Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ekateryna Rak, Paul Hofmann, Michael Thomas, Maria Hofstätter, Georg Friedrich, Natalija Baranova, Natalja Epureanu, Erich Finsches
Written by: Ulrich Seidl, Veronika Franz
Directed by: Ulrich Seidl
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: German, Slovak, Russian, English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 135
Date: 03/19/2013

Import Export (2007)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Ukraine Shots

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Austrian director Ulrich Seidl makes uneasy films. There's a hint of black humor, but it's kept at a great distance, as if only Seidl were truly in on the joke; if his movies were a party, you might laugh along -- even if you didn't understand -- just so you wouldn't feel left out. There's also a mean undercurrent that, if the jokes don't work, can cause the work to feel abhorrent and cruel. His 2001 Dog Days -- released in the United States in 2003 -- divided reviewers right down the middle (this reviewer hated it) but his latest film Import Export (from 2007, but newly available on DVD) adds the welcome element of humanity to stand between the cruelty and humor.

The title refers to two young people who never meet onscreen and are desperately looking for work. The "import," Olga (Ekateryna Rak), is a single mother and a nurse from the Ukraine, who travels to Austria for a job. The "export" is Austrian Paul (Paul Hofmann), who winds up with a job in the Ukraine. Paul trains passionately for a job as a security guard. He punches the air in his apartment and takes grueling classes from a hard-ass instructor. When he finally gets the job, a band of thugs immediately gang up on him in a parking garage. But they don't merely get the jump on him; they humiliate him to within an inch of his life. He loses that job and ends up working with his stepfather delivering arcade games and vending machines. While staying overnight, he watches as his stepfather tries to pick up on numerous girls.

Unfortunately, Paul is a bit of a hothead who manages to get into a fight no matter where he goes. His story is interesting, but eventually he blows up too many times and pushes too many buttons, and since the film never really burrows inside him to find out what makes him tick, he eventually grows tiresome. Not so with the gentle, beautiful, blonde Olga. We see her collecting a meager paycheck from her Ukrainian nursing job, and she decides she can no longer afford to work there. She lands a job on an Internet porn site, but doesn't speak the language and can't understand the commands of her customers. She begins cleaning a huge house, but is fired (presumably for growing too close to the family's children). Finally she gets work cleaning a hospital, where her old nursing skills come back into play; she befriends an elderly gent who wishes to hire her as a private nurse. But most of all, we witness a single, heartbreaking phone call to her son. She sings him a quick song over the phone and hangs up on him before she can start crying.

Import Export is filled with extraordinary images: harsh snow, grimy buildings, creepy old people, sex and violence (Paul is "violence" and Olga is "sex"), but the honest-to-goodness mother love exhibited in that one shot raises the movie past snark and into something more genuine. From it, we know Olga and we know her heart, and her half of the movie is gentle and calm and kind enough to smooth out the other half.

Palisades Tartan released the U.S. DVD. Extras include an interview with director Seidl and cinematographer Edward Lachman.

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