Valeska Grisebach on Western: ‘I was interested in western Europe’s fantasy of eastern Europe’

It may be set in Bulgaria, but Western has both feet planted in the classic cowboy movie tradition. Now it’s being acclaimed as one of the films of the year, but what brought director Valeska Grisebach back out of the wilderness?

• Explore our Valeska Grisebach season at BFI Southbank

Matthew Thrift

Western (2017)

Western (2017)

More than a decade has passed since Valeska Grisebach’s last film, Longing, came out in the UK. Far too long for a filmmaker of such extraordinary promise. The good news is that Western is worth the wait, scooping up awards left, right and centre on the festival circuit. Set in the Bulgarian borderlands, it’s a study in masculinity and xenophobia that’s inescapably contemporary yet steeped in the tradition of the classic American cowboy movie.

Alongside an extended run of Western screenings from 20 April, BFI Southbank is also showcasing her first two features (hot tip: her first, 2001’s Be My Star is especially terrific – think Kids by way of Claire Denis – and entirely unavailable elsewhere). The perfect time, then, to sit down with the German director to chat about her magnificent return.

It’s been 11 years since your last film. What have you been up to?

I was surprised it was 11 years too, but it didn’t feel so long. Life between films is also very interesting. I had a daughter, I was teaching, I gave dramaturgical advice to other projects. I started thinking about this project early, but it took me some time to figure out how it was all going to work. I love research. I love writing and preparing, I could do it for ages, but at some point I realised I had to make the film. But then it was postponed for a year for financial reasons, which was a very bitter moment.

Valeska Grisebach

Valeska Grisebach
Credit: Iris Janke

What form did the research for Western take?

I’ve never had a story in mind when I begin work on a project. Usually it’s a series of topics or questions that I find interesting, which leads me to very personal, associative research. Doing interviews, talking to people, travelling. It started with my fascination for the western genre as a little girl, and I thought I’d like to explore the genre from a different perspective – that of a grown-up woman.

I’d be on the street, looking for a personal pin-up moment, asking myself who I could imagine on a horse. It was pretty primitive, but a good first step. Then I’d start talking to these men about personal western experiences in their daily lives, the duels of their daily lives, what it means to be a man. I’m often surprised by how open people are. When I asked them, as a woman, if I could interview them, it was always when I mentioned the western that they said yes. “It’s a western? I’m coming.”

Can you talk about the writing process? How did you go about getting western concepts in without foregrounding them too much?

That’s why it took me 11 years! It was hard to find the right situations for the subtext of the story, to hide some topics and find the right balance between action and atmosphere. I have a treatment for shooting, I don’t write a traditional script as it would kill my fantasy of what I’m working towards. I prefer a more open structure. I work a lot on the subtext of a scene, trying to find an appropriate surface that transports its essence.

Western (2017)

Western (2017)

And is all of that communicated to the actors?

It depends on the needs of the actor. I’m totally open with the actors so that they know everything about the story, but I don’t give them the script. On my last film, Longing, one of the actors begged me to give her the script because she was so nervous before a scene. I gave her the dialogue but it was a terrible decision because she totally changed her way of acting. She learned the script and lost her intuition, her connection to the material.

Is this working method a product of working with non-actors?

I think I’d work the same way with actors too. Every time I begin a project I’m totally open to working with actors or non-actors, but until now I’ve always returned to the idea of what filmmaking means to me: bodies, movement, faces, lighting – all the concrete things beyond my intention. It’s always interesting to try to get a kind of naturalism that’s perhaps artificially created. To me it’s very inspiring, this confrontation between a fictional idea and its reality. It’d be hard to direct 10 actors as construction workers; there’s something in the body language that you can’t replicate.

What was the dynamic like between yourself, as a female director, and the predominantly male cast?

Of course, it wasn’t just me, I had my DP and crew, but there was a lot of respect. We had a lot of respect for their lives and experience and they had a lot of respect for this kind of filmmaking. For me, it was a really beautiful moment, when they dared to accept this look of a woman. I was worried that they’d change their language, but very quickly it was very personal, in a good way.

Western (2017)

Western (2017)

What do you see as the European parallels to the mythology of the American western?

For me, the western genre has a lot to do with the construction of society. It’s a very conservative genre, but at the same time a very contemporary genre. It can ask questions again and again. One fantasy is the desire to be apart from society, while there’s also something that’s calling you back, and at some point you have to ask yourself about this kind of responsibility. If you want to take over, or look after others, is that a question of empathy or of who’s the fittest?

I was interested in western Europe’s fantasy of eastern Europe, these German men travelling with their big machines, who may be insecure but have come with these instruments of power and superiority. It was an interesting starting point for the story.

Was the film always going to be set in Bulgaria?

I was going back and forth between Bulgaria and Romania. It’s a little embarrassing to say that it wasn’t Bulgaria in the first draft, it was more like my fantasy of eastern Europe. It changed a lot after I’d been there.

It’s interesting how we carry our fantasies about another place with us, which can sometimes be really precise, even if the reality is totally different. In Bulgaria, the people are thinking so much about the west – in every family, some person is working in England, Germany or Italy. There are so many absences in the families, which is something we don’t really think about in western Europe; it’s not present in your daily life.

Watch the Western trailer

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