The Old Country

Darrell Hartman on Ulrich Seidl

Ulrich Seidl, Import/Export, 2007, still from a color film in 16 mm, 141 minutes.

FEW DIRECTORS MAKE THE FRAME seem more like a prison cell than Ulrich Seidl. Confined to their airtight chambers, his characters lead empty, repetitive lives consisting of cruel, pointless relationships. His camera rarely shows signs of life.

In Seidl’s documentaries, which have drawn controversy for their staged elements, the subjects sometimes look back into the camera. The girls in Models (1999) lean toward it to check their makeup. The earnest, somewhat pathetic Christians in Jesus, You Know (2003) train their eyes just above it, as if praying for a bolt of lightning—or something, anything—to emerge from the lens.

In Seidl’s so-called feature films, it is impossible to tell the actors from the nonactors. He has been criticized for exploiting the latter in particular, but it’s never quite that simple: The most grotesque scene in Dog Days (2001)—an elderly housemaid performing a strip tease for her dwarfish employer—is also arguably its most affecting. And the scenes of deranged hospital patients in his latest, Import/Export (2007)—mainly unscripted and unstaged, one presumes—do the most to convey, and by extension protest, the indignity of aging in a culture that leaves the old and infirm in the indifferent hands of the state.

Import/Export tells parallel (but not, as has become trendy, intersecting) stories of Olga, a young Ukrainian woman in Austria, and Paul, a young Austrian man who makes his way to Ukraine. Seidl’s mise-en-scène (here shot by veteran cinematographer Ed Lachman) is as drab and sterile as ever, with snow-blown, garbage-strewn Eastern European housing complexes adding a layer of dystopian gloom. Still, as several critics have pointed out, Seidl’s latest examination of modern man’s inhumanity is his most sympathetic.

Austrians—depicted as misogynists, shrews, bores, spoiled brats—bully their economic inferiors on both sides of what was once the iron curtain. In the film’s most resonant metaphor, Old Europe is literally rotting away in the geriatric ward where Olga, trained as a nurse in Ukraine, finds work as a cleaning lady. “Stinks!” one patient cries out in the dark. Then, in more of a whimper, “Death.” But there’s a glimmer of hope that fed-up youth might punch a hole in the hellish little existence their forebears have boxed themselves into.

A retrospective of the work of Ulrich Seidl runs July 24–30 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Seidl’s Import/Export will have its New York theatrical premiere July 31–August 6, also at Anthology Film Archives. Cinematographer Ed Lachman will introduce the final screening of Import/Export on August 6 at 9:15 PM. For more details, click here.