STUDIO: Palisades Tartan Video

MSRP: $17.99
RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 135 Minutes
• Director Interview
• Cinematographer Interview

The Pitch

A somber slice of life in Eastern Europe… as opposed to all of those uplifting movies about the former Soviet Union.

The Humans

Ekateryna Rak, Paul Hofmann, Michael Thomas, Maria Hofsitter, Georg Friedrich
Director: Ulrich Seidl

The Nutshell

Paced for the patient and active viewer, Import/Export explores the worlds of the Ukraine and Austria – two countries that still haven’t escaped the debilitating clutches of communism – and those who struggle each and every day to make ends meet.  While the title seems to imply the trading of goods across borders, it actually refers to two people: Paul, who goes into the Ukraine hoping to make money; and Olga, who escapes to Austria for a better life.

Young Dr. Heiter’s time in boot camp truly left a lasting impression on him,
although he found his commander’s version of the human centipede
much too devoid of feces.

The Lowdown

What is it about Eastern Europe that just exudes depression?  I read once that one of the reasons Americans found the conditions of life under the Soviet communist state so appalling was because everything looked so drab and sterile – products were designed to simply serve their purpose, not to be pretty doing it – rather than because they found their political ideology so offensive.  To consumerists here in the States, every time they saw Russians living in plain, brick apartment buildings seemingly lacking any style considered attractive, they felt sorry for them, believing they were miserable and suffering.

After watching Import/Export, it’s hard to disagree with them.  Perhaps it’s my own American-ness, but there seems to be something specifically and universally depressing about the bleak look of what is now the Ukraine and Austria, the two neighboring countries that are the setting for Ulrich Seidl’s award-winning film.  And if the setting doesn’t make you want to grab a handful of random prescription drugs (naturally, the story is set in the winter so you can actually catch a cold just watching this movie), the story certainly will.

While desperate to out-run the wind, Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid would be damned
if they were leaving behind their new shoes from JCPenny.

Import/Export tells the tales of two parallel stories: one of a twenty-something nurse named Olga who lives in the Ukraine; the other of a twenty-something wannabe-then-failed security guard name Paul who lives across the border in Austria.  Neither live in the best of conditions.  Olga lives with her mother and her own infant child in a tiny apartment with beautiful views of the nearby nuclear power plant’s cooling towers, if the snow falling doesn’t cloud the view.  Paul, meanwhile, lives with his mother and step-dad in a decent home – a palace compared to Olga’s quarters.  After things go from bad to worse for each of them (Paul finally becomes a security guard only to be shamed and humiliated on the job by a group of hoodlums; Olga realizes that masturbating in front of a webcam for money just isn’t her cup of tea), they find their own ways across the border hoping to find a better life.

This doesn’t turn into some sort of love story between the two main characters.  In fact, they never even meet much less share the screen.  Love won’t save either of these two, just like it doesn’t here in the real world. (Hey, I can be a romantic, too, but deep-rooted issues are here to stay unless you actually deal with them.) Instead, Seidel and co-writer Veronika Franz follow these two poor souls as they struggle to stand up for themselves in their search for some iota of dignity. 

While his films continue to impress with nuance and subtlety, Roman Polanski’s decision
to woo teenage girls with his new Casio keyboard and blatant lyrics remains pathetically lazy.

Olga arrives in Austria with the help of a friend, who hooks her up with a job as the live-in cleaning lady for a wealthy family.  It’s demeaning as is the nature of the position, but it takes a turn for the worse when the family’s spoiled-rotten kid accuses Olga of stealing his cell phone and proceeds to make a disaster of his room, which she just finished cleaning, leading to her being fired much to the dismay of her friend. She then winds up being hired on as a cleaning lady in the geriatric wing of the hospital, where the rest of her story takes place; but of course, this doesn’t go quite as well either.  In one scene, Olga steps away from her duties to coddle one of the dying, elderly women in the wing – who clearly has dementia – calmly combing her hair and putting her at ease, until the real nurse scolds her and reminds her that here in Austria she’s not a nurse, she’s just a janitor.  Even being selfless brings her ridicule and humiliation.

Paul, on the other hand, brings all of his misery upon himself.  He owes money to different loan sharks all over town.  He prides himself on his masculinity and athletic prowess, yet is humiliated at work by a group of thugs and loses his coveted job as a security guard.  He terrifies his girlfriend with a stray dog.  He’s shiftless.  It’s only when he goes off to the Ukraine with his stepfather – a womanizing alcoholic – to install candy vending machines as part of their new business venture that Paul shows that he’s more than just a directionless punk. 

There are some really great moments in this film despite the desolate subject matter, which may have hit me harder to watch as I sat in my apartment with the sun shining and palm trees just outside of my window.  I especially liked the character growth of Paul the most.  His battles for the alpha male status with his stepdad, who tests him by making him go into dangerous neighborhoods to prove himself and constantly challenging his virility by talking up his own manhood and game – which ends up backfiring spectacularly near the end of the movie – force him to grow and take a stand in his own life for once.  There’s also a touching relationship that blossoms between Olga and a dying, elderly Austrian man who clearly still has his wits about him enough to feel humiliated when the nurse forcibly removes his dentures so he can’t eat, all in the name of helping keep him alive in that helpless, bedridden state.  They bond over their mutual sense of being trapped, of struggling to hold on to the little pride they have left. 

Still, at the end of it all, I didn’t feel much of anything.  I didn’t wonder how the characters were and what they were now doing with their lives.  Perhaps it was the bleak look of their world that made me feel equally bleak about their futures actually improving.  Regardless, this isn’t the kind of movie where you learn that despite the hardships, good things happen to people if they try hard enough; it’s the kind of movie that tells you that small victories amongst a life generally filled with struggles and misfortune is the only icing you’ll get on your cake. Not entertaining in the sense of being escapist, it’s a film that forces you to experience the ugly side of the world and, in doing so, makes you appreciate what you have.

Writer/director Ulrich Seidl puts his three decades of experience into this masterfully crafted and confident film.  He uses mainly subdued color tones within his expertly composed shots.  Interiors rarely feel warmer than outside – and when they do, the uncomfortable situations in which he places his characters suck the heat right back out.  Seidl also gets strong performances from everyone in the film, especially those playing the geriatrics awaiting death.  (I bet Seidl filmed actual patients for those roles, as their scenes feel much like a Frederick Wiseman documentary.  And from what he says in the interview in the Special Features, I’d guess I’m right.) Leads Ekateryna Rak and Paul Hofmann command our attention, while Michael Thomas – playing Paul’s stepfather – steals the show.

While I really can’t call it a happy ending, both Paul and Olga do finally find that tiny moment of victory, a brief and seemingly small instance of humanity and dignity that they had been searching for the entire time.  The film opens with Olga nursing an infant to health and ends with a shot of a hospital room full of old women waiting for death.  It seems that Seidl and Franz make no qualms about the fact that we all are born helpless and naked and we all die helpless and naked – but we don’t have to spend all of our time in between the same way.

John Kassir just couldn’t let go of the fact that despite his and Dennis Miller’s constant
pleading, there would be no re-imagination of Bordello of Blood.

The Package

This isn’t the kind of movie that comes with many special features, so the fact that it has two, brief interviews – one with the director and the other with cinematographer, Edward Lachman – comes as a bit of a welcomed surprise.  That said, only the six-minute-long interview with Seidl is worth your time, and only then if you want to hear some familiar generalities about using non-actors and improvised dialogue as if they’re unique and innovative film techniques.

7 out of 10