Ulrich Seidl on IMPORT EXPORT

«I wanted to work on an authentic set at a hospital’s geriatric ward, that was extremely important to me. I wanted to make it possible to capture everything that happened on film, and at the same time tell a story with the actors.»

All your films have a basic idea which is given a narrative structure, and then everything gradually condenses during shooting. What was the basic idea for Import Export?

ULRICH SEIDL: Firstly I wanted to shoot in the East. I’ve had a personal connection to eastern Europe for a long time now because of my film Mit Verlust ist zu rechnen, which was set at the Czech border 14 years ago. And also because of my pet project Der Grasl, which is about a legendary 19th century criminal. I’ve traveled to Romania several times to scout for locations for the latter. During these trips I felt a growing desire to shoot in an eastern European country. The basic idea was as follows: Two young people are unemployed, they’re looking for work and meaning in their lives, and they make a move. The woman, Olga, goes from the East to the West, and the man goes from the West to the East. Another key part of the theme is looking for work. It was supposed to revolve around unemployment and the difficulty of finding a job, and how you can find a meaning for your life and a place in society.

I had the impression that Dog Days has more to do with various kinds of loneliness, while Import Export points out society's blind spots.

ULRICH SEIDL:  That may be because more of this film’s set in public spaces than private ones, such as the geriatric ward at Lainz, a hospital in Ukraine, a school for cleaning staff and, in the case of male lead Paul, at the employment office, on an open-air market, and in the subway.

Is the theme of aging and how it's dealt with by society more important because of the scenes shot at Lainz?

ULRICH SEIDL: That’s right. In the screenplay the geriatric ward was only one of the places where Olga worked. First she cleaned house for a family, which didn’t work out, and later she ends up at this hospital. But as often happens with my style of working, things become more or less important than originally planned. The geriatric ward was an extreme example. I did a lot more shooting there and added minor characters such as Maria Hofstätter and Georg Friedrich as nurses. I discovered that this was a setting where I could tell a story much more intensely with the patients, which are the most authentic actors around.

Why did you decide to shoot in Ukraine?

ULRICH SEIDL: Because of the locations there and the fact that Ukraine is even farther away from Europe than Romania. The social gap separating it from Central Europe is obvious and painfully tangible. When I went to Romania ten years ago the difference was visible there, and this border has moved farther east since then. More preparation and financing was necessary for Import Export than any of my other films. We auditioned almost 1500 people in Austria and Ukraine.

What were you looking for in your female lead?

ULRICH SEIDL: That was another learning process. First we looked for a Ukrainian living in Austria. But it turned out that the Ukrainians living here adapt after a few months, and then the freshness of being in the West isn’t as authentic anymore. I wanted an actress who had never been in the West, who really comes here for the first time during production of the film. I wanted her sensations and experiences to be truly authentic. We found Katja in a town in southern Ukraine, and she couldn’t speak a word of German or English. We took her to Kiev and found a German teacher for her. After two months she came to Austria, four weeks before shooting started. She knew the story’s arc, but there wasn’t a detailed screenplay. That wasn’t always easy, because she was very suspicious. She had heard stories from the media about how many girls end up as prostitutes and definitely suspected that the project shouldn’t be taken seriously. There was a lot of fear to overcome, which made production more difficult.

It seems that the preparations for shooting entailed a great deal of work.

ULRICH SEIDL: Obtaining shooting permits has become extremely difficult. Many institutions react with fear first and foremost. That even happens at locations where you wouldn’t expect it, such as the employment office, a public institution. In my opinion it’s indicative of the current state of our society that every company, every institution, possibly every individual thinks in terms of image, and the situation’s dominated by fear that misinformation will be spread. At the geriatric ward in particular, which already has a bad image, I said repeatedly that the only way to improve things is through openness. Building a wall is the wrong way to go about it. That just creates distrust.

I'm sure you were confronted with fragile, incalculable moments while shooting at locations such as the geriatric ward. Have you found them to be especially challenging as a director?

ULRICH SEIDL: From my previous films I’m used to spontaneously including real events and have developed my own working style. I wanted to work on an authentic set at a hospital’s geriatric ward?that was extremely important to me. I wanted to make it possible to capture everything that happened on film, and at the same time tell a story with the actors. It’s not always certain that that will work when shooting starts. And when there’s not enough preparation, you lose. I try to walk this tightrope between precise preparation and being open to the unforeseeable.

There were two cinematographers this time. Was Ed Lachman someone you've always wanted to work with?

ULRICH SEIDL:  No, not really. I met Ed Lachman at the Viennale, when there was a retrospective of his work. He was thoroughly impressed by my films. That was it for the time being. A year later we met at the IDFA in Amsterdam, where I had a retrospective. I spontaneously asked him if he wanted to shoot my next film, and he immediately agreed to all the conditions. That meant Austrian conditions with regard to the pay, and my conditions, meaning there would be very little technical equipment for the lighting, which is his particular talent. I wanted to make a fiction film, but with the budget of a documentary. Lachman then had Wolfgang Thaler, who shot Dog Days, to help him. Thaler operated the camera, Lachman did the lighting, and I think that it was an enriching experience for both of them. It was great for me. I also think that this film will have a different look than my others.

What was this like for you, being your own producer, in retrospect?

ULRICH SEIDL:  Basically, it wasn’t more difficult, but there was a lot more pressure. For the first time I had both the artistic and financial responsibility. In disputes however the director in me always won out. I’m extremely happy that I made the step of producing my own film, because it helped me avoid a lot of problems. But it’s not a bed of roses. I’ve invested in the company for three years now, and it hasn’t made any money. After all, this is the first film we’ve produced.

What was the film's budget?

ULRICH SEIDL:  The budget’s 2.1 million euros. That isn’t very much, and getting the financing together wasn’t easy. One subsidizer didn’t give us enough money, so we had to make new calculations and couldn’t start shooting on schedule. The budget was extremely tight, and it’s actually a minor miracle that we made it to the end, because the time it took cost money.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
June 2006