A nurse from the Ukraine wants to escape her dreary, scrabbling, poverty-filled existence and find a better life in the West. An unemployed Viennese security guard sees the eastern European country as an excellent opportunity to cash in on an emerging, needy market. Their lives undergo radical changes as they try to find a new life in a strange land as they “Import/Export.”
Moving in unexpected story paths, “Import/Export” begins with us meeting Olga (Ekateryna Rak) and Paul (Paul Hofmann). Her life in poverty-stricken Snicne, Ukraine is hammered home when she is a work at her nursing job in an urban hospital where supplies, medicine and running water are in short, if not nonexistent, supply. She makes the decision to head west and try to turn her life around.
Paul is a ne’er-do-well who owes money to everyone – father, friends, even his mother. Always on the lookout for an easy, quick rich scheme, he and his father buy up junk videogames (like Pong) and head east to make their fortune. Paul, used to the relatively pampered life in the west is in for a shock when he sees the horrendous standard of living in the east.
For each, the life in their new home takes very different directions. For Olga, though relegated to the lowly job as a cleaning lady, is positive and hardworking. For her, life is changing for the better. Paul, on the other hand, left the comfort of the west for the hardship of the east. For Paul, life goes from bad to worse. There is never a moment telegraphed in the story by director Ulrich Seidl and Veronika Franz, keeping me interested and attentive throughout its 2+-hour runtime.
The DVD only has a couple of extras – an interview with director Seidl and one with cinematographers Ed Lachman. Pretty sparse from an extras standpoint but the film, itself, is what you want to see. I give it a B+.
In the Ukraine, single mother Olga (Ekateryna Rak) cannot subsist on the cut wages she receives as a nurse. In Vienna, Pauli (Paul Hofmann) loses his new job as a security guard when he is hazed by his fellow trainees. Desperate, Olga leaves her child with her mother and travels to Vienna, where her friend, Natashka, has a job as a cleaning woman in a hospital while Pauli accompanies his lecherous stepdad to the Ukraine to unload old arcade games for a profit. They have become an "Import/Export."
Cowriter (with Veronika Franz)/director Ulrich Seidl ("Dog Days," "Jesus, You Know") uses Eastern and Western Europe to illustrate the exploitation of the powerless working class, with Eastern Europe notably represented by a woman while the Western story follows a man representing those who would corrupt them.
In Vienna, Pauli receives borderline abusive training (Seidl is careful to note that exploitation happens at all levels), then brings a dog, Caesar, to his girlfriend's apartment. She is terrified of dogs and he cannot convince her what a good creature Caesar is, noting that dogs tend to be more loyal than girlfriends. In the Ukraine, Olga resorts to explicit Internet porn to pad her wages (all customers are from the West, speaking German), but cannot be as blase about her debasement as the friend who gets her in. Olga decides to leave and the wordless goodbye she exchanges with her mother is an astonishing scene. Pauli is not only out of a job (his former trainee group handcuff him, strip him and douse him with beer at his workplace), but being hit up for repayment of loans he cannot pay. When his boorish stepfather insists he accompany him to Ukraine, Pauli has little recourse.
Seidl shifts back and forth between his two protagonists, but his stories do not carry the same weight. Olga's situation is much more sympathetic and downtrodden and yet she maintains her morals - if anything, her kindnesses are more frequently punished than rewarded. She is fired as a housekeeper by a rich woman whose children she attempts to play with and told off by a nurse for comforting a patient in the hospital ward where she subsequently cleans. Her relationship with an older patient, Erich (Erich Finsches, "Dog Days"), is a lesson in the assumptions we routinely make. Pauli rejects typical Western behavior (exemplified by his stepdad who treats a faceless prostitute the way Olga's former clients treated her), but he doesn't exhibit the strength of character that Olga does. Eastern work ethic vs. the softer West. It is clear who Seidl sides with.
Cinematography by Edward Lachman ("Far From Heaven") and Wolfgang Thaler ("Dog Days") tends toward the static in icy Ukraine, watching Olga work from afar, whereas the camera has more 'life' in the West following Pauli's various (mis)adventures. Seidl's film is engrossing and, although frequently tough to watch, in the end quite moving.
The DVD is in the film's original aspect ratio of 1:66:1 and features brief interviews with both Seidl and cinematographer Lachman.
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