When the provocative Austrian director Ulrich Seidl casts his unblinking, unflinching eye on late-stage capitalism, we'd be wise to take in the sobering view. Ostensibly about the degradation of Eastern European wage slaves, Import/Export plays like a coming attraction of our own near future.
With a handful of bleak opening shots, Seidl etches the hard life of a tall, pretty Ukrainian nurse. Olga is dedicated to her work with children, enduring the strapped hospital's primitive facilities and braving the long winter commute on foot. But she can't go on supporting her son and mother on cut-back paychecks.
Desperately seeking income, Olga joins a friend who works for a cybersex company, exposing herself via Webcam to the demeaning instructions of anonymous strangers (in Germany and Austria, one gathers). But Olga has too much self-respect -- although she never says so -- so she stoically kisses her mother and son goodbye and takes the train to Austria in search of menial labor.
Meanwhile, a rough-hewn, short-hair Viennese named Pauli trains to work as a security guard. Part bully, part ignorant youth, he loses his first job when a late-night pack of young drunks trusses him up in the building's empty garage. With no skills, no experience and no prospects, Pauli has no choice but to make a euro accompanying his stepfather on a vending-machine delivery to the Ukraine.
Seidl favors static, fixed-camera compositions that emphasize the walls and limits (if not borders) constraining his characters. But he doesn't try to replicate documentary-style realism, or to rub our noses in the grit. In fact, there's nary a whiff of indignation in the entire two and a quarter hours, and only the tiniest, most ineffectual ripples of anger.
Above all, there's neither tragedy nor catharsis -- the twin grails of American social-realist filmmaking -- in Import/Export, which screened as part of Berlin & Beyond in 2008. The upshot is that Seidl elicits a far more complicated response than pity or empathy.
The film's numerous proofs that exploitation is the inevitable byproduct of capitalism provoke a shock of recognition, adding to the horror. In the movie's longest and most discomfiting scene, Pauli's soused stepfather makes "harmless" sport of a Ukrainian prostitute, all the while instructing Pauli to absorb "a lesson in the power of money."
By matter-of-factly delineating gradations of humiliation, the filmmaker doesn't aim to wallow in human misery but to present the various strategies by which a person at the bottom of the food chain can preserve her or his dignity. We might have been able to watch a film like Import/Export from a comfortable distance not so long ago, but with layoffs and foreclosures on the rise, dignity is shaping up to be the new American value.
Similarly, had we met Olga and Pauli in the first giddy days after the fall of the Iron Curtain, we would have viewed them as lucky young people with new opportunities in a suddenly open society. We imagined the East catching up to the West in creature comforts and standard of living. Today it looks like the opposite scenario is more likely. Import/Export may represent our future, and it's not a pretty picture.
Import/Export screens Thursday, February 12 through Saturday, February 14, 2009 at 7:30 p.m. at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit ybca.org.