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Features The geoaesthetics of (east) european tristesse. Ulrich Seidl’s Import/Export

Literary scholar David Williams analyzes Ulrich Seidl’s film Import/Export and criticizes Seidl for using and humiliating amateur actors with the aim of telling a story that ultimately only underscores a stereotypical image of the East: as precisely an object of pleasure for the West.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds Vol VI:3-4, pp 4-9
Published on on januari 21, 2014

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In October 2011, acclaimed photographer Brent Stirton spent ten days in four Ukrainian cities shooting pictures of AIDS sufferers, the majority drug addicts and prostitutes. Stirton made his trip under the auspices of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria,1 the pictures he took intended for a public health campaign in Ukraine to raise awareness of the crisis. The following year, in 2012, one of the photos, of a prostitute and addict known as “Maria”, was awarded the World Press Photo prize for contemporary issues in the single shot category. The photo thus became part of an annual exhibition of images that traveled to some 45 countries, viewed by more than two million people. The image also appeared in a coffee table book distributed internationally in five languages.2

On winning his prize, Stirton told the media that he was relieved that the international judging panel considered the photograph’s subject matter worthy of global attention, of which, at least online, the photo received plenty. The tabloid New York Daily News ran the photo and an accompanying report entitled “Photographer’s portrait of despair, in the form of an addicted Ukrainian prostitute, wins World Press Photo contest”.3 In the United Kingdom, left-leaning The Guardian ran the photo accompanied by a brief opinion piece headed “Portrait of a Ukrainian sex worker, defiant and dignified”,4 while the country’s most popular tabloid, The Daily Mail, ran the photo with the headline “Picture of drug-addled Ukrainian prostitute among the most startling press photographs of 2012”.5 For the Western spectator there appears something infinitely reassuring about Maria’s picture — the horror is elsewhere.

While the frequently xenophobic reader comments on the websites of the New York Daily News and the Daily Mail provide excellent material for scholarly outrage, examining the short opinion piece in The Guardian by Natalia Antunova, and the responses of the paper’s committed online readers to it, opens a more productive debate. Antunova begins with the following contention:

At first glance, Maria looks like an athlete resting after a warm-up. It’s all in the way her limbs are arranged, and her bandaged right leg initially makes you think of a sports injury of some kind. The photograph’s lighting is also reminiscent of one of those old-school shots of celebrated boxers, meant to celebrate both their battered bodies and their unsettling grace in equal measure.6

Of this aesthetically charged description, perhaps the only thing to observe is that we all see what want to see. Although Antunova notes “the hideous purple track marks blooming on her [Maria’s] left leg”, she finds “something Nietzschean about the photograph”7 — whatever this might mean. For Antunova, Maria’s eyes warn of the dangers of drug addiction and the “largely unglamorous” sex industry, Maria’s gaze is “clear, calm and knowing […] the eyes of a woman who has hit rock bottom and may not come back up but […] is not, at this moment, afraid”.8 Antunova is impressed by “the defiance and dignity on display”, the expression of a woman who “won’t take any shit from you for being who she is”, irrespective of the fact that she is “posing in a pair of flowery underpants that have been washed so many times that the flowers have long since wilted and turned grey”.9

Debutante poetics aside, more problematic is Antunova’s ensuing transformation of Maria into national allegory, her claim being that Maria’s “toughness is familiar to anyone who really knows Ukraine […] whose national anthem opens with the line ‘Ukraine’s will and glory have not yet perished’”.10 The folksy concluding “Godspeed, Maria” is perhaps less endearing still, yet Antunova does succeed in conveying two arresting observations. The first is a Ukrainian friend’s reaction to the photo, who responds with “‘Great, another hooker story coming out of Ukraine […]. Once again, I have to remind my English friends — no, we’re not all drug-addicted hookers. But thanks for asking!’” The second cannot be repeated often enough: that “a picture of a middling happy Ukrainian family”11 would be unlikely to ever win World Press Photo prizes.

