Sometimes you have to look abroad, or back in time, before you can look inward. No film genre is more quintessentially “American” than the classic western, whose beautiful but brutal landscapes, unreformed masculinity, violently policed borders and expansionist rhetoric captured US self-mythology in the post-war boom of the 1950s and 60s. But by refashioning these tropes for her long-awaited third feature Western, German director Valeska Grisebach has captured tensions at the heart of the modern European project — between West and East, centre and periphery, past and present. Her desire to explore her childhood obsession with the all-American heroes of Ford and Mann has also allowed Grisebach a way back into filmmaking 12 years after her last feature, Longing (2006), in the process garnering rave reviews and serving as a hook for a mini-retrospective at the British Film Institute this month.
Western is a film about conflict, contact and (mis)communication; it is also a portrait of masculinity on a par with modern classics like Claire Denis’s Beau travail (1999). A troupe of German construction workers led by fractious foreman Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) arrive in remote southern Bulgaria to build a hydroelectric plant. Among their number is the taciturn, withdrawn Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), who drifts away from his compatriots and into an ambiguous series of relationships with the local villagers, including quarry boss Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov) and romantic interest Vyara (Vyara Borisova). Confrontations between the two national camps flare up and dissipate into the sullen summer air; there are fights for water, women, a stray white horse. Meinhard’s loyalties are questioned on all sides. But whereas a lesser film (or a more standard western) would descend into pitched, violent conflict in its final act, Grisebach grounds the drama in small gestures and glances that are allowed to resonate without exploding into action.
Grisebach tells me that the choice of location emerged from her attempts to reconfigure the Wild West for German protagonists. “I grew up in West Berlin, always travelling towards the West. In Bulgaria I was very attracted by the border regions because I was looking for this wilderness, or fake wilderness, that creates this expectation of adventure for the Germans.” Grisebach and a skeleton crew spent three years travelling to Bulgaria before they began shooting, building relationships and casting locals. “They were open,” she says. “Maybe they didn’t believe that we would actually make a film. In Bulgaria they are used to people coming and saying, ‘we will make this project,’ and then leaving and never coming back.”
The basic premise of Western — a camp in alien territory, populated by laconic male loners — certainly borrows from its genre namesake. But there’s a timely neo-colonial bent to Grisebach’s play on the notion of the frontier. The construction project is implicitly framed as EU-funded (“We’re bringing them infrastructure” is Vincent’s dismissive response to criticism of his boorish behaviour towards the locals). The Germans have been sent to a border region that should be comprehensible to them — they’re still in the EU, after all — but over which they struggle to assert their superiority. They run out of gravel and are forced to go cap in hand to the locals they had previously alienated. Meinhard is the exception, learning from his new friends to thread tobacco leaves, cut stone and fashion a bridle, but his own intentions too remain unclear. There’s no manifest destiny here.
The Germans are sent to a region that should be comprehensible to them — they’re still in the EU, after all — but over which they struggle to assert their superiority
“Sometimes people ask me, are the Bulgarians the Native Americans?” Grisebach continues. “It’s not like that exactly. I think the western genre tells us so much about the construction of society, and the impulse to place yourself above people who are strange to you. [There is] the moment in which the main characters have to decide if they want to be inside or outside of society, and what the law of society will be: the law of empathy, or survival of the fittest? The film deals more with the fantasies and projections of eastern Europe from the Germans, their prejudice and mistrust.”
The Germans may feel, in Grisebach’s words, as though life “owes them an adventure”, but in the 21st century there are no more badlands to conquer. Instead, Western speaks to the invisible borders erected between individuals and nations. “We talk about Europe without borders, but there are borders, economic borders,” she reasons. In contrast to the great American westwards drive, borders today are more porous and multilateral, while still reflecting and enforcing deep socio-political inequalities. “For many people in Bulgaria, western Europe is very present, because so many people in their families are working there or have to go there [to find work]. In Germany, people live quite well — even if they complain a lot. I don’t know how aware they are of the periphery.” There are also historical resonances which Grisebach doesn’t shy away from: Bulgaria was occupied by the Nazis, something raised repeatedly by the villagers.
