The great Werner Herzog would surely approve of the way the Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl (Dog Days) dissolves the traditional boundaries between the ‘real’ and the fictional in his films. With Import Export he works without a traditional script, encouraging spontaneous performances from his non-professional cast. Crucially he films his actors in authentic locations, whether it’s a geriatric hospital ward containing real-life patients, a notorious Romany housing estate, or an online sex centre, where the women perform for unseen Western clients. Stylistically he prefers long takes and static tableaux, which force us to gaze protractedly at both the characters and their surrounding landscapes.
Import Export consists of two seemingly unrelated stories. Olga (Ekateryna Rak) is a Ukrainian nurse, who leaves behind her infant daughter and mother in search of better paid work in Vienna. Unemployed Pauli (Paul Hoffman) meanwhile is making the reverse geographical journey. Owing money to various creditors, he’s accompanying his lecherous stepfather Michael (Michael Thomas), who’s installing arcade machines to venues in Slovakia and Ukraine.
This is a political film, in the widest sense of the term, demonstrating how in the ‘new’, free-market Europe vulnerable individuals are appallingly exploited: some of the most chilling sequences involve dementia sufferers being routinely humiliated and punished by the nurses. Amidst the misery and despair however, there are moments in the powerfully acted Import Export of compassion and tenderness, invariably involving the devout Olga. And which other films instruct you on the correct way to clean the teeth on a stuffed fox’s head?
Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 3–Thu 9 Oct.