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A Ukrainian nurse travels to Vienna while an unemployed Austrian security guard voyages to the Ukraine in writer-director Ulrich Seidl's unflinching study of contemporary free-market exploitation
After the sweltering late-summer heat of his powerful 2001 film Dog Days, Austrian writer-director Ulrich Seidl locates Import/Export in the arctic cold of winter.
Seidl blurs traditional conceptions of reality and documentary in a manner of which Werner Herzog would surely approve: he uses a mainly non-professional cast, encourages spontaneity in the performances and places the cast in authentic locations, whether it's a geriatric ward with real-life patients, the notorious Slovakian Lunik IX housing estate in Košice, or an online sex centre where the female models receive obscene vocal instructions from their unseen clients. Stylistically he favours long takes and static tableaux which allow us to gaze protractedly at both characters and landscapes.
Import/Export is concerned with two seemingly unrelated journeys, undertaken respectively by the pretty Olga (Rak) and the volatile Pauli (Hoffman). She is a nurse in a Ukrainian hospital who leaves behind her infant daughter, brother and mother to seek better paid work in the west. Arriving in Vienna, she is employed as a maid, an au-pair and then as a cleaner in the geriatric ward of a hospital: there, because of her lowly status, she is under strict instructions from the staff not to touch the patients.
Unemployed Pauli is making the reverse geographical journey. Owing money to various creditors, he's accompanying his lecherous stepfather Michael (Thomas) on a trip eastwards to install video gaming and sweet-dispensing machines at venues in Slovakia and Ukraine. And despite his relationship to Pauli's mother, Michael sees nothing wrong with paying for sex with teenaged Ukrainian prostitutes.
The physical boundaries between countries are barely registered in Import/Export, yet in this 'new' Europe, social inequalities remain divisive. Olga is polite and hard-working but faces the irrational ire of various bosses. One of her middle-class female Austrian employers tells her that, "I can hire you and I can fire you. That's how it is in this country." Another, Sister Maria (Hofstätter, the hitchhiker in Dog Days), constantly belittles her background and abilities. Some of the most chilling sequences involve the maltreatment of the geriatric inmates at the hospital where Maria works as a cleaning woman: these in-patients, many of whom seem to be suffering from dementia, are routinely mocked, humiliated and punished by the nurses.
In Seidl's bleak universe sex is invariably a means of exploitation. Here it is Eastern European female bodies - whether Olga or the hooker in a Ukrainian hotel room who is degraded by Michael - who are at the mercy of more affluent westerners.
Amid the despair, however, there are moments of compassion and tenderness - Olga dancing with the dying old man Erich (Schlager) she had befriended or singing a song down the phone to her child - and there are also instances of absurdist humour, for example when Olga is instructed in the details of how to correctly clean the teeth of a stuffed fox's head.
There also appears to be a Christian dimension to the film: the devout Olga is shown praying and later is positioned in one scene beneath a prominent crucifix, and the tenderness with which she treats society's outcasts has a saintly quality. That by the end Pauli has not given up on his dreams of a better life offers the viewer a chink of hope.
A political film in the widest sense of the term, the strongly acted and dispassionately photographed Import/Export holds up a troubling mirror to our times.
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