Immigration is nothing new to Europeans. Both in the past and present Europe is remarkable for the way in which its peoples have a propensity to migrate.
And yet, over these past few years, questions concerning immigration seem to have acquired a new urgency in European cinema – highlighted most recently by the Dardenne brothers’ latest venture, The Silence of Lorna, and Ulrich Seidl’s grim migrant-epic, Import/Export, both unsurprising successes at Cannes earlier this year. (It is now as good as a tradition that the Dardennes should pick up some prize or other from the jury at Cannes.)
The Silence of Lorna is a film that cannot be summed up with any satisfaction; so, unsatisfactorily, it is the story of a young Albanian woman called Lorna whose recently acquired Belgian passport puts her in line to marry a wealthy Russian willing to pay for EU citizenship. She tries to save the life of her rent-a-husband drug addict, fails to do so, and descends into a madness that seems to offer the only moments of ethical clarity throughout the entire film. In an interview Luc Dardenne described the film as being about Lorna’s having to ‘accept or refuse the death of someone. Nothing can authorise her to do this. The spectator might think, ‘Given her situation, we can understand’. But in this case no.’ Certainly, the importance of Lorna’s choice is the hinge upon which the entire film rests, but this choice is eminently bound up in her social situation – the film is thus a covert attempt to, if not define, circumscribe Lorna’s social situation, the space in which her silence is articulated.
Import/Export is, if anything, an even grimmer and grimier affair, a film even more impossible to watch or understand. Talking about one of Seidl’s earlier movies, Werner Herzog claimed that he had never looked so directly into hell – Import/Export carries on in this tradition. Paul, an Austrian loner, is transporting old slot machines to the Ukraine with his increasingly grotesque stepfather, Michael. Olga, a Ukrainian nurse is making the reverse journey in search of money for her young family. Both find, at the end of their journeys, what can only be described as ‘hearts of darkness’ moments that leave the audience turning away, crying out, unsure how to react. The film seems to carry on until it is real, until the audience is left knowing that its events are really taking place. For Olga this moment occurs during a violent confrontation with a senior nurse, for Paul it is his step-father’s hiring an Ukrainian prostitute and capriciously demeaning her, a moment whose insufferableness is only heightened by the obvious fact that the prostitute is a real prostitute who does not know she is in a film, for whom the events projected onto the screen the events happening in the here-and-now of her life.
It doesn’t take much to see the similarities that unite these two films; the irresistible force of capital in people’s lives, the commoditisation of flesh, and institutionalised sadism are certainly all in the mix, but more importantly so is the overarching concern with how these forces impact upon the lives of individuals, and likewise what escape is possible when you’re an alien worker in an alien land. Because both films do end on what might provisionally be called escapes; Lorna escapes, at least for a time, from her would be executor, Paul leaves his step-father and takes to the road in search of a job, Olga seems to find the possibility of love, even in her own personal hell. But these escapes aren’t even conciliatory, they are structural survivals, offering nothing more than a conclusion. Each immigrant has made a choice, yes, but these choices are worthless, they are every one of them left at the mercy of the forces that have decided their fates at every crossroads they have encountered, all that can be salvaged is a faded kind of self-respect.
And this is what is at once so terrifying and rewarding about both these films, in them
all illusions have evaporated, what are left behind are images of the powerlessness of individuals moving across an emotionally deserted continent, of the difficulty of taking control of one’s life when immersed in the mass migratory patterns and economic forces of contemporary Europe.
And although not for the faint hearted by any means, these two films offer the more intrepid viewer what’s best about European cinema today – something divorced from the saccharine thoughlessness of Hollywood, USA.