For those familiar with The Guardian’s vociferous online readership, it will not come as a surprise that Antunova’s piece drew 295 comments in less than three days. Antunova’s aestheticization of Maria’s despair drew the most ire, one commentator scathing that it was “revolting self-indulgent romanticizing of another’s suffering”,12 another slamming the patronizing “aren’t the poor really rather super”13 tone, and an irate third penning: “The dignity of the downtrodden. The defiance of the oppressed. Do me a favor.”14

Other respondents were more concerned about what they perceived as the exploitative nature of the photo, with one wondering how much Maria was paid to pose, and whether this made the photographer “now complicit in her degradation”.15 This prompted another to raise the specter of Kevin Carter, the photographer who in 1994 took his own life after winning a Pulitzer Prize for his image of a collapsed and starving Sudanese toddler being eyed-up by a vulture. The inference was simple: Stirton, like Carter, may one day answer to his conscience.16

Tapping a related vein, one respondent suggested that both photographer and journalist were “making a name and cash off a poor woman’s misery”, and had “shov[ed] her forward like a cowering freakshow animal”.17 Running with this aspect, another likened the dissemination of Maria’s image to that of “the man suffering from elephantiasis carrying his balls in a wheelbarrow”, charging that The Guardian, by swaddling Maria’s image in feminist commentary, was simply seeking to “help ease feelings of guilt in its readers for wanting to show the picture to their friends”.18 Perhaps made aware that she was taking a beating, Antunova eventually responded in the comments stream using what amounted to an I’m a local so I know better defense, taunting her critics about how many Ukrainian women in the sex trade they actually know, and claiming that “a good percentage of the girls I knew as a child ended up going that route”, and that many were indeed “dignified and defiant”.19

The image of Maria, its international dissemination, Natalia Antunova’s commentary, and the representative responses by online Guardian readers bring together so many of the anxieties concerning the representation of postcommunist Eastern Europe. Maria’s image is an integral part of a global databank of postsocialist horror: de-industrialization and unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, human trafficking and prostitution, depopulation and pollution, football hooliganism and racism, organized crime, and political corruption. Maria’s image exists not alone, but rather cohabitates, mixes, and mingles, with those of her countrywomen who occasionally penetrate the wider consciousness: the imprisoned Yulia Tymoshenko with her striking wrap-around braid; bare-breasted Femen activists; the Ukrainian bride a New Zealand radio station promised to a lucky listener; the Natashas and Svetlanas of German, Scandinavian, and Anglo-American Krimis; the real-life “sisters” of these Natashas and Svetlanas in the red light districts of provincial and metropolitan Europe. With the hulking Klitschko brothers Ukraine’s only male cultural exports, in the global imagination the country exists as a fairytale land of monsters and damsels in distress.

For this reason, we who are interested in Eastern Europe tend to be both weary and wary of images such as Stirton’s Maria. We’ve seen this kind of “Made in Eastern Europe” horror a hundred times before. Confronted by it, the most fashionably liberal among us will, like Antunova, refer to Maria as a “sex worker” and ascribe her agency, dignity, and defiance. The less progressive will, in turn, be infuriated and call this patronizing disingenuousness, or worse. The politically committed will applaud Stirton’s humanitarian efforts to effect social change through engaged art. Others will maintain that engaged art has never changed the world, but has frequently made its purveyors very wealthy. Maria’s image brings to the fore endlessly rehearsed questions over voyeurism and aestheticization — can art that depicts suffering also be beautiful? It highlights the Aristotelian premise of art-as-catharsis — of art as “a place where spectators can come to experience pain as both enjoyable and purgative”20 — and the paradox of our enjoying “imitations of things that would horrify us in reality”.21 In this respect, Eastern European horror is inevitably haunted by the specter of a Western spectator enjoying not his or her own suffering, but that of an Eastern other.


