Movie Review

Western (2017) by Valeska Grisebach

Original Name: Western

Director:  Valeska Grisebach

Runtime: 100 minutes

Language: German/Bulgarian

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Valeska Grisebach: (1968, Germany) studied Philosophy and German Literature in Berlin, Munich and Vienna. In 1993, she started at the film academy in Vienna, where one of her teachers was Michael Haneke. She has become one of the leading figures of this loose “Berlin School”  movement with only three feature films. Grisebach’s unique method, based on a time-consuming process of story development and pre-production, does away with the customary separation of “writing” and “filming,” naturalism and grand cinematic emotions as well as “professional” and “amateur” actors.

““I grew up with the western genre, sitting in front of a TV set in 1970s West Berlin. I felt the urge to return to it: it captivated me in a profound way. I wanted to grapple with the lonely, melancholic heroes and male mythology it portrays. I was excited by the genre’s modernity – despite all its conservative elements – in its attempt to capture social construction and individual responsibility, yet still fraught with its own contradictions. I was interested in the intimacy of the duel, the inversion of ‘love at first sight’

It takes 12 years for Valeska Grisebach to make another feature film since her 2006 Longing, but she hits gold again with Western, a slow-burn drama about a group of German workers working on a rural Bulgaria village near Greece border. Benefited greatly by its natural approach, Western flows organically and at times you can’t predict what happen next. It’s as if Western, and its main character Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), just goes with the flow and deals with the situations as they come. While that approach means that at times it’s meandering with no clear purpose, most of the times it feels entirely real. Meinhard, who plays what possibly a version of himself, at first finds himself and his team with the hostile attitude from the local villagers, then finds himself more at home with this strangerland than even his homeland despite the language barrier between him and the local people. His tough face commands the screen, and we follow him every step in his journey to this land. The film further addresses the tension for the alpha-male status between him and the de-facto leader of his group, Vincent.

What the most impressive things about Western is that it deals with many complex themes while telling very little. Our lead Meinhard isn’t the most talkative guy, he tends to observe and blend in to the surrounding. Even literally speaking, he has no mean to converse with the townspeople. Through simple words and gestures, however, they reach to the mutual understanding that makes him more at home to these people than his German peers. In one of the only heartfelt moment where his harden self breaks to reveal Meinhard’s emotions, he talks to Adrian, the localman about how he has nothing to return to in Germany, about the possibility of him killing someone during the war, and about his death brother. Language can be a barrier, but the film proves once again that we, as a human, still have some universal truth that can transcend the limitation of cultural knowledge and languages. Even then, as he gets closer to this town, he still can’t escape the aggressiveness of some people. After all, he’s still an outsider.

Inspired by the Western genre, in which this film is named after. It’s further telling that if we apply the normal Western tropes to this picture, it raises many interesting counterpoints. “I’m not a guy who is into violent”, says Meinhard at one point. Whereas one of the main goal of Western hero is to conquer, and to glorify that “conquering” aspect, Meinhard is a character whose only resort to violence to defend himself, and we don’t know for sure what he’s seeking in this wilderness. The ongoing alpha male conflict between him and Vincent, likewise, threaten with many underlying violence without the actual violence taking place. While shot almost entirely on-location, Grisebach prefers to focus on the cast’s face and their position towards the wilderness surrounding than the landscapes itself. It’s a emotional detached film, but it’s a fascinating character study that defuses (not a direct contrast, hence not an acid-Western) the Western tropes to look for something truer, something more realistic and deeper.

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