Wretchedness commutes between the Ukraine and Austria in Ulrich Seidl’s miserable but masterful drama “Import Export.” Helmer’s trademark unrelenting gaze into despair will come as no surprise to those familiar with his work. Seamless performances by mostly nonpros add vividness to Seidl’s dark vision, though pic’s unflinching and exploitative use of real-life geriatric patients borders on the cruel. Pic should perform well in Euro arthouse niche but elsewhere will be regarded as too dark for commercial auds. Fests, however, should issue trade papers immediately.
Pic consists of two ostensibly unrelated strands: one beginning in an industrial burg in the Ukraine and the other commencing in Vienna. Olga (Ekateryna Rak) is a single-mother and nurse who works in a Ukrainian hospital and is unable to pay her full wages every month. In Austria, aggressive Pauli (Paul Hofmann) is a directionless young man who lives with his mother and his greasy-haired stepdad (Michael Thomas) because he’s unable to maintain a permanent job or live within his limited means.
In the course of her story, Olga tries a stint at a web-camming center that services German men paying to see live nude models before deciding that life in her wasteland town is unsustainable. Leaving her child with her mother, Olga boards a train for Vienna where she can stay with a friend until she can get a financial foothold.
When Pauli first appears on camera, he is training to be a security guard, but after landing his first job, he’s attacked by a gang of youths who strip, handcuff and douse him in beer. Not sure what to do next and in debt to his increasingly resentful stepfather, Pauli agrees to accompany Michael on a trucking job that sees them transporting poker and gumball machines across several Eastern European countries.
Though both young protagonists finish where the other has started, via very different routes, their twin journeys equally share a landscape of desolation and gloom. Olga works as an au pair, a maid and, ironically, considering her original occupation, a cleaning woman in a geriatric hospital. While the work is difficult enough, the attractive, kind-hearted bottle blonde is a magnet for unreasonable employers and particularly attracts the ire of territorial head nurse Maria (Maria Hofstatter).
Pauli is a much more mean-spirited individual whose idea of a good time is teasing his canine-phobic g.f. with a vicious dog. However, even this violent and aimless young man elicits sympathy once he goes on the road trip with his degenerate stepfather, who seeks to utilize the road trip for its sexual opportunities.
Selecting the film’s most difficult moments would be gloomy conversation, but the male duo’s visit to a gypsy high-rise slum in Slovakia is only surpassed by what looks like exploitation of patients in the Austrian hospital scenes. Aiming for docu-like realism, helmer would probably regard such criticism with complete indifference, but even in confronting fare decorum has its place. Nevertheless, Seidl’s control of his compelling material (co-written by Veronika Franz) is palpable. The force-feeding of misery may be too much for some, but helmer is precise in the servings he dishes out.
Perfs are strong across the board. Rak ably embodies the faint glimmer of optimistic forebearance that grim script allows. In the other strand, the shift in the emotional power balance Michael and Pauli is a tribute to the thesping range of both pro thesp Thomas and the inexperienced but convincing Hofmann.
Lensing’s washed-out tones catches the grey bleakness of each character’s dingy milieu, and even in the few brightly colored interior locales provides an air of dreariness. Other tech credits are pro.