Like Stirton’s photograph of Maria, Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s 2007 feature Import/Export22 is an exercise in ambivalence par excellence — a “kinda-hegemonic, kinda-subversive”23 operation. It is simultaneously beautiful and unsettling, painfully realistic yet perfectly staged, highly engaged yet wide open to accusations of voyeurism and exploitation. As Wolfgang Höbel wrote in Der Spiegel, Seidl translates “the inner depths of suffering people into grandiose cinematic images”, the film containing “so much dazzling poetry and tenderness that one is almost completely disarmed by the magic of his horror world”.24 The Frankfurter Allgemeine gushed about “images of such monumental tristesse” and “moments of such quiet sorrow”; the former breathtaking, the latter almost heartwarming.25 Indeed, the elevation of tristesse to the highest form of beauty was the defining characteristic of many Germanophone reviews.

Set in the present day, Import/Export tells two parallel stories. The first is that of Olga (Ekaterina Rak), a young Ukrainian nurse and single mother, who, unable to make ends meet in her profession, and unwilling to work in the webcam porn business, leaves for Vienna where she works first as an au pair and then as a cleaner in the geriatric ward of a Viennese hospital. The second is that of Pauli (Paul Hofmann), a young Austrian, who, unemployed, down on his luck, and in debt, accompanies his stepfather to Slovakia and Ukraine where they install old slot machines. Cutting skillfully between these two stories, in Seidl’s vision East and West distressingly reassemble each other. The crumbling housing estates and smoke stacks of Eastern Ukraine, notorious postcommunist ruins such as the Lunik IX Roma ghetto in Košice, Slovakia, the harsh neon-lit sterility of the “death factory” where Olga works in Vienna, and the bleakness of Viennese suburbia are all aesthetically equal in their freezing tristesse.

Particularly in its representation of the consequences of deindustrialization and the concomitant growth of precarious low-paid service sector employment, Import/Export is very much in accord with scholarship such as that by Charity Scribner, who observes that the “single space of industrial obsolescence […] welds together aspects of Eastern and Western European culture”.26 As Scribner notes, “state socialism’s ruin signaled that industrial modernity had exhausted its utopian potential”, and that its “final agonies” reminded many leftwing artists and thinkers “of the wearing out of Western welfare states such as Britain and France”.27 Or as Susan Buck-Morss puts it, “‘East’ and ‘West’ […] may have differed violently in their way of dealing with the problems of modernity, but they shared a faith in the modernizing process developed by the West that for us today has been unalterably shaken”.28 In very different circumstances, Seidl’s two protagonists, Olga and Pauli, live the consequences. As Seidl explained to an Austrian interviewer at time of the film’s release, while external borders between East and West have fallen, new, horizontal borders within given societies, between poverty and prosperity, have emerged in their place.29 Although this is a contention very difficult to disagree with, in the global ecology of images, or geoaesthetics, within which Ukraine and Austria circulate, Seidl’s representations of pan-European tristesse have far graver consequences for the former than for the latter.

In the film’s elegantly composed opening shot, a man in an ushanka stands in the snow trying to kickstart an ancient motorbike with a sidecar, a desolate block of khrushchevki in the background. We meet Olga trudging through the ice beside a railway line, the abandoned carriages and belching factory chimneys completing the picture of a failed industrial modernity. At work in a museum-like maternity hospital, Olga appears with other matronly nurses in a uniform we imagine tailored in the 1950s. Lining up to be paid, she receives thirty percent of her salary and the empty promise that the rest will be paid next month. Home for Olga is a depressing apartment she shares with her mother and toddler. With no running water, the bath functions as reservoir. The (post-)Sovietana of yellowed wallpaper and cross-stitch curtains are, however, not cinematic props; the scenes were filmed on location in Eastern Ukraine in an apartment normally inhabited.

In keeping with Seidl’s proclivity for screening sex and nudity, in a scene filmed in a real webcam porn enterprise in the Czech city of Plzen, the first German sentence Olga learns is “darf ich dich blasen?” (can I blow you?), the second “leckst du auch Muschi?” (do you eat pussy too?) This, and what soon follows, is best described as Seidl’s flirtation with what James Quandt calls “porno chic” — “an international vogue […] widely apparent in art-house films from Austria to Korea”, whereby directors attempt “to secure distributors and audiences in a market disinclined toward foreign films”.30 It is, as Richard Falcon more concisely put it, the “exposure through transgression” approach.31 In a curtained cubicle, naked on all fours, Olga is positioned with her buttocks to the camera as a customer first barks “auseinander” (spread them apart), and when she doesn’t understand, switches to English and commands “put your finger in your asshole, put it deep inside you”.

