Their Western Moment: A Conversation with Valeska Grisebach

The German director discusses "Western," her reinvention of the genre film with German workers setting up a foreign camp in Bulgaria.
Daniel Kasman


For those with a sudden interest in new German cinema thanks to last year’s Toni Erdmann, the Cannes Film Festival has again selected another powerful, deeply human and intricately political drama in Valeska Grisebach’s terrific Western. Like Maren Ade, with whom she has collaborated, Grisebach has made two films—the lovely graduation short feature Be My Star (2001) and Longing (2006), a small town tale of a fireman’s love life—with long pauses in between. Western comes more than a decade after her first proper feature, and it confirms that the director is as talented as ever.

The setting is a German worker camp in the modern day Bulgarian countryside, and, as as the title daringly states, this is indeed a "western." The isolated Germans are the encroaching (economic) colonizers—“we come here to work,” they say, flush with money and a reputation dating from the Second World War—and the Bulgarians in the nearby village the unknown, presumed hostile natives. This scenario risks appearing schematic on paper, as do Grisebach’s previous films—Longing, for example, tells the story of a man torn between two women in two different towns with a simplicity that nearly achieves the force of a foundational myth. But the brilliant complicating factor is the combination of the filmmaker’s impeccable ability to cast enthralling non-professional actors and direct them into being. Her characters are able to say and live more in silence than most movie characters do through entire pictures.

The hero here in Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), who has the lanky leanness of Gary Cooper or James Stewart, though in fact his taciturn demeanor, hints of a past of violence, crooked legs and fabulous mustache have most in common Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine (1946). Meinhard lives along with the other German workers on a hill camp near their worksite. They brazenly hang the German flag, jump at sounds in the night, and work on a new power station—work that soon halts over a water dispute. In the downtime, of which there is much, Meinhard heads to town, whether from boredom or appeal it is impossible to say. (There is much in this film that is reminiscent of Claire Denis's Foreign Legion cine-poem, Beau travail.) “Violence isn’t my thing,” he tells his comrades, and with a reserved perspicacity, willingness to help with odd local jobs and a quick spreading rumor that he is a ex-Legionnaire, Meinhard soon ingratiates himself with the villagers and befriends Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), a local man with deep business and family connections. Each can barely understand what the other says, but the genuineness between them is remarkably, and touchingly, tangible. Meinhard’s German co-workers mock and detest this meeting of cultures and nations, and here the film most resembles Delmer Daves’s sublimely optimistic Broken Arrow (1950), where Stewart plunges with trust and affection into an Apache community.

Western feels not like some prefabricated film—least of all “a new western set in Bulgaria”—but rather the culmination of immersive research by Grisebach and her team into a region, into foreign workers, into the Bulgarian countryside. Rather than cinematically colonize the foreign country—a foreign film in a foreign land, as the workers are—with an overdetermined story or goal, Western is predominantly anecdotal. Grisebach films work, social interaction, details of lifestyle, and a scattering of mythic moments, like Meinhard’s discovery and befriending of a local horse, in an off-hand, observational style where you never quite know what to expect next. Gradually over time the film edges forward, feeling its way as if in the dark, and becomes shapely, the story emerging of Meinhard’s cross-cultural excursions and the tensions and joys they may bring. Grisebach sketches all her characters beautifully, most especially Neumann, whose drawling face in some light appears lethargic and in others suspicious and calculating. His connection with the Bulgarian townspeople, and in particular Adrian and his family, is tentative, awkward, but deeply human. This organic individual charisma and chemistry unites with Grisebach’s as-it-goes storytelling, creating the sense that this “western” scenario was discovered rather than created. As in Broken Arrow, the filmmaker approaches her fraught collision of nations with humaneness and hope—and the result is utterly captivating.

Valeska Grisebach

NOTEBOOK: From the three films you've made I get the sense that they are each a product of a great deal of research far before anything is shot, maybe even before the script starts. Can you tell me a bit about researching this film in particular?

