The Moving and the Still

By Sukhdev Sandhu

import-export-ulrich-seidl.jpgImport/Export, 2007

Ulrich Seidl’s Import/Export does not flinch in its present-tense gaze

Import/ Export
, a supremely revelatory and breathtakingly fierce panorama of modern-day Europe by Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, could not have been released at a better moment. At a time when hundreds of millions of people, in America and across the world, have been questioning the morality of an economic system that bankrolls the rich in spite of their greed and incompetence, this profoundly moral X-ray of the social and financial frameworks that regulate our own continent takes on a very special resonance.

It is, like many of the most important films in recent years, a study of migration. Olga (Ekateryna Rak), a young mother exhausted by the poverty of her life in Ukraine, moves to Austria where she ends up working in a geriatric hospital.

Pauli (Paul Hofmann) is a hard-muscled teenager from Vienna who sets out to pay off his many outstanding loans by accompanying his stepfather (Michael Thomas) on a trip to Ukraine where they take gumball machines to rough-hewn estates.

The two characters never meet, but their journeys follow a similar trajectory: an escape from tough but familiar communities into less clearly defined territories where their money problems are aggravated by a sense of isolation so overwhelming that it is both tragic and absurd.

They travel through grey, wintry landscapes; past smoke-belching factories, dull housing blocks and anonymous arcades; into grimy apartments where they are offered pathetically young girls for sex or prostrate themselves via webcams for the benefit of masturbating Germans.

These are journeys into the heart of a Europe far removed from the loved-up beaches of club culture or the bucolic retreats beloved of retirees. It’s a Europe that's shifting, sinking. A Europe full of ghosted cities and abandoned neighbourhoods.

“Happy he who forgets what he cannot change,” are the words of a song to which the hospital patients are shown dancing. The drama of Seidl’s film, as well as the flicker of light that punctures the darkness threatening to enshroud it, is the inability of its lead characters to believe that they cannot change their lives.

Import/ Export, like all Seidl’s extraordinary body of work, is unafraid to run the risk of being charged with voyeurism and sadism. It features tableaux in which Pauli is debagged and covered with beer by thugs, young girls are sexually humiliated by leery drunkards, and old men have their nappies changed.

Those characters, tightly framed and looking directly at the camera may resemble private dancers in the eyes of some viewers. But their gazes are deeply discomforting. They jolt and destabilise us. Who are we to be looking at these poor people?

Seidl’s use of non-professional actors (Rak is a screen natural, Hofmann is bristlingly charismatic), real environments and stark sound design give the film a documentary-like texture. He has an ability to create scenes as visually striking and as terrifying as any to be found in a horror movie.

That he laces them with mordant humour and haunting grace notes merely highlights his uncommon genius. Import/ Export is a work of the utmost political importance. It is also, in its rigour and fearlessness, its sorrow and pitilessness, an outstanding artistic achievement.

Sukhdev Sandhu’s latest book is Nighthaunts (Verso).