Olga (Ekateryna Rak) is a nurse in Ukraine who looks after babies. She has an infant son of her own, but must leave him with her mother while she goes out to work, only she is finding the wages she makes are not sufficient to sustain the family and will have to look further afield for her income, but how far is she prepared to go, both geographically or in other, more demeaning ways? Meanwhile, Pauli (Paul Hofmann) is in Austria, training to be a security guard which involves a lot of physical punishment thanks to the overseer putting he and his fellow trainees through their paces. The trouble is, he does not find it easy to hold down a job, so with the employment market being what it is, how long before he must seek work elsewhere as well?
Import Export was a lengthy, observational effort from writer and director Ulrich Seidl, here guiding a selection of amateur performers and the occasional professional in what for many of them would be their sole film of note, or indeed at all. Hofmann in particular was reported to be a young, homeless man he was giving a break to, and late on were a selection of geriatric patients featured in a hospital who to every appearance looked to be genuine, and as confused as you would expect actual dementia sufferers to be. This contributed to the studied element of authenticity, as if this was not exactly a drama-documentary, it nevertheless generated the sense of dropping in on real people.
Seidl was also unafraid to follow them to their grimmest moments, indeed there was a strong possibility that was the reason he made this film, to rub the audience's collective nose in the harsh realities of life on or below the poverty line in Central and Eastern Europe, all the better to highlight the injustices or degradations that millions of citizens were struggling with day to day. The implication was that if you started off fairly comfortably, there would come a time when that would no longer be the case and you would have to rely on one of the less privileged to tend to your needs; then again, you could start life as a baby with whooping cough and it would be downhill from that point forward.
The camera dropped in on the existences of its two main characters, who contrary to expectations never met throughout the over two hours running time, merely switching between their parallel stories, and as we know parallel lines never cross their paths. In the process, we could observe from that oddly dispassionate distance the others who they encountered, be they employers or more random folks, each time making an oblique comment on the similarities connecting both Olga and Pauli, so the latter is humiliated in his capacity as a guard when a gang pick on him in an underground car park and strip him which loses him the job, while the former is forced to take a position as a sex worker, quite a few demeaning positions actually, as anonymous creeps bark orders at her over the internet while she performs for them to masturbate to.
That was just in the first half hour, and there were more depressing circumstances for our hero and heroine lined up. Sometimes those connections were more subtle: would many watching the prostitute Pauli's stepfather (Michael Thomas) plays with and gets to act like a dog recall that Pauli had frightened away his girlfriend with an actual pooch she wanted nothing to do with at the beginning of the movie, for example? Though in other places these aspects were more blatant, such as when Pauli dances in a club which was contrasted with Olga dancing alone in the hospital with an elderly gent she had taken a liking to. Over and over the message was clear, people deserved better than this, though Seidl stopped short of pointing fingers at those he held responsible, aside from a rich employer of Olga's who fires her for essentially getting on better with her kids than she does. There was a lot of humanity here, merely in the fact of presenting lives less focused on in mainstream cinema, and if it was not what you would call escapism, it did feel it was conducting an act of social generosity. Music by Roman Gottwald.