to a new country. Both Olga and Paul are looking for work, for a new existence and a new meaning in what’s a miserable life. Olga comes from the Eastern part of Europe, where unremitting poverty is the order of the day. Paul comes from the Western part, where unemployment means a crisis of meaning and a sense of uselessness.

Though mot schematic, “Import/Export” deals with set of binary oppositions, or dichotomies, to use the jargon of structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss: Sex and death, life and death, winnings and losing power and powerlessness or helplessness, self-fulfillment and alienation, realization and humiliation (often public).

At one point, Olga gets a lecture from her rigid employer of how to give the teeth of a stuffed fox toy a professional cleaning job with a toothbrush. Like many other scenes, it’s at once funny and painful to watch, bringing to the surface a set of contradictory emotions, which is Seidl’s intent and specialty, as evident in his previous work, such as “Dog Days” (a better picture, perhaps because it was the first major feature to display Seidl’s singular vision).

“Import/Export” is overlong and touch to watch, but it’s worth attending to, despite forces of push and pull while watching. In Cannes Fest, some critics labeled Seidel a sadist, while others say he was both sadist and masochist. Ultimately, Seidel wants to “play” with viewers’ expectations and threshold of tolerance or patience about what’s permissible (let alone enjoyable) as big-screen entertainment, particularly from the standpoint of mainstream (and Hollywood) cinema.

The film stirred controversial moral and ethic issues, such as shooting a long sequence, the last one in a nursing home for old, disabled, and mentally challenged and fatally ill people, apparently without the patients’ permission. In these sequences, we get the demanding, humiliating, but also pleasurable service work that Olga performs, getting emotionally closer to some of the patients. And we also get a look at the place from the workers’ POV, the rigid hierarchy of status, the competition, and jealousy, one leads to a physical brawl between Olga and her female supervisor.

The general trends of cruelty, humiliation, and violence are occasionally (but only occasionally) disrupted with human signs of kindness and generosity. And it may not be an accident that the film’s very last scene is set at night, in the dark, and that the last word heard from a female patient is death.

As you have guessed by now, Olga and Paul never meet face-to-face, even though their paths crisscross several times in the course of the narrative. Like other themes and metaphors in this richly dense picture, Seidl’s choice suggests both defiance of conventional filmic expectations and a metaphor for profound lack of communicationdespite collapse of previous regimes and the opening of geographical borders.

The film’s dialogue is understandably in four languages: German, Russian, Slovakian, and English.