Import Export, Ulrich Seidl, 135 mins (18)

Director Ulrich Seidl squares up to uncomfortable realities – his latest film exploits the voyeur in us all

The last film from the Austrian director Ulrich Seidl was Dog Days, about Viennese suburbanites broiling in the summer sun and being unspeakably vile to each other. It was barely palatable, and brilliant – the sort of film you need to wash down with a stiff schnapps. For Seidl's follow-up, Import Export, you'll need the schnapps again – and this time, you might want to add a vodka chaser.

Set on both sides of the East-West divide, Seidl's film (drama?, black comedy?, road movie?, quasi-documentary? No, all of these) follows the travels of two people crossing borders in search of the wherewithal to survive, both finding life abroad little better than the hell back home. Seidl is certainly not out to reassure us about modern European life, nor to entertain us, although the film has its moments of tight-jawed humour. But Import Export is mightily arresting in its sheer energy and audacity: for Seidl, life is a motorway pile-up that you can't look away from.

Half of the film concerns Olga (Ekateryna Rak), a Ukrainian nurse and single mother; she's first seen trudging through deep snow to a white-tiled hospital, then queuing for wages at a counter where she's told not to expect full payment until "next month"(Ukrainian, presumably, for "mañana"). To make ends meet, Olga takes a job in an internet porn studio, pointing her bottom at a webcam while an overheated unseen male barks orders, presumably from somewhere in Austria. Eventually, Olga travels to Vienna and finds work as au pair for a middle-class family, who come off worst of anyone in the film. The scene in which a brattish boy screams at her to find his mobile phone is cartoonishly abrasive, but horribly eloquent about the spoilt West's attitude to immigrant workers.

Meanwhile, Paul (Paul Hofman) is a young Austrian first seen undergoing farcically brutish training to be a security guard (sex and "security" being the two boom industries of a collapsing economy). All the shoving and psyching-up do little good: working in a mall, Paul is humiliatingly roughed up. Seidl seems to be setting Paul up as a thuggish oaf, but the lad turns out so ineffectually sad-sackish that we can't help sympathising with him. His beer-gutted buffoon of a stepfather Michael (Michael Thomas) enlists Paul to accompany him on the fools' mission par excellence, installing bubble gum dispensers in housing estates in the East. So off they go, trundling around the snowy desolation, visiting such inhospitable corners as the Slovakian housing estate where the cankered walls seem like thin bulwarks against the rising mountains of garbage outside.

What's terrifying about Import Export is that so much in it is real, a hair's breadth from documentary: Seidl and his crew shot in geriatric wards, porn sweatshops, blighted estates. But he uses real people too: of the two leads, one had never visited the West before; the other's biog notes that he has done time in jail and has no fixed address.

The supporting cast includes the patients of a geriatric ward. Ravaged by decrepitude or in advanced dementia, they're apparently just being themselves. The question is how much they're aware of the camera, and of eventual viewers. You worry that the film is exploiting them as exhibits, to make a point about the indignity of old age: the scene in which they're decked out in make-up and party hats for a ward party makes for particularly uneasy viewing. Then there's the scene in which a drunken Michael amuses himself by humiliating a young prostitute. The woman is not an actress, but a real prostitute, which gives the episode an unnerving immediacy. Yet there's neither titillation nor sensationalism involved. In fact, you wonder who's really humiliated here: the woman, who gazes with wry tolerance at her client, or Michael, cheerfully incarnating the extremes of male imbecility.

Import Export undeniably ups the ante on cinematic debates about voyeurism and exploitation. And there are moments when you feel Seidl overstates his case. But I came out of the film shaken rather than depressed. Amid the darkness, Seidl does have some qualified good news to impart about the human spirit: Paul ends up as a solitary embodiment of almost zen-like independence, while Olga's dance with an elderly patient has a tender, understated simplicity that gives the film a welcome uplift.

Dog Days made me feel that Seidl's contempt for his fellow humans was absolute; in Import Export there is unmistakable compassion, albeit of a steely, unsentimental kind. No film-maker has gone so far out on a limb to deliver us the hard news about the new Europe and its grubby economic realities. Forget all the puffed-up indie dabblers who fancy themselves as "guerrilla" film-makers: Ulrich Seidl, like it or not, is the real thing.

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power