Import/Export: Ugliness on Both Sides of the Old Iron Curtain

Like its bifurcated title, Ulrich Seidl’s film offers an exercise in parallel storytelling, tracing the journeys of Olga (the excellent Ekateryna Rak), a Ukrainian nurse who leaves her mother and infant son behind to pursue a new life in Vienna, and of Pauli (Paul Hofmann), a debt-saddled Viennese supermarket security guard who agrees to help his loutish stepfather transport an outmoded arcade game to a buyer in the Ukraine. No pot of Euros awaits at the end of this rainbow: After briefly flirting with a career as an Internet sex operator at home, Olga finds that Vienna brings its own series of humiliations. Everything and everyone is for sale, like the prostitute that Pauli’s stepdad pulls by the hair and makes bark like a dog in a fleabag Ukrainian brothel. Seidl is easily dismissed as a misanthrope and, perhaps even more easily, defended as a closet humanist. The reality, as usual, lies somewhere in between. He may be best described as a Darwinian observer who looks at humanity the way an alien species might, honing in on our elemental urges and desires and fascinated by our awkward, fitful efforts to forge meaningful connections. And despite the frequent comparisons to his near-contemporary Michael Haneke, Seidl is considerably less interested in the problems of the bourgeoisie than of the poor and working class.