The motto of this year’s Competition might as well have been “running on empty” given the abundance of dubious exercises in style from patented postmodern pastiche (how could anybody take the Coens’ last-quarter bid for profundity seriously?) to straight-faced self-parody (Wong, Kim, etc.). So all the more ironic that it was Ulrich Seidl’s standout Import Export—whose sudden, shocking interest in the real world, mid-festival, dwarved the puny distractions that preceded—opened with this appropriate image: a man in a snowy field in front of some dull concrete slab of architecture trying to start his motorcycle by foot pedal. Again and again. The ensuing signature “a film by Ulrich Seidl” seems almost superfluous, given the auteurist characteristics of the intro: a meticulously composed tableaux of vast, decrepit pulchritude; symmetrical balance emphasizing its confrontational nature (as usual, characters trapped in those carefully arranged Seidl-frames mercilessly stare back at the spectator, reflexively returning the voyeurist gaze); and of course, comically absurd and/or painfully annoying repetitions as the defining characteristic of living. Which in itself could be seen as an open loop, yet the title of Seidl’s new film suggests a dialectical movement.
However, Seidl’s dialectics have always been barbed, not least on the subject of “reality vs. fiction,” which he has simply and magnificently transcended by essentially treating both as man-made constructions (no wonder Herzog was an early fan), thus intensifying the unsettling nature of his work—there’s also a distant relation here to Peter Watkins’ anti-Monoform commitment. Naturally, some clearly “staged” moments in Seidl’s early documentaries have garnered just as much controversy as his uncomfortably “authentic” closeness to his protagonists in his later “fictions.” As Seidl has repeatedly argued, the nakedness (at times, quite literal) of his protagonists is only possible thanks to the trust built up through year-long rehearsals—it allows them to act without shame, which is not the same as acting shamelessly, a distinction that seems crucial to many misunderstandings about Seidl’s work. It’s also the reason why even when at their most cruel his characters evoke a certain tragic compassion.
That this compassion is more pronounced now is probably the biggest surprise of Import Export. Still, no need to fear that Seidl has sold out: Sufficient proof were the (with two, maybe three exceptions) disastrous ratings in Le Film Français, another fine example of the general cluelessness of this supposedly great cinephile nation’s critics when it comes to things not already enshrined or in the process of being embedded into some hot new wave (see also this year’s overrated Palme d’Or winner from Romania), with Seidl being almost on the opposite end of Austrian cinema’s spectrum in relation to the bourgeois Haneke-line toed by France’s comic cine-papers.
Still, explicit tenderness in Seidl’s new film is mostly found in the Import storyline, following Ukrainian nurse Olga (Ekateryna Rak) to Austria, where she hopes for a better life. Parallel intersections chart the Export of Paul (Paul Hoffmann), an unemployed Viennese security guard, to the Ukraine. Tellingly, national borders play no role in the film (the belatedly identified Ukrainian opening shot might just as well show Austria). Rather, social and existential boundaries take on weight. When Olga’s journey finally leads her to another hospital, the geriatric clinic Lainz in Vienna, one of the first things she’s told is that she’s no longer allowed to touch the patients: After all, now she’s only the cleaning woman. Chiding her is a nurse (Maria Hofstätter), with whom a rivalry builds with strange sexual undercurrents—clearly, like much in the film, fueled by prejudice—that culminates in a truly embarrassing set-to during a carnival, with numb patients made up in garish costumes and a solo entertainer’s synth-accompanied warbling of a schlager standard in the background: “Glücklich ist, wer vergisst” (roughly translated as: “Happy those, who forget what cannot be changed”).
A counterpoint is the sentimental Russian tune that accompanies Olga throughout some of the film’s most moving scenes. The song is first during Olga’s otherwordly female two-step on the red carpet of a massive Ukrainian bar, and in she later sings it to her left-behind baby daughter over the phone and dances to it in the hospital cellar with an affectionate (and naturally doomed) elderly heart-sick patient. The difference in Hofstätter’s acting is an even better indicator of the tonal change after the relentless, aggressive intensity of Dog Days (2001), where she was purely nerve-wracking; in Import Export she is quietly merciless. Yet every frame carries Seidl’s signature just as vividly. Amazingly, it’s absolutely impossible to notice which of the two cameramen (Wolfgang Thaler and Ed Lachman) shot what. There’s reliable expert use of the immediate force and strong flavour of documentary elements: Many locations are real, including the Ukrainian internet sex centre in which an uncomfortable and untalented Olga tries her luck modelling to South Park-like German porn instructions, until the frustrated customer resorts to yelling in English. (This is a highlight of the director’s taste for realsatire, like the inimitable Seidl-moment when Olga is lectured on the correct cleaning of a stuffed fox’s teeth at her first Austrian job.) As usual, most of Seidl’s cast consists of non-professionals, and the demented patients in the geriatric ward are, of course, real.
“Death,” as repeatedly stammered by one of them, is the final word, yet the film can be hardly called fatalistic—the most indelible image of Cannes finds Olga standing in the middle of a room for hopeless causes, staring at the camera as if lost in thought, while engulfed by the patients’ babble: the ambient music of dying is tinged with a transcendent beauty. Still, Olga’s predicament is predominately economic, whereas Paul can afford the Western luxury of an identity crisis (on credit, to boot). The contrast to Olga’s mostly quiet drift is quite strong in the beginning, with his screaming security training and a humiliating disaster on the job that leads to him being fired—not to mention the loss of his girlfriend in another quintessential Seidl scene: Paul surprises her at home with a terrifying dog and reacts to her visible fear by praising the animal’s superior devotion, while it tears a cuddly teddy bear to pieces.
Paul’s aimless life is rerouted when his slobbish stepfather (Michael Thomas) takes him along on a trip eastwards to install video and chewing gum machines. As the locations get increasingly surreal, their macho confrontations escalate, fueled by increasing alcohol intake. (A dare to enter the notorious Slovene Roma housing estate Lunik IX almost plays like an allegory of Seidl’s fearlessly confrontational methods.) Finally, when they reach the Ukraine, a grand night out at the disco ends in a three-way escalation in a hotel room that—although powerful and played brillantly—for some seems like a throwback to Dog Days. Yet in the end this scene makes perfect sense as climactic expression of Seidl’s fierce humanism in the face of a world shaped by market logic and humiliation. The Export of money allows for the exploitation of a young eastern female body—the perfect contrast to the Import of senile age made possible by Western wealth.
A quick note must be made of the fact that the concept of Cannes’ best film was ridiculed by the worst: Seidl’s Import Export has a structure, Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven has a script, which is just the most preposterous of the many problems it creates contrasting Hamburg and Istanbul. Akin’s straight face never redeems his German-Turkish mix-and-match of buzzwords (ah, the EU), heavy-handedly constructed connections (the kind where a close miss is emphasized by a camera pan to underline its, uh, subtlety), and sensationally stupid symbolism (the lesbian sex of the escaped Turkish terrorist with the soon-to-be-enlightened German chick is probably meant to express an alternative lifestyle to “fuck globalism”; for those who didn’t get it, “fuck globalism” literally gets a reprise in Akin’s sole attempt at political dialogue). That Seidl’s film, by far the most political in competition, was passed over by the jury astounds little; that Akin’s got the screenwriting prize says it all.