By the hand of unseen forces we are all imported into this life just as easily as we are eventually exported from it. For some, the life lived in between is one of struggle and the search for an escape – often only from one form of misery to another.
Ulrich Seidl’s IMPORT/EXPORT takes his ‘indiscreet gaze’ and applies it to the unseen forces governing the fates of economic migrants in Europe. The commodification of the human spirit has been dealt with before in DEAD SOULS, by the Ukrainian-born, Russian-language writer Nikolai Gogol. In Seidl’s film the souls are living, but it is the soul of Austria (for which, read Europe) which appears moribund. IMPORT/EXPORT is set in the heart of the former Habsburg Empire, Vienna, stretching across its territories, beyond its borders and into the Ukraine. These borders are again traversable following the fall of communism and rise of the European Union, but internal borders – social, cultural and existential – remain.
Seidl’s previous works have dealt with the ugliness of humanity, particularly in the private lives of Austrian society. For him the private realm can be a strange and frightening one, often hidden behind a more attractive or wholesome facade. This is morbidly embodied in Austria’s metaphorical and almost pathological fascination with dark secrets hidden in the cellar. The repression of unpleasant truths deep into the collective subconscious is a focus of other Austrian artists, such as the painter Gottfried Helnwein and the writer Thomas Bernhard (the latter a known influence on Seidl). Bernhard’s works were often stinging criticisms of his compatriots’ hypocrisy, and of their convenient denials of a Nazi past. This culminated in him banning his own works from being published in the Austrian state he detested. From him Seidl undoubtedly takes the dark humour evident in his films. What he shares with Helnwein is an aesthetic desire to portray ugliness in its most beautiful light. Seidl’s composition is striking. He takes the Austrian classical period’s attitude to social problems of diversion through art, and turns it on its head. Here ugliness is the subject of his gaze, and as a result the viewer’s, but is rendered so beautifully as to make it difficult to flinch from.
…The Austrians carry their rolls of fat as if they were uniforms of decadence, signifiers of their moral decline…
The symmetrical nature of Seidl’s mise-en-scene compositions bears reference to his Catholic upbringing. He has referred to these compositions as being like altarpieces, in turn imbuing his subjects with a magical quality. He does for modern day Europe’s outsiders what Caravaggio did for 16th century street urchins and prostitutes.The subjects of these compositions are often framed centrally, not just to emphasise their isolation or loneliness, but also to forcefully place them in the centre of the image – those who are usually on the fringes of society are now in the middle of the frame.
There is often talk of Seidl’s films as being anthropological studies, and IMPORT/EXPORT is no exception. Filmmakers Krzysztof Kieslowski and Jean Rouch believed that fiction is the best way to penetrate reality, and Seidl’s fiction and documentary films have blurred the boundaries between both approaches. Thus, IMPORT/EXPORT crosses yet another border.
The film employs parallel narratives – an unskilled worker and migrant worker – to reveal what they have in common, despite their very different existences: one within the ‘privileged’ EU, the other located out close to the Russian border. Olga, a nurse from eastern Ukraine, struggles to live on her reduced wages and turns in desperation to the internet sex industry, before deciding to migrate to Austria to stay with her sister. Paul is a young, indebted, workhorse who can neither hold down a job nor hold on to cash.
While much of Seidl’s work could be generalised as universal to all human behaviour, his closeness to Thomas Bernhard’s humour manifests itself in the brutal, ludicrous caricatures of Austrian society. The Austrians carry their rolls of fat as if they were uniforms of decadence, signifiers of their moral decline. Evidence of Seidl’s’ mockery comes towards the brilliant end of the film, where the residents and staff of the care home celebrate Karneval – the traditional festival of catholic lands where the church and its rituals and figures of authority are publicly mocked. In these scenes, the dementia patients transcend their previous states of indignity and appear like celestial beings – the ghosts of their own pasts restored to their former glory. The carers that have maltreated them are exposed as monstrous effigies of themselves. In fitting with the Karneval tradition Olga manages to humiliate her superior, perhaps indicating that she has on some level now assimilated with Austrian culture.
