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Time Out New York Project: Issue #722, July 30-August 5, 2009
Dir. Ulrich Seidl. 2007. N/R. 141mins. In German and Russian, with subtitles. Ekateryna Rak, Paul Hofmann, Michael Thomas.
Olga (Rak) is a Ukrainian nurse who comes to Austria to make ends meet. Pauli (Hofmann) is an Austrian loafer who travels to Ukraine to deliver a video-game console. The parallels between these complementary narratives (the principal characters never meet) couldn’t be more schematic and obvious. But director-cowriter Ulrich Seidl (Dog Days) never allows Import Export to devolve into a facile “crossing over” allegory.
Seidl is more content to conduct the proceedings as if they were a waltz in which the participants are always on opposite sides of the dance floor. There is no music score, but there is a hardscrabble rhythm that emerges from the director’s relentless gaze at both his fictional protagonists and the real-life extras at the margins of the tale.
A good number of people have slapped Seidl with an exploiter’s label for including actual dementia patients in the scenes in which Olga works as a hospice cleaning lady. On some knee-jerk level of discomfort, the accusers might have a point; it still seems an act of tremendous courage to face mortality with such head-on brazenness. Import Export demands we contemplate the horror and the beauty of existence in equal measure, nowhere more evident than in the indelible final shot, as the hospice residents’ various death rattles harmonize in an elating musica humana.—Keith Uhlich