Sometimes it takes witnessing the relentless despair of others to be thankful of our own lives, and that is what the film is truly about.
Ulrich Seidl has a knack for making his audience uncomfortable and Import/Export is certainly no different. If any amusement is found in the film, it generally comes at someone else’s expense. The theme of Import/Export is an unwavering look at human exploitation in the form of amusement from humiliation. Even though much of what is on display in the film is human misery, by reminding the audience that death is only a matter of time, it reinforces the notion of making the most out of life no matter how unpleasant it may currently be.
Olga Guseva (Ekateryna Rak) is seen walking to work every morning through the snowy landscapes of Ukraine to her nursing job that pays her very little. After the final straw of not receiving her full paycheck that she is promised, the single mother is forced to seek new job opportunities in order to provide for herself and her baby. Apparently the options were pretty slim because she settles for an internet live-sex operator who performs sexual deeds via a webcam. Just as one would suspect, the work is very degrading and therefore does not last very long. In an effort to occupy a profession that is more gratifying, Olga retreats to Austria as a cleaning woman, leaving behind her young child with her mother to care for.
Import/Export receives its title because it follows two parallel storylines of characters in similar situations that move from one location to another. So as we follow Olga from lousy job to lousy job we also witness Paul (Paul Hofmann) as he is humiliated at his low-level mall security guard job by local Austrian thugs. Near the time Olga “imports” to Austria from the Ukraine in order to pursue a better life, Paul “exports” old arcade cabinets with his father from Austria to the Ukraine. Along the way, Paul and his father endure situations that no father and son should ever experience together.
The explicit connection these two characters share is the endless state of despair due to their unfulfilling jobs. Both Olga and Paul are dirt poor and merely go through the motions of living their mundane lives rather than exercise much enthusiasm for anything. Seidl paints a picture that is always as gloomy as it is outside; often showing devastating shots of poverty-stricken people who live in filth, which perfectly reflects the ugliness of the characters on screen. He finds a way for the audience to have vested interest in characters that have little to offer and who are deprived of everything, including their dignity.
As long as one is not new to Seidl as a director, there should be no surprises that Import/Export is mostly a grim, brutal exploitation film. Rather than hint at or slowly reveal what the film is about, Seidl bluntly displays what he is trying to bring about with images that stick with you. Obvious parallels are made throughout as characters see both sides of exploitation. An example of this is when Paul uses his dog to exploit someone’s fear of dogs for his amusement but then he is later forced to watch a prostitute who must involuntarily act like a dog on a leash at the expense of someone else’s amusement. As sad as it may be, sometimes it takes witnessing the relentless despair of others to be thankful of our own lives, and that is what the film is truly about.