Western is a singular film, but one that is nonetheless suggestive of a nascent sensibility in German and eastern European cinema. The most obvious link is with Maren Ade’s hugely acclaimed comedy Toni Erdmann, in which German corporate consultants flit listlessly around Bucharest. (Ade, a friend of Grisebach, is one of the producers of Western; Grisebach was a script consultant on Erdmann). It also put me in mind of Radu Jude’s Aferim! (2015), a Romanian-set western about Roma slavery and one of the clearest eastern European attempts to use genre conventions to tackle social injustice, as well as the psychological drama of Bulgarian director Svetla Tsotsorkova’s Thirst (2015), also set in the sun-baked hills of the southern borderlands.
“The characters have to decide if they want to be inside or outside of society, and what the law of society will be: the law of empathy, or survival of the fittest?”
None of these films, though, can match Western when it comes to depicting those spikes of suspicion, intrigue and bewilderment produced when two tribes meet. None of the Germans speak Bulgarian and only one villager, Vyara, knows any German. Somehow a kind of dialogue emerges, though it remains hopelessly inadequate. “There are a lot of subtexts in the first moment when two people from different countries meet,” Grisebach says. “At some point I realised I had to create a third language, along with the actors, to make the viewer trust that this is really happening in this moment. It was important to have all these gaps between the different languages, to create some space in the viewer’s imagination.”
This sensitivity to momentary shifts in mood and loyalty is a product of Grisebach’s unconventional filmmaking technique. She didn’t work from a traditional script, instead writing treatments for each scene during filming, which she would read to the cast rather than showing them before the cameras rolled. The actors themselves are all non-professionals cast for their real-life experience: Neumann was a builder and car mechanic, Wetrek a scaffolder. “There are concrete moments that I love while watching films — light on a face, the body, something that doesn’t belong to acting,” Grisebach explains. “Acting is very important but there’s something I can’t invent. With these construction workers there’s so much written in the body, so much experience which is important for the story. I like these imperfections. An actor would be too perfect.” The way these men move about the screen — Meinhard’s gangly lope, Vincent’s coiled physicality — is as important as the words spoken, given the taciturn version of masculinity they represent. The astonishing central performance from Neumann begins with his moustachioed, crinkled face — the face of a man who we instinctively believe has lived, laboured, “seen things”.
It’s this masculinity that ultimately brings Western back into dialogue with its American inspirations. When I ask Grisebach about her childhood fixation on the genre, she frames it in terms of its gender archetypes. “It’s such a male genre. Why am I attracted to this kind of masculinity, these male heroes with all their solitude? When I was a girl maybe there was a bittersweet moment where I identified with these heroes and at the same time I was excluded from the genre. This is such a male genre, and at the same time it tells us so much about society — a society made for men.”
At its heart, Western is an homage to a version of manhood that seems both anachronistic and timeless, revivified by a culture clash narrative. The German workers might arrive from a prosperous nation, but they are still manual labourers. One might even call them proletarian. Grisebach is certainly aware of their status as heroes out of time. “There’s a melancholic moment with this class, because I don’t know if this class really exists anymore. I really enjoy their language, full of wit and fantasy. I feel a lot of tenderness for these men.”
Almost all the German cast were from the former GDR, a lost nation where this kind of labour was at least nominally lionised. Perhaps the most poignant subtext in the film is that both Germans and Bulgarians are the product of an international socialism that has vanished from view. The spectre of international co-operation and fraternity stalks the tentative and broken relationships onscreen. Like the cowboys of old, these are men stranded on a frontier that is simultaneously familiar and frightening. Grisebach’s has somehow managed to dramatise the rifts at the heart of the post-89 European “community” without resorting to cliché, and in the process has captured the lingering memory of a more unified world. “The [German] actors told me that they felt at home there,” the director concludes. “It was like a time machine to somewhere familiar.”
The British Film Institute’s Close-Up season on Valeksa Grisebach, featuring screenings of Western, runs from 20 April – 3 May. The film is out in selected cinema across the UK now