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 the director 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.