Western review: once upon a time in modern-day eastern Europe

Valeska Grisebach’s stunning existential study of masculinity tips its hat to classic genre cinema even as it casts an extraordinary troupe of non-professional actors as its grizzled migrant construction workers in a foreign land.

☞ Western screens at the BFI London Film Festival on Saturday 7 and Sunday 8 October.

Giovanni Marchini Camia
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Meinhard Neumann as wandering Germany construction worker Meinhard

Meinhard Neumann as wandering Germany construction worker Meinhard

Although Valeska Grisebach is regularly slotted into the loose cohort of filmmakers contentiously designated as the Berlin School, her discreetly radical brand of realism is unlike that practised by her peers. Working exclusively with non-professional actors and eschewing overt stylisation, Grisebach crafts piercing human portraits that, while rooted in a specific milieu, transcend documentary verisimilitude and social commentary to probe existential concerns with universal resonance. The major update she brings to Western, her third feature (separated from its predecessor Longing by an 11-year gap), is a sly incorporation of tropes and iconography drawn from classic westerns.

Western’s modern-day cowboys might be travelling east, but in contrast to anti- or acid westerns, Grisebach’s genre appropriation doesn’t represent an act of subversion. Her characters, German construction workers on assignment in a remote corner of the Bulgarian countryside, are driven to distant lands by the same desires as the heroes of the Old West – a quest for money and personal glory that belies existential unrest – and once there they must also contend with a hostile native population as well as their own macho urges, which erupt into rivalries over women and alpha status. Rather than condemn these impulses or use them to expose the corruption of a larger socio-political context, Grisebach strips them of all sensationalism, presenting them as inherent, though by no means exclusive, facets of masculinity. It’s accepted that there’s a dearth of complex female characters in cinema; Western demonstrates how rare it is to find genuine complexity in male characterisations as well.

Western (Valeska Grisebach, 2017)

The film takes its time excavating the depths of its rootless and enigmatic protagonist Meinhard, who emerges from behind the horizon in the opening shot carrying all his possessions in a plastic bag. Through his largely taciturn observation of his workmates’ often contemptible behaviour and a piecemeal disclosure of significant events from his past – a spell in the French Foreign Legion, the likely crime-related death of his brother – an undercurrent of pain, longing and vulnerability is gradually revealed beneath his stoic, hardened exterior.

It’s little surprise that to find the actor, Meinhard Neumann, Grisebach auditioned over 600 people. In addition to delivering a performance of extraordinary aptitude and range (something that is true of the entire cast), he also possesses an indelible, intensely emotive face. Much like Pedro Costa’s Ventura, he epitomises that quality unique to non-professional actors which renders them such assets in filmic explorations of the human spirit.

Cowboy builders… <span>Meinhard Neumann and fellow labourers</span>

Cowboy builders… Meinhard Neumann and fellow labourers

Although attuned to emotional hardship, Western is far from a miserable trudge. The film also luxuriates in the pleasures of adventure and discovery. When Meinhard takes a break from working in order to admire the pristine natural panorama that surrounds him, his satisfaction is palpable. Watching him as he sits in the sun and smokes a cigarette, taking in the majestic landscape, it’s difficult not to yearn for such a pure form of fulfilment.

The same is true of the intimate conviviality he is welcomed into by the men from the tiny nearby village once he manages to win their trust. Unable to communicate in a common language, this rapprochement is achieved through an accumulation of small amicable gestures, such as sharing a drink or helping unload a truck.

Grisebach’s vision is undeniably romantic, but never does she allow herself to slip into sentimentality. Free of affectation and distinguished by a generosity and sincerity exceedingly rare in cinema, Western’s poignant celebration of human resilience is nothing short of spectacular.

 

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