Ulrich Seidl’s Import/Export is all influences, no inspiration. A diptych wherein Olga (Ekateryna Rak) travels from poverty in the Ukraine to menial jobs in Austria, and Pauli (Paul Hofmann) travels from debt in Vienna to total disenchantment in the Ukraine, this 2007 picture feels like it was made in 1997. It feeds off artists by the handful, lessons observed and appreciated but no fuel to the fire of creativity. We get the dour deadpan of Roy Andersson without the humor; the diagrammatic coolness, distance, and misanthropic view of Michael Haneke, without the incision, the understanding of the effect of form and drama. We get the fascination of the on-camera, approaching documentary, of an essay film by Chantal Akerman (especially of D’Est) without the insight and pleasure of sympathetic, understanding aesthetics, with a concern only for the emblematic person on display, not the society he or she is a part of. We get that most pathetic legacy of Antonioni, the architectonic loneliness and alienation, the oppression of symmetry and geometry of the look of modern life, aesthetics clinical and spare to the point of severity. But this is without Antonioni’s specific social classes, without his eye, without the subtle psychology, the expressionism, the power of altering film space.
Seidl's film does chart some interesting similarities, mainly in how commonplace it is for societies of any nation to resort to humiliation and petty fights over territory to keep outsiders at bay, to keep themselves from feeling as bad as they probably really do. But this film is miserablism at its most tame, the barest extent of ideas. Olga gets badgered in her job as a maid, flirts with an internet sex operation, is accused of being a bad mother by her own mother. If it weren’t for Rak’s quiet, steadfast performance, the role would have floundered on the almost unending amount of clichés Seidl and his co-screenwriter Veronika Franz come up with to oppress the girl. A brief nod of her head when a fellow Ukrainian corrects her bad German is enough to hint at the warmth and humanism in both the character and the actress, if only Seidl hadn’t thrust her through a drama as pat as the rest.
Of course, this particular drama of an illegal alien in a country whose language she barely speaks is a common plight, but Seidl is more interested in the bland, vaguely archetypal path Olga takes than really wrangling with the material. Where she stays, who she sees, what she does with her time off—these are not considerations in a film that just wants to see her called off to a premature death evoked in tedium and the eventual hospital for the elderly at which she ends up working. Pauli is not as lucky, saddled with an unclear character who claims he has better values than the debauching father-in-law who takes him to the Ukraine on a business trip, but whose lethargy makes his character seem just an excuse for Seidl to travel East and capture impressive images of a gypsy tenement, Soviet-era hotels, and more sexual degradation. Perhaps if the film had stuck with its documentary aspects, a traveling camera eye, the lifeless tableaux would have a plain kind of veracity, a measured vision interested in a look of the world that is settled, lived-in, and mostly truly awful. Instead, Seidl saddles his interests with pat social critique, threads of character, and mediocre drama.
*** Import/Export is playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Film Comment Selects series.