This fall at Northwest Film Forum we’ll be showing Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl’s much-heralded film, Import Export. His recent interview with Green Cine covers both the extreme conditions required for Seidl to smile and the hazards of filming in the Ukraine — “thousands of unemployed Gypsies.”
Import Export will screen November 6-12.
INTERVIEW: Ulrich Seidl
[First, a most necessary shout-out: welcome back, David Hudson! We missed you, desperately.]
Many are quick to label Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl (Dog Days, Animal Love) first and foremost as a provocateur, as if his unflinching, tableau-heavy films about “the poor, dispossessed and unredeemable that have come to stand in for Europe” (as Vadim Rizov astutely noted) had no further depth than their confrontational qualities. Finally getting a U.S. theatrical release since its 2007 Cannes premiere, Import/Export—easily his richest work to date—opens at Anthology Film Archives tomorrow:
Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl’s latest feature film tells two stories that at first glance appear unrelated. One is an import story, beginning in the Ukraine and leading to Austria. The other is an export story, in which the trajectory is reversed. The first concerns Olga, a young nurse and mother who, determined to leave the Ukraine, decides to go to Austria, where she eventually finds work as a cleaning lady in a geriatric hospital. The other story follows Paul, a young Austrian man who finds himself unemployed and in debt, until his stepfather takes him along to a job in the Ukraine installing video gambling machines. Both of these characters are in search of work, a new beginning, an existence, life: Olga, from Eastern Europe, where unremitting poverty is the order of the day; Paul, from the West, where unemployment means not hunger, but a crisis of identity and a sense of uselessness. Both are struggling to believe in themselves, to find meaning; both travel to a new country, and thus into its depths. Import/Export is a film about sex and death, living and dying, winners and losers, power and helplessness.
By email, Seidl was gracious enough to answer some of my questions about the film…
In an interview on your website, you said that, for years, you’ve wanted to make a film in Eastern Europe because you feel very close to the people there. Specifically, how so?
Apart from the hospitality that characterizes all the countries of Eastern Europe, I mainly feel that I can relate to the mentality of the population. The people in the East (Ukraine) take life as it comes and have more time for each other. In contrast to our western society, where time defines and regulates people’s lives (although paradoxically, we live in a leisure society), they take their time with things in the East. There are times for celebration and mourning.
Some of the shooting locations looked extremely treacherous. While in the Ukraine, did you ever feel like you were in any physical danger?
Not really. As a rule, I have faith that, in foreign places, people react to how one approaches them. However, naturally one is scared when entering a ghetto populated by thousands of unemployed Gypsies where people have been segregated, hated and left to their fates for the first time.
You’ve long seemed to favor tableau images, with a focus on their geometry and symmetry. Do you see a specific power or purpose in this aesthetic that has made it versatile throughout your filmmaking career?
Maybe my tableaux are an attempt to describe the world in one picture. Life is frozen for a few moments; the people are often frozen but breathe the pictures. It is a type of magical moment that is transferred to the viewer. The glances meet and one looks each other in the eye.
To me, your films are recognizable by some of your trademark styles, even when you work with different cinematographers. What was your working relationship like with Ed Lachman, as compared to your long-time collaborator Wolfgang Thaler?
In Import/Export, I could afford the luxury to work with two as experienced as different cameramen, Ed Lachman and Wolfgang Thaler. This was not only a special experience but also a great joy for me (although the intention was never to reinvent my film language). The field of responsibility was also very varied. While Wolfgang handled the camera, Ed was responsible for the light; in my case this meant using as little lighting as possible. I believe that it was exactly this task that was the lure in our collaboration for Ed: to make big cinematic imagery with a minimum of technology.
Just like the photographer Diane Arbus was regularly criticized, some have questioned whether you exploit your documentary subjects by depicting them in unflattering conditions. How would you react if that was brought up in regards to the elderly patients, who arguably aren’t as self-aware as the internet porn actors?
Allegations of this kind have accompanied my entire filmmaking carrier to date. But who wants to determine what is permitted, what is not and who wants to set the limits? I know that as a director I take and accept responsibility for how I portray people. The question is whether I portray people in a way that allows them to keep their dignity. I think that I have accomplished that and have even given some of it back to them through my portrayal. Or are moribund people not worthy of portrayal? Are they too ugly and/or miserable? Those that think like this apparently have a bad conscience, are aware of the fact that they are responsible for it. What I showed in geriatrics, namely that all these people finally end up perishing alone and very lonely is a responsibility of society and therefore, the responsibility of us all. The fact that we accept this is the real scandal. Oh yes, getting the formal agreement from the geriatric patients was not a difficult but purely a bureaucratic task.
Is there such a thing as “too provocative,” an artistic boundary that shouldn’t be crossed?
I confront the viewer with certain realities, also or exactly because they are unpleasant. The viewers are responsible and I don’t want to keep certain truths from them. I do not want to make things appear nicer than they are in order to make it easier for the viewer. Fomenting unrest is sometimes the task of an artist. But apart from this, naturally boundaries exist for me. Boundaries for what and how I want to show something (there are some things that I am unsure I want to show). However, this is based on my own convictions and feelings regarding something and not consideration towards the viewer.
In his Import/Export shooting diary, assistant director and Ukraine producer Klaus Pridnig said he only saw you smiling twice, both during extreme weather conditions. Your films are known for their despairing conditions, and any moments of comedy are usually pitch-black. What makes you smile, or even happy?
I believe that one has to be thankful for moments of happiness because happiness can’t be created; my life has moments of happiness too. I know I am seen as very serious and demanding but I always try to find humor in melancholy. If I manage to make people laugh with my films and their laughter gets stuck in their throat in the next moment, if I succeed in doing that, then that makes me happy.