VALESKA GRISEBACH: Yes, it’s true—always when I’m thinking about a new project I don’t have a kind of story, it’s more that I have something personal, a kind of subject that I’m interested in, and then I start with a very associative personal research. In this case, it was because I realized really how fascinated I am with westerns. I thought about how sometimes I’m kind of homesick for a western, that I really have to see a western. I think it was because when I was a child I was really growing up with westerns in front of a TV set. Maybe I share this with the whole generation, this western experience.  But I realized it was maybe a very bittersweet kind of fascination, because I identify it so much with these male characters. They were really the more attractive characters, so the woman were only waiting in the doors, waiting for the man—and very beautiful. But—I say this without complaining—I realized maybe this was part of this bittersweet fascination, which makes the fascination even bigger. The western is in a way a very conservative genre, a very male genre, but at the same time a very modern genre because it deals with all these questions of society—how you like your kind of society, do you want to have empathy or do you prefer the rise of the strongest?

For years I was thinking I wanted to make something about this kind of...I don’t know, maybe xenophobia is too strong a word...but I was thinking about this because you can find it everywhere, not only in Germany. This impulse to put yourself on a higher status when you meet somebody who’s strange to you, or this kind of fear of strangers, without knowing other places, other countries. When I suddenly had this setting of these German construction workers in another country where they are themselves strangers, I thought okay, now I have the approach and then connected with this western longing—now I can make something. Then everything was at the same time—casting, research, writing. Maybe I was looking for men to talk about their personal duel in their lives, their western moment, and in the beginning I started really with this pin-up moment: Which men look like men from a western? And I came very fast to the construction workers, because they have all these clothes and the tools on them, their belt, and this body language. On Sunday when they are together with their families they look completely different, but it’s all these poses and a very closed man's world.

So I started with interviews with a lot of construction workers but also then with men from different milieus and then women—but I returned to this milieu because I thought this is my right approach for the story. I write the stories like everybody, but for me it’s always very interesting to have this confrontation of a fiction with some kind of reality. For me, it’s a perfect sparring partner to have this kind of resistance, to find what I can’t invent, it has a lot to do with film. It’s this thing of film looking at people in a light and a situation. I’m really touched by this very concrete moment and I’m always looking for it. I’m always a little bit irritated if everything is planned perfect, I start to make something with a little chaos.

NOTEBOOK: The film seems very built from this “chaos”: anecdotal moments rather than straightforward storytelling. I got the sense you shot a great deal and this finished film is one shape it could take, one arrangement of so much material.

GRISEBACH: Yes, there’s not so much footage but we had a lot of material. But it was more kind of condensation. Because when I write, sometimes it’s a lot about subtexts, so I always work on the construction of the story. This time for me very complicated because I was always trying to hide the construction and to find a kind of surface for the subtext...and sometimes I had some kind of translation for myself and sometimes I really had to deal with it while shooting. But in the end, I think we shot a lot of scenes which were written so it’s a very direct mix.

NOTEBOOK: That tension is palpable in the film, between the construction of the story—the recognizable plot points—and the more casual observation of the world. Was it a challenge for you to find—

GRISEBACH: —The balance?

NOTEBOOK: Yes, how much you wanted to be obvious or direct with, as you say, the subtext.

GRISEBACH: Yes, absolutely. It’s really to find how you have this little plot point or a little suspenseful moment and then you create space, more space for atmosphere.

NOTEBOOK: Since you call this film “Western,” how do you relate your filming practice to cinephilia? This film could have been very self-reflexive and referential to the genre, but you avoid that.  I remember Christian Petzold once telling me he loves to watch and discuss movies but not like a “geek.”

GRISEBACH: What is a “geek” way?  

NOTEBOOK: I think he meant a passion for cinema the emphasizes the quantity of films seen, for example putting in a reference to another film because the director wants to exhibit his or her cleverness, or wants to flatter an audience that recognizes that reference. But not because that reference is charged with specific meaning.

GRISEBACH: This is not so interesting to me. My desire was to become closer to this essence. That’s a very personal thing—closer to these western male characters, what is their burden? What is the content? Yeah, for sure I was thinking about some westerns but it was more like they were traveling with me while I was making the film.

NOTEBOOK: When you say westerns, I assume you’re specifically talking about Hollywood westerns and not those unusual westerns that are produced in Germany and especially East Germany in the 1970s?