It is difficult not to draw parallels with Marxist ideas and critiques of Capitalism in the film. Commodity fetishism, for example, is the notion that social relations and interactions have become primarily market interactions, and that unspectacular items, when converted to commodities, take on magical properties ‘that transcend sensuousness’. IMPORT/EXPORT enters the unfolding of this process at a stage where human beings are commodified and stripped of their inherent humanity, and social relations are replaced by market exchanges. This is typified throughout, but particularly when Paul’s stepfather Michael pays a Ukrainian prostitute to humiliate herself in a variety of increasingly demeaning and, to her, unfathomable ways.
Interactions and exchanges in the film are of great significance. Olga is screamed at by the noxious brat she is au pair to, when he can’t find his mobile phone; foreigners and elderly patients are condescendingly treated and humiliated. Money and material goods have ironically become central to those that already have them – Paul’s stepfather brags about showing him the “power of money” by debasing a prostitute, with his money belt ludicrously strapped across his naked torso, close to his heart, as he torments her. In the reductive attempts by her employers to devalue and depersonalise her and her work, Olga is subjected to the kind of treatment that is unfortunately commonplace among immigrant workers. Economic migrants may well, in the eyes of some, ‘come over here and take our jobs’ but they also take more than their fair share of shit on a daily basis.
What’s interesting to note in this dynamic of social relations as market relations is how value is assigned to the human commodities. Not only is Olga’s worth regularly underestimated and denigrated, she also has a high, desirable value for many, inspiring desire, jealousy and kindness. Olga and Paul, however, both eventually reveal their own inherent values within this skewed market system. The qualities or ‘values’ they possess are untouchable, uncommodifiable (thus far at any rate): values such as dignity, courage, beauty and compassion.
…In a film about the mobility of labour, it is interesting to see how much of the two main characters’ movement is constricted…
Marxist ideas of work and human identity are also central to IMPORT/EXPORT. The alienation and estrangement from this ‘species essence’ (Gattungswesen) are laid bare in the opening scenes as Paul and Olga are individually framed in unremittingly inhuman landscapes. Identity and work are tied very closely together – Olga’s identity as a nurse, Paul’s as a physical worker. Physicality is important in defining these identities. Often Seidl’s characters are engaged in corporeal acts – through work, dance, sex or violence – and it is at these moments that the true essence of their being is revealed. In a film about the mobility of labour, it is interesting to see how much of the two main characters movement is constricted – by Seidl’s composition or by other agents in the film. This constriction of movement is something similarly, but more painfully explored in the immigration films of Pedro Costa.
Daily Mail readers will be pleased to note that this is an immigrant film that deals in stereotypes. However, potentially less pleasing for them is the intelligent way in which they are handled. Western Europe’s preconceptions of the East’s backwardness are handled with care and empathy. The shocking scenes of depravation endured by the Roma community in the dilapidated Lunik IX borough of Slovakia’s second city, Kosice, are taken from real life. Slovakia, it must be added here, is a member of the EU.
The lack of basic material comforts in Olga’s living conditions, such as hot water, heating and accommodation secure from the -30 degree weather outside, are a hangover from the communist era. Wages paid in full and on time are nothing when contrasted to the pompous, preening indifference of the ‘civilised’ world to its own citizens. Quite differently, Paul’s initial behaviour and manner is calculated to arouse the viewer’s prejudices in seeing him as a neo-Nazi thug, yet this is later confounded (tellingly as he drifts to the cultural and physical boundaries of Western Europe) by his talk of values, harmony and his sensitive treatment of women. Olga, tall, blonde, Ukrainian and desperate for money, also evades the fate one might expect – that of a put-upon immigrant worker, trafficked into servitude – to emerge with her dignity intact. The only unforgiving, and one might say befitting stereotypes are those of the Austrians encountered with their kleinburger attitudes and late onset western moral decline.
IMPORT/EXPORT is a brilliant film and easily Seidl’s best, despite the intoxicating wickedness of DOG DAYS (HUNDSTAGE). IMPORT/EXPORT has sometimes been lazily dismissed as misery porn, but if it is misery porn then it is beautifully composed, thinking man’s misery porn. The sort that makes you stop the self-flagellation to pay greater attention and allow more than your baser instincts to be gratified.