In a later companion scene, Pauli and his stepfather Michael (Michael Thomas) check into a predictably ugly Intourist hotel in Uzhhorod, western Ukraine, where Michael explains to Pauli that their stay is to be one of “brunzen, Bier, pudern” (pissing, beer, bonking). When his “Ich, good man, Austria” act fails impress a young woman in the hotel bar, he hires a prostitute and when Pauli returns to their room he finds Michael having positioned her on all fours, her buttocks towards him. Sadistically amusing himself, he makes the confused young woman repeat a range of self-debasing profanities in German, including having her lie on her back and pretend she is riding a bike, and then crawl around as he tells her “Du bist mein Hund” (you’re my dog). The extended cut reaches its climax, or moreover, anticlimax, with her giving him a blowjob, and him, despite all his macho chestbeating, not being able to manage an erection. It is, admittedly, not quite Lars von Trier territory, but neither do von Trier’s depictions of extreme cruelty have geopolitical overtones. They float free in the autonomous zone of “art”.

In a robust defense of Seidl, Michael Goddard observes “an ambiguous dynamic between Michael and the prostitute in which the more he attempts to humiliate her the more he comes across as completely ludicrous”,32 thus subverting the narrative of dominant Western man and submissive Eastern woman. Goddard, however, minimizes the point that the prostitute in the scene was in fact played by a real prostitute, whose incredibly natural confusion, like Ekaterina Rak in Olga’s porno scene, stemmed from the fact that she really didn’t understand any German. And although Seidl himself has offered a typically strident self-defense, claiming that “‘it was arranged in advance what was possible’”,33 as Catherine Wheatley notes, “in both film and reality the prostitute was paid to humiliate herself for the entertainment of others: and more specifically, for the enjoyment of Western spectators”.34 Wheatley, however, concludes that Seidl’s means essentially justify his ends: he tests limits, raises questions, exposes human suffering, unsettles the viewer, even he or she “in search of such transgressive material”, asking him or her “to question the boundaries of acceptability”.35 Ever reluctant to censure their arthouse idols, scholars frequently use this kind of “good intentions” defense, transforming problematic directorial ethics into “comment” on problematic material.

In terms of Seidl’s means, with the exception of Maria Hofstätter and Georg Friedrich, both of whom also appeared in Seidl’s 2001 feature Hundestage, the cast of Import/Export is largely made up of amateurs, and moreover, people playing themselves. The scenes in the geriatric ward where Olga cleans were shot with real patients in Lainz Hospital in Vienna, the scenes in Pauli’s unemployment office with real unemployed, and so forth. At a press conference following the film’s premier at Cannes in 2007, a British journalist took Seidl to task over the film’s promotional poster, which, like the DVD cover, features the naked back(side) of Ekaterina Rak. The journalist enquired of Seidl whether he would have made Claudia Schiffer’s “ass the center of attention”36 had she been his lead. Seidl replied nonchalantly that this explains why he doesn’t work with Claudia Schiffer, adding that he had no input into the poster design, which is somewhat unbelievable given that he was also the film’s producer.

Seidl’s preference for casting amateur actors is perhaps best accounted for by his contention that “actors need to suffer when they’re depicting something uncomfortable”.37 The subtext here is that at least in Seidl’s directorial hands, amateurs are more malleable than professionals. And as he seemed to enjoy pointing out in a number of interviews, “no one was forced to do anything”,38 perhaps the most common defense employed by any regular pornographer. On the issue of consent for the dementia patients who appear in the film, Seidl was likewise combative, insisting that family members gave consent where patients were unable to themselves. What needs underlining here, however, is that Seidl has form in this area. His documentaries such as Mit Verlust ist zu rechnen, Tierische Liebe, and Der Busenfreund, all center on individuals who appear to be mentally unwell and perhaps not completely cognizant of what they are doing. Even the long opening scene of Seidl’s recent cinematic release, Paradies: Liebe, features a group of intellectually handicapped children smashing into each other in bumper cars at an amusement park, a scene that appears have no connection to the film itself.

