In spite of it’s title, Valeska Grisebach’s Western takes place in Bulgaria; an area that was once a frontier of sorts for Germany during a brief and particularly dark moment in history. The German workers sent to build a power plant in the remote hillsides note this near the film’s opening. ‘We’re back. It only took 70 years’. These men initially treat their remote camp like a cavalry fort, hoisting the German flag above this hostile territory full of untrustworthy natives.
The film’s use of Western tropes acts as a strange companion piece to another recent German film, Toni Erdmann which Grisebach also worked on. Whereas Toni Erdmann treated the old area of Lebensraum as being a hyper capitalist playground, Western initially treats the Balkans as a new space for a somewhat more traditional, national conflict.
The group of blue collar men sent to the East compete with one another for the respect and, maybe more so, the friendship of the locals. Meinhard, our protagonist, is a mustachioed quiet man, all sinew and sad eyes. A haunted figure, he’s brought into conflict with his boss, Vincent, for getting too close to the locals.
The direction is naturalistic, grounded and expertly focused on moments of group interaction as opposed to outright conflict. The lack of any score contrasts the obvious genre references. Grisebach is interested in the friction between people but you never get the sense that there will be some act of cathartic violence. There is no cavalry charge coming over the hill, just of bunch of unhealthy lads chain smoking and tanning themselves as they jostle with one another on the job.
In fact, Grisebach seems more interested in how conflict might resolve itself than in bringing it to a head. Meinhard connects with people easily, perhaps not in spite but because of the language barrier. As the story progresses characters begin to form bonds and pick up parts of each others lingo. This notion of understanding turns, slowly, into the film’s main point. Meinhard is able to open up to people that don’t speak his tongue far more readily than those that do and yet the distance remains.
While the film brings up many interesting ideas it ultimately feels like it doesn’t quite know where to go. Even if intended as a criticism – rather than an ode – to your average John Wayne flick, the tendency towards anticlimax results in a story that ends, rather than one that has an ending.
That said, Western is worth the time for Meinhard alone. He is one of the most quietly memorable characters to appear on screen in a long time. He’s a stoic, decent guy with sadness seeping from his pores. Actor Meinhard Neumann gives the character a restrained charm even when, driven by anger, he is doing some egotistical, stupid shit. You’ll want him to belong as much as he does. After the credits roll you’ll find yourself thinking of this stoic, lonely Marlboro man who can’t seem to be happy.