The daylight-starved, chalky pallor of a fluorescent-lit sex worker. The barren, watched-over retail vistas of a security guard. The perpetual chill that falls in a winter of low-cost human labor. Viennese filmmaker Ulrich Seidel barters such images and ideas in Import/Export, an intriguing 141-minute exercise in Jeanne Dielman-style endurance that flirts with pre-reality TV banality immersion before succumbing to the sordid, rough-and-tumble charms of its characters as they scramble and shill for the all-mighty scrill.
At the heart of Import/Export is Olga (an angelic Ekateryna Rak), a nurse who is having a tough time making ends meet for her family in snow-cloaked Ukraine. She gives live-cam online sex work a stab -- Seidel plays the job for laughs, as Olga tries to memorizes rote, German-language sex talk -- though matters turn decidedly grimmer as she undergoes customers’ verbal abuse. So Olga goes west, to Austria, in search of somewhat more dignified work, picking up dirty adult diapers as a cleaning woman at a geriatric hospital.
Meanwhile, Pauli (Paul Hofmann) is also attempting to carve out an existence in Austria, where he toils as a security guard. When he gets hog-tied and stripped by a gang of young toughs, he rethinks his line of work, hands over his fate to his sleazy stepfather Michael (Michael Thomas), and heads east to the Ukraine. Unfortunately, the older man -- who seems to positively ooze unwholesomeness, from his droopy mustache to his greased mullet -- has an ugly penchant, and talent, for enticing Russian girls (who can barely understand a word he’s saying) to remove their knickers and assume assorted degrading positions.
"Trading Places" might be the unofficial subtitle of this gritty, lengthy peek into the workstyles of the immigrant poor. Needless to say, its unflinching, clear-eyed look at a borderless Europe, particularly during this time of worldwide recession, is timely. Of course, Chantal Ackerman is a reference point for Seidel, but so are Karl Marx and Charles Bukowski: after all, what won’t these characters do for a buck? It’s all up for grabs in the fluid yet turbulent waters of the global economy. And, as Import/Export’s characters submit to their various humiliations, Seidel’s gaze is by turns both glaringly harsh and carefully affectionate: he’s a frustrated union organizer and a fearsome moralist. Here, abjection is his forte -- and the focal point of his quiet outrage.