If Seidl’s means are indeed frequently suspect, the question thus becomes whether the ends redeem them. Unlike his more famous countryman, Michael Haneke, Seidl has seldom engaged in bellicose avant-garde rhetoric about “raping the viewer into independence”.39 With specific reference to Import/Export, of his predilection for hyperrealistic “entropic images”40 Seidl maintained that

Getting up close to certain realities is of course going to make a lot of people uncomfortable, even though I’m not showing them anything out of the ordinary. Anyone can go and take a look around a geriatric ward. But because no one actually does, a taboo emerges. And then people blame the filmmaker for showing them such things.41

Seidl’s defense of his work thus hinges on his self-perception as a taboo breaker, someone who makes the invisible visible, and the underlying assumption that if viewers are shown “certain realities” they will be moved and changed by them. This is, indeed, the underlying claim of most engaged art. Yet there is very little, if any, evidence to suggest that contemporary films showing the sexual degradation of Eastern European women function in this way. As a recent book coauthored by eminent film scholar Dina Iordanova inadvertently confirms, in the form of the human trafficking film, the abjected Eastern European female has had a veritable genre built around her in the post-1989 period.42 Iordanova’s claim is that, in this context, engaged cinema serves “a humanist concern by making visible what would ordinarily stay out of sight”.43 Yet as Lisa Coulthard has argued with reference to the manifold representations of rape on screen, “visibility is not equivalent to understanding, inquiry or insight”.44 Or as Maggie Nelson points out in her recent book, The Art of Cruelty:

‘Knowing the truth’ does not come with redemption as a guarantee, nor does a feeling of redemption guarantee an end to a cycle of wrongdoing. Some would even say it is key to maintaining it, insofar as it can work as a reset button — a purge that cleans the slate, without any guarantee of change at the root.45

With death remaining perhaps the last taboo in our society, Seidl’s extreme long cuts of whimpering and distraught geriatric patients may indeed confront viewers with unsettling images of their own futures, terrifyingly alone as mental and physical decline take good hold. Yet in a time when on a daily basis millions consult the online global pornographic archive to watch “Ukrainian amateur student parties”, and much worse besides, debasing Eastern European women on the arthouse screen has no didactic Artaudian function whatsoever. As Slavoj Žižek notes, “In postmodernism, the transgressive excess loses its shock value and is fully integrated into the established artistic market”.46 In this respect, the fact is that from its debut in competition at Cannes, Import/Export went on to be screened at festivals from Munich to Moscow, Karlovy Vary to Yerevan, Jerusalem to Wroclaw, Sarajevo to Seoul, Copenhagen to Chicago. On the other hand, following the film’s release Ekaterina Rak apparently went back to acting in children’s theatre in the Ukrainian provinces, and Paul Hofmann back to unemployment in Vienna. The fate of the degraded prostitute appears unknown. Thus when Seidl intones that “the West has no cultural interest in the East, no interest in relationships that exceed the economic. The prevailing interest is in the human being as a product, one which can be bought more cheaply in the East”,47 an unfortunate irony becomes apparent — the comment seems an apt description of aspects of Seidl’s own approach.