GRISEBACH: No, no—yep, I am a German child and this is maybe a sometimes romantic approach. I think this a very German thing that when I think about westerns I think about the American classical western.

NOTEBOOK: There’s a big difference between the foreignness of Native Americans to the Americans and Bulgarians to Germans.

GRISEBACH: I think for me the western has a lot to do with ambivalence. You want to get close, but not too close; you’re looking for a kind of freedom and independence but at the same time you’re looking to get home and to find your happiness or you want to be part of this society but at the same time maybe you don’t want to be. You want to be social and also you want to be not social.

In a way, they’re not neighbors but it’s not so far away, yet at the same time it’s so far away. For me, it’s very interesting if when you have the chance to have empathy, but you instead have contempt, or a conflict, instead of identifying yourself with the other one you. I thinking about this kind of situation. It’s not typically German, really not, it’s a human being thing. From my perspective, for myself as a woman from Germany with a German history and because at the moment Germany is in such a high status in Europe—there are so many different perspectives in Europe—at this point Bulgaria and Germany are very far from each other.

And so it was very interesting to put the situation in a very concrete village square where the people really have to face each other. At the same time, I thought, okay that feels so strange but these German construction workers share the experiences of communism with the people in Bulgaria. They have a lot in common, it’s not so far away. When one of the Germans says “it’s like in a time-machine,” like going back, they know exactly what they’re talking about, they share a lot of the past and the same experiences.  This kind of ambivalence is a very interesting thing, that some people only can get in contact with others with the conflict—it’s also a kind of close up on intimacy—and I think my most personal moment of the film is maybe that Meinhard in a way is very ashamed that he goes back.

NOTEBOOK: At the end?

GRISEBACH: Yeah. I believe in these kind of intimacies that when you are weak, that when you share your weakness, then you start to get in contact in a way.

NOTEBOOK: How did you find this specific town, this area?

GRISEBACH: In Germany we the saying “traveling in the blue,” I don’t know how you call it in English...without knowing where you will end in the end? And I always liked this kind of movement with shooting, where maybe you don’t know where you end on a day. And so when I travelled to Bulgaria, I was very interested in these border regions, because it’s also ambivalent, so you have all this mixing of people and there’s a kind of movement and traveling. At the same time, you have this sense of “I am here, and you are there” and I thought maybe for the Germans it's interesting that they could have more desire to look after this border, the place after the border. At first I travelled to the Serbian border but then somebody told me that there is a warm wind from Greece, coming from the south on the border, and then I thought, okay let’s travel where the warm wind is.

NOTEBOOK: That’s a good title for a 1950s western, “The Warm Wind from the South.”

GRISEBACH: Yes, exactly. And then yeah I realized that it’s a very mystical place and I totally fell in love immediately. I love Bulgaria everywhere, I’ve travelled a lot and I think it’s a very exciting country. It’s always connected with meeting people, I immediately started with casting when I was there or I tried to do something there, I was always traveling with a little camera, so we were creating material so we could look at after and think about the camera and everything. This is a region which had widespread communism. People in the villages couldn’t visit each other, they had to ask permission from the border and when they wanted to reap their fields they also had to ask for permission because it was so close to the border.  It’s still a little bit of a hidden place, but at the moment there is more exchange because Greek firms have tried to have firms in Bulgaria because it’s better for them, so there is a little bit more exchange, the people have a little bit more chance for jobs, for example at the border to Serbia. It’s a very potential “with it” region and it’s a good counterpart for the Germans.

NOTEBOOK: And are all the Bulgarian actors in the film from that specific town and surrounding area?

GRISEBACH: No, not everybody. We needed a huge casting call that came from the region, only one woman came from the other village, where I thought maybe we would shoot, and I thought, okay one actor, she could from the other village—she’s the one who’s playing the younger woman, Viara, the German-speaker. She comes from the Serbian border and she speaks no German so it was very funny to create this situation.

NOTEBOOK: If these are German workers going into Bulgaria and remaining German and doing German work in Bulgaria, how did you avoid feeling like you were doing the same thing with the film production?

