Like his countryman Michael Haneke, Austrian director Ulrich Seidl deals in human misery and degradation with a clinical precision that can seem like heartlessness. Known for his unusually cinematic documentaries, Seidl dipped a toe into feature filmmaking with 2001’s Dog Days, but whatever shred of empathy he sought to inject into his grotesque suburban tapestry got lost in the mocking tone. His second feature, 2007’s Import/Export, neither betrays his penchant for ink-black comedy nor soft-pedals his uncompromisingly bleak vision for how the other half lives, but it restores an important balance that was missing from Dog Days. Without making saints of his two dirt-poor, beaten-down protagonists, Seidl aligns himself more closely with their plight, all while showing two vastly different worlds, East and West, that force them into an ever-narrowing series of choices.
The title refers to the criss-crossing destinies of two characters whose lives might have parallels, but who never actually share the screen. In the Ukraine, single mother Ekateryna Rak logs time as a nurse at the local hospital, but the pitiful wages force her into a brief, degrading, equally low-paying stint as a computer-sex professional. Finally unable to take it anymore, Rak leaves her infant boy with her mother and takes a bus out west to Austria, where she picks up some intermittent work as cleaning woman. (Spoiler alert: That isn’t very gratifying, either.) Meanwhile, in Austria, Paul Hofmann loses his job as a mall security guard after getting mugged by a gang of thugs. Lacking options for even fitful employment, Hofmann joins his father (Michael Thomas) on an ill-conceived plan to install ancient arcade games and gumball machines in Ukrainian apartment towers.
To quote The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai, the main thrust of Import/Export appears to be “No matter where you go, there you are.” But appearances are slightly deceptive: While it’s true that moving to a new place doesn’t brighten Rak or Hofmann’s lives, Seidl doesn’t paint so broadly as to confuse the realities of being underclass in Austria and Ukraine. A sequence where Hofmann tries to service a Ukrainian apartment building where residents dump garbage off their back porches reveals shocking images of poverty; he and his father have to throw gumballs out the back of their van just to peel away from the scrum of desperate children. By contrast, the scenes in Austria are more middle-of-the-road exploitation, though Seidl notes the bitter irony of a skilled nurse in one country being forced to dust around the patients in another. Import/Export doesn’t hold both sides of the equation in perfect balance—for one, Rak’s adventures are far more compelling than Hofmann’s—but it continues Seidl’s darkly funny and surprisingly poignant fascination with the everyday grind.