At risk of this essay becoming polemically overdetermined, in moving towards a conclusion it is worthwhile considering whether there are indeed aspects of the film that potentially redeem it. The most obvious defense is that Import/Export portrays Seidl’s Austrian homeland in either the same or even less flattering terms than it does Ukraine, and that Seidl works hard to create uncanny contrasts and equivalencies. While Olga’s fluffy white hat and puffer jacket, her skintight shiny black shorts and ridiculous high-heeled white boots are all somewhat garish, Pauli’s unnamed Viennese girlfriend has the same bleached blonde hair, wears the same tacky cross around her neck, and dresses in the same “original fakes” sold at street markets across the European continent. At the same time Olga’s body is humiliated on the non-place of the computer screen, Pauli undergoes a ritualized and sadistic security guard training in a non-place beside an Autobahn. Later he is stripped to his underwear, tied up, and doused in beer by a gang of Muslim youths, who circle dance around him in neon-lit underground carpark. The drab seventies décor of the apartment Pauli’s mother shares with Michael is of a better quality than that in Olga and her mother’s apartment, but nonetheless seems to have been stuck in the same time machine.

In a number of scenes Seidl starkly depicts Austrian contempt for Eastern Europeans. Michael buys his ancient slot machines from a vendor who explains “Für Russen und Jugos nur das Feinste” (for Russians and Yugos, only the best), a reminder of the manifold obsolescent consumer products the West exports to the East. A vindictive nurse (Maria Hofstätter) taunts Olga about whether she has “found a victim yet” — meaning a patient to marry — taking great pleasure in reminding her that while she might have been a nurse in Ukraine, in Austria she is cleaner. In this vein, Seidl’s most resonant geopolitical diptych consists of contrasting shots of healthy Ukrainian babies in their cots on Olga’s maternity ward, and those of helpless nappy-wearing Austrian geriatrics in their cots, around which Olga ends up cleaning. In a role play telephone exercise at an employment center, a certain Milica Jović, whose German is almost non-existent, calls a cleaning company for a job and when she finally gets the mock conversation right, automatically parrots “Ich bin Sieger, ich bin Sieger, ich bin Sieger” (I’m a winner, I’m a winner, I’m a winner), which is what her Austrian trainer has non-ironically drilled into her. At the same seminar, job seekers are taught how to “wait seriously”, sit up straight, and the golden rule of “lächeln mehr als die andere” (smile more than the others), if they want to find work. Whether it is Olga being taught how to clean the teeth of a stuffed fox, mopping the linoleum floors of the geriatric ward, taking dirty linen to be washed, or tidying up children’s bedrooms, an Austrian obsession with cleanliness and concomitant fear of the abject is constantly articulated.

In marked contrast to Olga’s kindness, the Austrian nurses frequently humiliate their elderly patients. As Michael orders the Ukrainian prostitute to crawl like a dog in Uzhhorod, in Vienna a male nurse (Georg Friedrich) looks on as a dementia patient mistakenly eats a dog biscuit. As Pauli dances drunkenly to downbeat electronica with a girl in the bar of the Uzhhorod hotel, Olga takes a patient (Erich Finsches) with whom she has formed a bond to the basement to dance to Pjotr Leschenko’s sentimental favorite, Serdtse. In these scenes, Seidl stages Eastern European warmth towards the aged and infirm as a critique of his homeland, where bodies past their expiry dates and no longer economically useful are quarantined to die alone.

While in these respects Import/Export certainly makes a good go of subverting the hegemonic East–West dichotomy , the difficulty remains that in global imagology Austria can shrug off a critical representation with far greater ease than Ukraine. Irrespective of the disgrace of Kurt Waldheim or Jörg Haider, the infamy of the Natascha Kampusch case, or however critically Seidl or Elfriede Jelinek might present the underbelly of their homeland, Austria remains the land of Mozart, of Kaffee and Kuchen, alpine pastures and old church spires, and not least Sasha Baron Cohen’s Funkyzeit mit Brüno. In the global imaginary Austrian women are teachers, nurses, businesswomen, and of course house wives; there are no prostitutes, drug addicts, or cleaners — only those imported from the East.

