Ulrich Seidl’s documentaries focus on gut-contorting, fringe-inhabiting subcultures (masochistic Euro-models and penurious paperboys, for example) that make Werner Herzog’s subjects seem merely quirky, but the controversy orbits fretfully around the sensationalist manner in which the director invites us to laugh at the sheer explicitness of the content. There’s perhaps unsurprisingly less tonal nebulousness in Seidl’s fictions (filmmakers tend to invest recognizable emotion in narratives of their own design whether or not it’s intended), though they’re equally hard sells: Reportedly audiences at Cannes were so repulsed by the giddily rape-suffused Dog Days that the screening suffered several walkouts, and even the comparatively genteel Import/Export features a token scene of sexual sadism before the 30-minute mark. What gives the latter a distinct advantage not only over Seidl’s previous dramas but most of his entire oeuvre, however, is that for the first time the director has paired his appetite for raw deviance—which is not to say realism, an odd genre that seems best defined by liberal usage of a handheld camera—with a formal maturity that offers the impression of social significance, if not quite the tidy convenience of an overt objective.
The titular backslash of Import/Export turns out to be a vast geographical schism, crossed only intermittently by thin strands of mutual emotional anguish. Viewed from the vantage point of Seidl’s motherland Austria, Olga (Ekateryna Rak), a Ukrainian single mother in desperate need of a paycheck, is the immigrant and Pauli (Paul Hofmann), an out-of-work twentysomething with equally life-threatening money woes, is the émigré. Since the two never encounter one another directly, the film’s dramatic pulse is enlivened by juxtaposing both protagonists’ states of mind, though rather than crafting an edifying handbook on shared economic hardship, Seidl seems more interested in probing the universality of simple alienation. At the start of the film, Olga and Pauli work steadily in unsatisfying jobs until a combination of lackluster performance and widespread fiscal crisis forces them into unemployment. So there’s something of a backdrop of urban deficiency to rationalize the severe goings-on (a frequent criticism of Seidl’s work is that his unhinged meanness lacks the allegorical urgency that made, for example, Pasolini’s Salò morally tenable), and within Olga’s occupational mobility the film forms its most convincingly human argument.
Olga’s initial position as a certified nurse, shown in the nerve-breaking infant surgery that opens the film, proves to be far less removed than one would expect from her second gig as a telecommuting sex worker. In the former, patients’ entrails are exposed, their orifices violated with tubes and syringes, and their dignity decimated as procedure after procedure is conducted for the sake of their health; in the latter, Olga’s nude body is clumsily paraded before a webcam while a distant admirer brusquely orders her to insert a finger into her asshole—all of which is, of course, for the sake of money. And while Olga flees her home for a menial cleaning position in Austria (reminding American audiences of the liberal guilt-ism that fantasizes Hispanic day laborers as expert MDs or the like in their own countries), Pauli is tied up, stripped, and laughed at by a gang of hoodlums who get off on torturing helpless security guards. Adding insult to injury, he’s fired from the security squad, resulting in a cross-country odyssey with his impotent, deadbeat father-in-law Michael, who snags them both a one-off job delivering dusty arcade units to Ukrainian slums. There’s no question that Seidl has been ensconced in cinematic humiliation for most of his career, but with Import/Export he seems to be recognizing social ignominy as the adhesive maintaining the status quo of Eastern European finance.
The second half of the film—cleanly signaled by Olga’s bitterly ironic employment as a custodian in a convalescent hospital rife with jaundiced RNs—is less civically propulsive primarily due to fewer crosscuts between the two individual stories. After the mechanics of the structural gimmick have been established and both Olga and Pauli settle into their primary conflicts, the movie patiently allows them to each take turns in long narrative stretches where steadily quickened interweaving may have allowed for more satisfying digestion of the third act’s plot turns. In particular, an important scene where Pauli and Michael attempt to prove their respective manhood by goading one another into shagging a hooker seems superfluous; unnecessarily transposing the previously-observed economic resonance of the erotic industry into an uninspired statement about patriarchal flaccidity, it nearly comes across as an insidious attempt to justify Olga’s persistent shaming at the hands of male dominance. Furthermore, in their final on-screen moments we feel the thematic strength of the characters flickering when they should be at the zenith of their humanist power. Ultimately, neither Olga nor Pauli are representative enough of seething demographics or fully defined as unique experiences to warrant much more than our casual pity and curiosity. But this is so much more than Seidl’s prior casts have been able to coax out of many audiences that—also considering the scathing, vocational commentary of the first hour—one can’t help but view Import/Export as a modest victory for its director.