The premise of Valeska Grisebach’s film Western seems quite simple. Planting a German flag as soon as they arrive, a group of German construction workers station themselves at a remote Bulgarian area bordering Greece. Equipped with heavy machinery and a strong all-male dynamic, they are there to build infrastructure, or so they say. What the film explores is best suggested by its title – a reference to a genre as well as to Western subjectivity as experienced through the eyes of the locals. The film sets up the conventions of the genre: there is the desolate landscape that a group of foreigners aim to subordinate, the stranger who comes riding into the village, the conflicts that ensue, and the particular style of frontier justice.
Western does not pursue a specific topic, but manages to poignantly address several on its way. The parameters of the film are quickly established, yet Grisebach decides to deconstruct conventional plot development; the film has a slow-burn thriller atmosphere which persists in being anticlimactic, up to the very end. It is a western without a shootout, instead building on a string of micro-conflicts which foreground the complexities of the encounter between cultures. It draws attention to the margins of the European Union and of impoverished areas, in which the economic presence of foreign countries functions as a power. The German workers defensively state that their construction work is supposed to help the locals; at the same time, their stance of superiority and somewhat xenophobic sentiments suggest a very colonial attitude.
The communication between the group and the locals begins with the main German character Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) taming a horse owned by a local and riding it, in western-like fashion, into the village. He is welcomed with both suspicion and intrigue. While one of the village elders, who remembers the German presence in the region 70 years ago, praises Germans (“Sophisticated people. Educated!”), it is only Meinhard, despite being an antihero, who establishes a connection. The rest of the German group continue to act out of ignorance.
Meinhard becomes the outlaw of his group and a mysterious stranger among the locals. He is driven by curiosity to try and decode the social order established in this seemingly lawless fringe environment. It is he who must integrate in order for respect to be established, despite language barriers. Meinhard and the locals exchange limited phrases, not even sentences: in each case, intentions are never quite clear, and much of what is said gets lost, misunderstood or overshadowed by subjective projections.
The depiction of this cultural clash avoids stereotypes – just about everyone involved is seen as a complex character, not easily explained or predictable. None of the actors are professional performers, and interaction involves more facial expressions and gestures than words. Viewers experience very naturalistic, almost vérité scenes. The handheld camera rarely rests on the landscape, and the framing and editing are precise and telling.
The lack of communication and the newcomers’ inflexibility results in numerous conflicts. Passions on both sides simmer just beneath the surface, hinting at violence. The potential for an explosive event is high, yet the film rations out action in a contemplative, even manner and this in itself suffices. The pace of the film thus never accelerates, and tensions disappear as well as appear.
“That’s how villages are. Anything can happen,” says one of the villagers at the end of the film. In Western, Grisebach succeeds in not letting everything happen, while conveying the exact atmosphere and socio-political aspects of her setting.
Edited by Lesley Chow
© FIPRESCI 2017