“Depression porn”

In her seminal essay collection The Culture of Lies, Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić issues the warning that “human misfortune is easily transformed into intellectual and artistic porn”.48 Although Ugrešić was writing in the specific context of the Yugoslav collapse, the warning echoed through the Eastern European postcommunist space as a whole. In many respects, with Import/Export not only does Seidl ignore Ugrešić’s warning, he takes it to be aspirational. Prominently displayed on his personal website there is an endorsement from cult American trash director John Waters, who chose Import/Export as his favorite film of 2009, Waters’ citation reading: “The most sorrowful movie of the year is also the best. The miserable lives of Ukrainian immigrants in Vienna makes this agonizing but brilliantly directed opus the cinematic equivalent of slitting your wrists. A new genre? Depression porn? Hey, I got off.”49

It is clearly Seidl’s prerogative if he wishes to embrace this kind of endorsement, but if so, he should also abandon any claim to what he purports to be the film’s humanist imperatives.50 Yet Seidl clearly revels in ambivalence. In the course of Olga’s journey we see her go from nurse, to webcam girl, to au pair, to cleaner, a brave young woman doing her best in imperfect circumstances. Yet in her climatic scene, again practicing a little épater le bourgeois, Seidl has Olga dressed as a bunny at a hospital party — bunny ears, bunny tail, and bow tie, the only obvious association being a Playboy bunny. While Seidl may well think this very clever, it only serves to underline that the imprimatur of a Cannes premier, the high art credentials of an auteur director, and celebration on the global festival circuit is no guarantee of ends justifying means. Assembled in a geoaesthetic slideshow, Olga as Playboy bunny, Olga as webcam girl, the image of the abused anonymous prostitute, of Brent Stirton’s “Maria”, even that of Tatiana Romanova in From Russia with Love begging James Bond to beat her if she eats too much, they all start to blur. Lowbrow or highbrow, for our entertainment or our engagement, these images all exist along the same lucrative continuum, reinforce the same patterns of thought, a montage and mirage of a triste and submissive Eastern European other. Nothing we should “get off on”. ≈


