FEATURE

Ulrich Seidl shooting IMPORT EXPORT

 

A woman emigrates from the East to the West, a man from the West to the East. Both of them are driven to move elsewhere, to a place where they can find jobs, a meaning for their lives and their own place in society. In his new film Import Export Ulrich Seidl follows two paths through the inhospitable modern world, telling the stories of two young people who trip up on reality’s rough edges. Shooting, with Ed Lachman and Wolfgang Thaler behind the camera, Import Export will be completed in the spring of 2007.


Last winter was cold and much too long, as people generally agree. But there was a small film crew for whom the never-ending gray and damp represented a true blessing. After the baking heat of summer depicted in his Dog Days (2001), Ulrich Seidl has been working on his new fiction film entitled Import Export, an encounter of two people between East and West, which takes place during the winter season. Shooting began in February 2005, too late to be finished in a single winter, so it was perfect for Seidl’s painstaking und intensive style of working that the second one turned out to be especially stubborn.


Late in March, a reshoot at Pavilion 1 of Lainz’s Geriatric Center: The light isn’t anything like that of spring, but all the windows are completely covered. This ensures a November atmosphere, both inside and out. Behind the ward’s locked doors the daily routine is made more oppressive by the patients’ slow, difficult movements, their restricted lives here and the inevitable sense that this is the end of the line. The dimly lit hallway opens up into the lounge, where chairs are arranged in a circle and grizzled old men and women in pale yellow gowns are being made up for a costume ball: red cheeks or clown noses, cat whiskers or geisha lips, tiger ears or devil horns, little hats or Zorro masks. A tragicomic scene: Life and its transience could barely be set closer than in those old faces. One of them refuses to participate in the tomfoolery, and Olga, the protagonist, puts a pair of rabbit ears on his head from behind, but he rips them off angrily. Even when it seems somewhat less than dynamic at first glance, the masked group isn’t easy to control. Hertha with the tiger ears and the red nose can’t stop fidgeting, in constant movement, constantly looking for an audience, and constantly chattering, whether the camera’s rolling or not. “Come here, Hertha, sit over here”: The director takes her by the hand and gently leads her to the rest of the group. “I wanted,” said Seidl, “to work on an authentic set at a hospital’s geriatric ward. I wanted it to be possible to capture all chance occurrences on film, and at the same time tell a story with the actors. I try to walk this tightrope, the fine line between precise preparation and being open to the unforeseeable.”


The shift in focus to the geriatric ward was gradual, for example. According to the original plan, it was to be only one of the places where Olga works on her way to the West, which begins at an agency for Internet sex. She moves to a position as a cleaning woman for an Austrian family, then ends up on the hospital’s cleaning staff. “I discovered,” said Seidl, “that this hospital offers a location where I can tell a great deal in a much more intense way, with patients, who are the most authentic actors around.” And so minor characters who work at the hospital were added to the script later ?including parts for Georg Friedrich and Maria Hofst√§tter, who spent two months at the ward preparing for their roles as nurses.
 

The cast of Import Export, like that of Dog Days, is a mixture of pros and amateurs. Neither of the lead roles—Paul wants to work his way out of debt and has trouble finding a job, so he sets off eastward from Vienna in search of solid employment; and Olga leaves her sad and precarious existence in eastern Ukraine to go in the opposite direction—are played by professional actors. Before Paul Hoffmann and Ekateryna Rak were found for these roles nearly 1500 faces were examined through the casting camera. “I wanted,” the filmmaker explained, “to find an actress who had never been to the West, who was here for the first time to make the film. The freshness of the experience wasn’t as tangible with Ukrainians who live here.” When Ekateryna Rak was discovered in a southern Ukrainian town she spoke neither English nor German, and it took a long time to convince her that the project was on the up and up. This was made even more challenging by the fact that there was no detailed script yet, just a narrative arc.


Including genuine, spontaneous events and embedding the fictional story in documentary situations is an important aspect of Seidl’s working style, and there were many opportunities to do so during shooting of Import Export. A number of scenes were set at public places, such as the employment office, a market and hospitals. In a scene shot at a children’s ward in a Ukrainian hospital, Ekateryna Rak was in costume but all the action, including the filmed scene, was the actual daily routine. “I was waiting for moments like that,” said Seidl, “and then Katja was inserted into the action.” Two cameramen were responsible for the cinematography of Import Export: Wolfgang Thaler, who worked on Dog Days, and someone with Hollywood experience, namely Ed Lachman, who first saw Seidl’s work at his 2004 Viennale retrospective. The American cameraman (Far From Heaven, The Virgin Suicides) took care of the lighting, and he quickly agreed to Seidl’s offer to work on the new film at Austrian conditions, both technical and financial. “That was a great experience for me,” claimed Seidl, “and I had the impression it was enriching for both cinematographers. I think that this film will have a different look than my previous ones.”


In contrast to his previous films, the filmmaker produced the 2.1 million euro project himself, taking on both the artistic and financial responsibility. Prolonged negotiations for shooting permits, the late arrival of needed financing and scenes that depended on the weather turned Import Export into a long-term project, even though it had a limited budget. “I’m happy,” said Seidl, “that I took this step. It meant that I was able to avoid a lot of problems, and in disputes the director always came out on top. But it wasn’t a bed of roses.” Not only was there more research and preparation involved, most of it in eastern Europe, than with previous projects, the amount of footage reached a record 80 hours. Cutter Christof Schertenleib is already working on distilling it, and the result will be ready for screening, if everything goes according to plan, in the spring of 2007


Karin Schiefer
2006