Cargo of both the human and consumer variety travels back and forth from the former USSR to the new Europe in Import/Export, the second narrative feature by Austria’s Ulrich Seidl, which belatedly surfaces in New York after emerging as the film maudit of the 2008 Cannes competition. Like its bifurcated title, the 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-addled Viennese supermarket security guard who agrees to help his loutish stepfather transport an outmoded arcade game to a buyer in the Ukraine. In a season that has been rich in such immigrant stories, with Shane Meadows’s whimsical Somers Town having just arrived on these shores and the Dardenne brothers’ Lorna’s Silence due before the month is out, Seidl’s film arguably offers the toughest (and toughest to stomach) portrait of individuals tempest-tossed by the currents of the new global economy.
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, including the disposable treatment she receives from a bourgeois house frau during her brief stint as a live-in maid and the outright hostility of a nurse at the hospital where she ends up working as a janitor. 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—a somewhat predictable pièce de résistance, but an unsettling one nevertheless.
To set the stage for Import/Export‘s week-long run, Anthology Film Archives offers a seven-film Seidl retro, connecting the filmmaker’s latest to his previous work, particularly his 1995 documentary Animal Love (Tierische Liebe), which observed similar rituals of domination and submission as seen in the creepily co-dependent relationships between pets and their owners. That movie came complete with a money quote from Werner Herzog—”I have never looked so directly into hell in the cinema”—and, much like Herzog’s own protégé, Errol Morris, Seidl has a nearly unrivaled eye for eccentrics and Arbus-ian grotesques who would never get their close-ups in almost anyone else’s movies.
For this and other reasons (like Import/Export‘s extended Internet sex scene, with its many repetitions of the line, “Put a finger in your asshole”), 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. Seidl may best be described as a Darwinian observer, who looks at humanity the way an alien species might, honing in on our elemental urges and desires, fascinated by our awkward, fitful efforts to forge meaningful connections. And despite the frequent comparisons to his near-contemporary Michael Haneke, he is considerably less interested in the problems of the bourgeoisie than of the poor and working class (one of the most affecting chapters of Animal Love concerns two homeless men panhandling for change—with the aid of a rabbit—in a Vienna subway station). If he sometimes goes too far, or lingers too long (his preference is for spare, static compositions), he’s almost always pointing his camera at something that matters. And if it is indeed hell that Seidl stares into, then we are all burning in its fires.
Animal Love is but one of six documentaries in the Anthology series; another is the profoundly disturbing Models (1999), a sort of nightmare Project Runway about three aspirant cover girls nipping, tucking, snorting, and fucking their way toward hoped-for stardom. Also on tap is his 2001 narrative feature Dog Days (Hundstage), which follows the interaction of a half-dozen loosely connected characters over several days in a suburban tract-house expanse of overmanicured gardens and undersize swimming pools. Like most of Seidl’s films, it, too, is piled high with imperfect bodies urinating, copulating, and engaging in other unspectacular, sometimes-absurd bits of everyday business—like the divorced couple who, though still living together, haven’t spoken to each other since the death of their young child. The surprisingly tender image, late in the film, of the parents swaying mournfully on their child’s abandoned swing set in the middle of a summer rainstorm is echoed, in Import/Export, by a scene in which Olga sings a tear-soaked lullaby to her son over a long-distance phone call. While such moments may not exactly intone hope, they suggest an undeniable resilience of the species.