GRISEBACH: I totally understand, because I think we shared a lot of experiences in the team, like the construction workers there. I think very important was the time, so a lot of times I was there only with my assistant and the translator. So there was a situation before, and for me it was always very important when we tried to advance the situation, how could it be when we are shooting there. There’s the village and we are coming with our cars and the whole crew...we were in the village square, nobody else, and so we were able to think about how are we would organize the set. How can we have the respect so as not to intervene in the situation in the village? We had several meetings with people from the village before to think how can we do it. What would disturb, what would not disturb? But in the end it was great, because before the shooting the village they did a big party for us and there was a priest who blessed the shooting with a lot of rakia. I think in the end it was very good because then filming is not so exciting anymore for the village people. We got a lot of support, but it was in the end a very personal meeting between us and the people there.

NOTEBOOK: I just love your casting, who you choose is always a discovery, it could be a main actor or a bit part, the faces, the body language, it’s all very physical and particular. What are you looking for in general when casting non-professionals?

GRISEBACH: It’s always different. I mean in a way...yes,’s not like falling in love, but you have this moment when you think, okay there’s this kind of fantasy. With Meinhard Neumann it was really because I was looking for somebody who had these kind of iconic moments and for me to see him it was a little bit of a shock because he had these iconic moments. It’s so interesting to have these contrasts when we create the material the film was made from, to have something which looks so natural, and at the same time you have this fictional approach.

NOTEBOOK: You are right, Meinhard stands there on the porch with his leg curled under him, he’s so long and lanky and with his cigarette he looks just like Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine.

GRISEBACH: Yes, Henry Fonda! This was so touching for me, the Henry Fonda Clementine moment. This is so delicate what is happening with him, and it was because I always thought that I am looking for a main character who is an attractive man, elegant, and somebody who people are forced to look at. We have this fantasy maybe of him as a kind of leader and at the same time inside he is...not a small man, but somebody who wants to hide in a group and doesn’t want to take opportunities, he has fear, and also ambivalence, maybe. I thought he was the perfect actor for this. But then we had to get to know each other and to see how does it work—but everybody was totally different. Working with him was more in a Bresson way, it was a lot about choreography and moving through the image. Totally different, for example, to Reinhardt Wetrek, who plays Vincent, who was much more psychological to work with, he tried to organize himself through what his situation was and was very straight to the point, in a very physical way. Whereas with Meinhard, he really always told me “don’t tell me so much about the story, I don’t want to know” because usually I don’t like tricks, I talk about everything, but he always told me, “Valeska please don't tell me so much, just tell me what I have to do.” But I really like his...he knows a lot about body language, about poses, he knows how to pose.

NOTEBOOK: And with Syuleyman Alilov Letifov, who played Adrian, did you put him and Meinhard side by side to see if they would work well together? Because they have such strong chemistry.

GRISEBACH: Absolutely. First I was thinking about somebody else—there were two men—and then immediately when I saw them together and because he’s also so tall and he has this kind of wisdom. When I saw them together it was really a little bit like brothers. They walked in a similar way, and Syuleyman as well was really very concentrated, very interesting. At first I really had to convince him to play in the film, but then he was maybe the most concentrated actor of all three.

NOTEBOOK: I was surprised how little references to home there are amongst these German workers. You see a phone call or two, but not much, nor much homesickness.  But then there’s Meinhard, who seems like he wants to be separated from home. Is that a sense you got from these foreign workers?

GRISEBACH: I think normally it’s different. When people really are out of touch I think there are some points when home is really far away and it’s a decision to take this kind of work. Maybe at first it’s a question of money, but at some point when you do this for years, I think it really creates a body of your life. But in a fictional way, I thought that these two men, Meinhard and Vincent, they share something: they are not young anymore, in ten, twenty years they will be old men in a way, and so at this point in their lives maybe they share this expectation that life owes them an adventure or something more, some emotion, or something which is missing. I think this is one thing about the conflict between the two of them, that they’re dealing with it in different ways. Vincent is more kind of aggressive and flirtatious, and Meinhard is more...I don’t know...the way he is with the horse—maybe this says something about his emotions.

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