  1. Global Business Community Health. Accessed October 12, 2013,
  2. World Press 12-Yearbook. Accessed October 12, 2013,
  3. Michael Walsh, “Photographer’s portrait of despair, in the form of an addicted Ukrainian prostitute, wins World Press Photo contest”, New York Daily News. Accessed November 10, 2012,
  4. Natalie Antunova, “Portrait of a Ukrainian sex worker, defiant and dignified”, The Guardian, November 13, 2012. Accessed October 12, 2013,
  5. Sam Adams, “Picture of drug-addled Ukrainian prostitute among the most startling press photographs of 2012”, Daily Mail Online. Accessed November 9, 2012,
  6. Antunova, “Portrait of a Ukrainian sex worker”.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Antunova, “Portrait of a Ukrainian sex worker”, ProfSlizzard: accessed November 13, 2012: 4.24pm.
  13. Antunova, “Portrait of a Ukrainian sex worker”, Vishanti: accessed November 13, 2012: 4.45pm.
  14. Antunova, “Portrait of a Ukrainian sex worker”, Philltop: accessed November 13, 2012: 5.16pm.
  15. Antunova, “Portrait of a Ukrainian sex worker”, Stiffkey: accessed November 13, 2012: 4.12pm.
  16. Antunova, “Portrait of a Ukrainian sex worker”, Peregrineman: accessed November 13, 2012: 4.15pm.
  17. Antunova, “Portrait of a Ukrainian sex worker”, Offred: accessed November 13, 2012: 4.39pm.
  18. Antunova, “Portrait of a Ukrainian sex worker”, Malasangra: accessed November 13, 2012: 4.40pm.
  19. Antunova, “Portrait of a Ukrainian sex worker”, NataliaAntunova: accessed November 13, 2012: 6.45pm.
  20. Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty (New York: 2012): 10—11.
  21. Jonas Barish, The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice (Los Angeles: 1981): 31—32.
  22. Austria 2007, color, 135 minutes, German/Russian/Slovakian, 35mm. Director, Ulrich Seidl; Script, Ulrich Seidl and Veronika Franz; Director of Photography, Ed Lachman and Wolfgang Thaler; Sound, Ekkehart Baumung; Editor, Christof Schertenleib. Produced by Ulrich Seidl Film Produktion GmbH. Made possible through funding by ÖFI (Austrian Film Institute), WWF (Film Fund Vienna), Lower Austria, ORF (Film and Television Agreement), ARTE France Cinéma, ZDF/ARTE, Conwert Immobilien; co-financed by Coproduction Office.
  23. The phrase is attributed to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, see Nelson The Art of Cruelty, 58.
  24. Wolfgang Höbel, “Cannes-Tagebuch: Die Poesie des Wimmerns”, Spiegel Online, May 21, 2007. Accessed October 12, 2013, Unless otherwise noted all translations are my own.
  25. Michael Althen, “Auf den Korridoren zwischen Ost und West”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, October 18, 2007.
  26. Charity Scribner, Requiem for Communism, (Cambridge, MA: 2003): 4.
  27. Scribner, Requiem for Communism, 3—4.
  28. Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (Cambridge, MA 2000): x.
  29. Ulrich Seidl, “Schauspieler müssen leiden”, interview by Sebastien Hofer, Profil, November 5, 2005, 125.
  30. James Quandt, “Flesh and Blood: Sex and Violence in Recent French Cinema”, eds. Tanya Horeck and Tina Kendall, The New Extremism in Cinema: From France to Europe, (Edinburgh: 2011): 18—28 (24-25).
  31. Richard Falcon, “Reality is too shocking”, Sight and Sound, 9.1 (1999): 10—13 (11).
  32. Michael Goddard, “Eastern Europe: The Presentation of Eastern Europe as a Site of Monstrosity in La Vie nouvelle and Import/Export”, Horeck and Kendall, The New Extremism in Cinema, 82—92 ( 91).
  33. Catherine Wheatley, “Europa Europa”, Sight & Sound 18:10 (2008): 46—49 (49).
  34. Catherine Wheatley, “Naked Women, Slaughtered Animals: Ulrich Seidl and the Limits of the Real”, in Horeck and Kendall, The New Extremism in Cinema, 93—104 (99).
  35. See Wheatley, “Europa Europa”, 101, and Goddard, La Vie nouvelle and Import/Export, 82—83.
  36. Seidl, “Schauspieler müssen leiden”, 125.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Mattias Frey, “A Cinema of Disturbance: The Films of Michael Haneke in Context”, Senses of Cinema 57 (December 2010). Accessed October 12, 2013,
  40. See Asbjorn Gronstad, “On the Unwatchable”, Horeck and Kendall, The New Extremism in Cinema, 192—208: “[Entropic images] assault their own audience and negate that scopophilic pleasure considered intrinsic to film as an art form. Uncompromising and anti-voyeuristic, they enact a reversal of the relation between film and spectator that historically has defined the cinematic situation — these films compel us to look away.” (193—194)
  41. Seidl, “Schauspieler müssen leiden”, 125.
  42. William Brown, Dina Iordanova, and Leshu Torchin, Moving People, Moving Images: Cinema and Trafficking in the New Europe (St Andrews: 2010). It also bears underlining that, as the book makes clear, Eastern Europe hardly holds exclusive copyright on the genre.
  43. Dina Iordanova, “Making Traffic Visible, Adjusting the Narrative”, in Brown, Iordanova, and Torchin, Moving People, Moving Images, 84—114 (86).
  44. Lisa Coulthard, “Interrogating the Obscene: Extremism and Michael Haneke”, Horeck and Kendall, The New Extremism in Cinema, 180—191 (184).
  45. Nelson, The Art of Cruelty, 32.
  46. Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?, (London: 2001): 25.
  47. Seidl, “Schauspieler müssen leiden”, 125.
  48. Dubravka Ugrešić, The Culture of Lies, trans. Celia Hawkesworth. (London: 1998): 182.
  49. Ulrich Seidl Filmproduction. Accessed October 12, 2013,
  50. Seidl, “Schauspieler müssen leiden”, 125.
  • by David Williams

    DAAD postdoctoral fellow at the University of Konstanz. PhD in comparative literature from the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

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