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Import/Export is a film designed not to help its viewers escape from reality, but to force a harsh reality upon them. This is the world as director Ulrich Seidl sees it, captured with straight-forward but brilliantly composed images from the lives of two misfits, one Ukrainian and one Austrian, as they cross each other's borders. In parts shocking, horrifying, surreally comical and painfully uncomfortable, the film lulls you into its bleak vision with hypnotic rhythms. It's not a so much enjoyable as it is fascinating.
Those who saw Seidl's first dramatic feature, Dog Days, will remember a highly disturbing, sometimes darkly comedic portrait of repulsive behavior in Viennese suburbia. And they'll find some of the same despicable lack of humanity in the cross-cut parallel stories of Pauli (Paul Hofmann), an unemployed, aimless young man and Olga (Ekateryna Rak), a Ukrainian nurse who doesn't make enough money to support herself and her child. But Seidl also finds enough humor and hints of hopefulness to prevent the film from being unbearably negative.
Olga's story is the film's most fascinating component. Not earning enough income as a nurse, she tries out a number of jobs, including interactive Internet porn actress and live-in maid. She eventually crosses the boarder to work at a geriatric hospital in Austria. No longer a nurse, she now works as a cleaning lady.
Import/Export marks the second dramatic work from Seidl, whose background as a documentarian contributed to the hyperrealistic aesthetic in his fiction. He shoots in real locations, and in some cases--most notably the geriatric ward--used real people instead of extras. The actors worked as cleaners and nurses for a few weeks before cameras were brought in, so that the real-life dying geriatric patients were already familiar and comfortable with them. The result is an unsettling portrait of impending death, highlighted in a bizarre costume party that finds our ill patients in off-putting, cheerful garb.
The portrayal of the Internet porn studio, also a real location, is equally fascinating. Evoking Olga's point of view instead of the clients', we see her reading the absurd German script of sex talk to prepare for her interactive sessions, and witness a rather absurd scene in which a customer angrily demands kinky acts from her, but she doesn't understand him.
Pauli's is the more dynamic of the stories, as, after being humiliated and fired in his job as a security guard, he resorts to traveling to the Ukraine to service video-game machines with his step dad (Michael Thomas), whose reprehensible behavior becomes more and more apparent. It all comes to a head in a singularly disturbing 10-minute scene based around the step dad's display of power over a prostitute.
Anyone with a low-tolerance for disturbing images needn't start watching. Anyone whose tolerance hasn't been worn down by the end of Import/Export might want to question why on earth it wasn't. I admire Seidl's effort to force us to consider the effects of superiority and exploitation, but it's hard not to detect a hint of sadism in the abuse he heaps on both his audience and some of his characters. But he earns credit for the artistry and the context in which he places his horrifying images.
Trinity's Region 2 PAL release of Import Export accurately captures the faded, dingy colors that permeate the film's bleak interiors and landscapes. The image is generally crisp, although there are some minor artifacts visible in the details. The grain patterns and lighting on the prominent, bare off-white walls in certain shots causes a few problems with compression noise, but for normal viewing the quality is good.
While the source is progressive, the burnt-in English subtitles don't seem to have been applied with any attention to pulldown removal, and occasionally combing problems arise within the text when they appear or change. (There is no combing in the image itself.)
The DVD presents Import Export with well-done 5.1 surround and stereo mixes in the film's original Austrian. The sound design is very naturalistic, favoring room tones and realistic effect cues over a musical score. The designs bring emphasize the real-life feel of the locations.
Import/Export packs such a wallop that you don't really feel like watching any deleted scenes, so it's fitting that the disc's special features consist only of the theatrical trailer and a 23-minute interview with Seidl.
The interview reveals the director's philosophy and working process, and gives you room to decide whether or not you buy his outlook. For example, he says his mission is always to capture reality, but mightn't his overt bleakness be as contrary to reality as the shameless optimism of Hollywood?
His discussion of his editing process reveals a lot about the man: "It must in some way torture the audience. It must be uncomfortable, but not so uncomfortable that they leave the cinema. ... That's the duration one should aim for." I believe the same philosophy is applied to Rob Schneider films.
The theatrical trailer is more interesting than most, presenting the film in an unexpected format. Two rows of moving images--Olga's story on top and Pauli's on the bottom--scroll in opposite directions across a black background. It essentially shows the key shots from the film in chronological order, and offers a moment of reflection after seeing the film as much as it offers a preview.
It would be foolish to suggest that Import/Export has anything approaching mass appeal. But if you're interested enough to seek out the film and import the DVD, you will find a peculiar, idiosyncratic and challenging work of art that will, if nothing else, make you think.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.