Offering a snowy Winterreise to balance his summer-scorched earlier fiction on modern alienation, debasement and youth rebellion (‘Dog Days’), Seidl broadens his geographical horizons in a cross-cutting tale of two troubled, indebted youngsters who never meet, but pass like ships in the night. At her wits’ end, Ukrainian nurse and single mum Olga (Ekateryna Rak) is on her way west; equally desperate failed guard Pauli (Paul Hofmann) has to take a job with his father-in-law, delivering gambling machines to the poorest reaches of Moldova and Ukraine.
Seidl’s confrontational cinema doesn’t make for easy viewing (it’s not intended to) and there are discomfiting sequences including some that many viewers may feel are gratuitous – not least in the depictions of violence and sex acts. His cinema can seem like a visually compelling and damning case for the prosecution – in the dock various political and social systems and the everyday fascism of the powerful – but here his critique is leavened by a more explicit and welcome direct expression of compassion and the intimacy of ritual, both sacred and profane.
Moreover, his complex, distanced sense of irony is enhanced with comedy: a cleaning company lecture on flattery and deference contrives to be touching, funny and distasteful all at the same time. Likewise cinematographer Ed Lachman’s images resonate with a bleak beauty while Seidl’s canny mix of professional and non-professional actors delivers a series of performances, major and minor, of genuinely heart-tugging truth and heartening humanity.