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A German construction worker rides into a hamlet on the Bulgarian-Greek border on horseback in German director Valeska Grisebach’s Western, with the title referring not only to the Western genre but also to the protagonist’s position as a Western outsider in an Eastern-European border town. This is only Grisebach’s third fiction feature and her first after her international breakthrough, Longing, which played in competition at the Berlinale way back in 2006. Like that earlier one-word title — and many others of the minimalist Berlin School of filmmakers that also includes Christian Petzold and Christoph Hochhäusler — Western is a naturalistic, almost documentary-like feature that slowly builds. Also like Grisebach’s previous work, it was entirely shot with non-professional actors, though the result is here less compact than the more focused and, finally, moving, Longing. Nonetheless, the fascinating face of her protagonist, the mustachioed automotive-industry worker Meinhard Neumann, and the many questions that the material touches on, including modern virility, German identity, cross-cultural understanding and communication, should help this Films Boutique title in terms of festival bookings and possibly some niche sales.
A small group of German men has arrived in the Bulgarian countryside to construct a hydroelectric power plant near a river that needs to be diverted. They are in the middle of nowhere, close to the Greek border, and none of the rough workers speaks a word of English, much less Bulgarian. The film, which was shot without a traditional screenplay, doesn’t quite follow a regular introduction-conflict-resolution template, and it thus takes a while for audiences to find their bearings amid this group of hard-working, uncouth but not necessarily unfriendly men.
The story proper only really kicks off when one of the men, fiftyish newcomer Meinhard (Neumann), rides into the local village on a gray steed he found wondering in the nearby hills. Ostensibly, he’s not looking for anything more than a cigarette, but the moment, so clearly evocative of the iconic entry of a cowboy into a new town, finally centers the narrative, making it clear Meinhard is the protagonist of this story. It also introduces some of the local villagers, including the teenage rider Walko, whose uncle, the local stone baron, Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), turns out to be the owner of the horse.
As the film progresses, the bond between Adrian and Meinhard slowly deepens, even though neither speaks the other’s language. Attentive, as always, to realistic detail, Grisebach ensures that their halting conversations, often with the help of gestures, are nonetheless credible. One of the film’s most unexpectedly touching moments comes after Meinhard has tried to convey that his understanding of the world comes down to the idea of “eat or be eaten,” and then movingly explains that his own brother is dead (all it takes is the Bulgarian word “brat,” for brother, and a finger pointing towards the heavens).
Even though a few locals speak a little German, most of the film’s dialogues between the workers and the villagers happen with the characters using their hands, their eyes and, on a couple of occasions, the sight of weapons such as knifes and riffles. Clearly, Grisebach is interested in reducing her small cast to their most essential communication skills and it is clear — though also a somewhat obvious point — that conflicts or misunderstandings can arise from a lack of mutually intelligible dialogue between those from the East and the West.
The men, often walking around bare-chested in the summer heat, proudly hoist a German flag at their improvised compound and there is a sense of superiority to their swagger, as they are the Westerners bringing their technology to what one assumes they perceive as the somewhat backwards outer reaches of the European Union. But this bravado is undercut by several pointed reminders of the fact that the Germans were last in Bulgaria 70 years ago, during the war.
The men’s pride isn’t only about their country, either, and cinematographer Bernhard Keller’s unintrusive, largely handheld camera observes their behavior not only amongst themselves, an all-male crew abroad, but especially in their often quite macho interactions with strangers and women in particular. The behavior and, later, the adjustment of the workers’ de-facto leader, the beer-bellied Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), is especially telling in this regard. The director remains focused on her characters for the most time, only occasionally paying attention to the surrounding landscapes, even though almost every shot takes place outdoors.
Grisebach thus has a fascinating setting, a fascinating couple of characters and some interesting themes to explore, but Western never quite comes together in the way that Longing did, where the titular emotion gave that film its laser-sharp focus. The narrative here feels somewhat diffuse, the stakes aren’t always fully clear or all that high and there’s no real story arc that develops, which makes the proceedings feel more lifelike but which also keeps the dramatic temperature relatively low.
The director’s ace up her sleeve is Neumann, whose leather-faced presence, with its iconic German mustache and lines around his deeply set eyes, holds the camera’s attention with ease even when he doesn’t say anything. Indeed, though they don’t necessarily look much alike, he sometimes comes across as the Teutonic cousin of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name character, though it’s doubtful he’ll be back for another couple of movies.
Production companies: Komplizen Film Production, Chouchkov Brother, Coop99, KNM, ZDF, Arte
Cast: Meinhard Neumann, Reinhardt Wetrek, Syuleyman Alilov Letifov, Veneta Frangova, Vyara Borisova
Writer-director: Valeska Grisebach
Producers: Jonas Dornbach, Janine Jackowski, Maren Ade Valeska Grisebach, Michel Merkt
Director of photography: Bernhard Keller
Production designer: Beatrice Schultz
Costume designer: Veronika Albert
Editor: Bettina Boehler
Casting: Katrin Vorderwülbecke
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Sales: Films Boutique
In German, Bulgarian