On the strength of Valeska Grisebach’s superb second feature film, Longing (2006), Western was one of the must-see titles of the 2017 New Zealand International Film Festival. After such a long hiatus (eleven years!), I was intrigued to see what Grisebach would deliver in a film with such a title.
Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) is the central character, a member of a team of German construction workers in Bulgaria laying the groundwork for a hydroelectric power plant. Tensions soon develop between the work-gang and local townsfolk, primarily over access to the single source of water—and the single women.
Much of the tension is inflamed if not initiated by the work-gang foreman Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), a macho hothead used to getting his own way and having others jump when he barks. The trouble starts early when he raises a German flag in the work camp, and then escalates when he teases one of the local women at a river-bank in an awkward display of sexist intimidation. While Vincent continues to provoke the townspeople with his intransigent machismo, Meinhard befriends some of the residents, gradually developing close bonds with one or two of the men and one of the women in particular.
Working with nonprofessional actors (as she did in Longing), Grisebach creates a wholly authentic world, deftly controlling the various interpersonal dynamics while offering a compelling consideration of the complexities of belonging to, or being alienated from community, and the clash between cultures, customs, and social mores. The often-fraught dynamics between men is one of the central themes of Western, a film that references tropes of the Western genre for what it has to say about (among other things) masculine identity. Throughout the film, Grisebach meticulously peels away the layers to reveal the often-contradictory, self-defeating, and vulnerable traits of masculinity.
Meinhard is something of a Marlboro man, the silent stranger, at one with nature and at home in the wilderness, managing earthmoving equipment with the same masculine purpose as breaking in a horse, broad-backed and palpably physical, a man’s man, a man of few words and strong convictions, burdened by unspoken and perhaps unconscious inner conflicts, a man with an intuitive emotional intelligence when conversing both with men and women, in groups or one to one. Western tropes are mirrored throughout the film, such as the familiar scenario of a woman capturing the hearts of two adversaries; the relationship between a man of conscience who stands apart from his group and a noble native who is his spiritual brother; an empty, seemingly endless, potentially dangerous environment that dwarfs those who battle with it to survive; unforgiving landscapes and unforgiving prejudices; torn allegiances and inevitable confrontation. Grisebach’s take on the classic Western cliché where the hero—having saved the day but now accepts that he is an anachronism—rides off towards the sunset, is to offer a telling reversal in which Meinhard takes his place among dancing party-goers, choosing to engage with the community and possibly make it his home.
I was heartened to read Grisebach say in an interview that her starting point for a film isn’t story but theme, and that she’ll do a significant amount of research around the theme before starting the film. She said that she often constructs scenes around subtext, and that the title of Western is a specific pointer to how one could (should) read it. She also made the salient point that Westerns (the better ones at least) grapple with society, that they are in effect existential examinations of contemporary values, whether they be social or political, or both. The generic tropes in Western subliminally reflect the vacuum that existed following the collapse of communism, the ‘Wild East’ as she refers to it—a Western-like sense of being on the border of new frontiers. So it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to suggest that this thematically purposeful film can be read as an allegory for a far larger ‘community’, where strength is measured by effecting constructive change from within community rather than engaging in vengeful and aggressive acts of power and privilege.