TO understand the wide-reaching influence of the American Western you only have to look at German filmmaker Valeska Grisebach.
While growing up in the American sector of West Berlin, Grisebach would watch Westerns with her father. She loved John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) and Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950). But she was particularly drawn to James Stewart’s farm boy-type character in Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950).
Thirty-something years later – and now a parent herself – Grisebach has returned to the genre she loved as a child with Western, a slow-burn tale of masculine pride and xenophobia.
The grizzly and moustached protagonist is Meinhard Neumann, a German construction worker who works with a group of men on the outskirts of a Bulgarian village. Meinhard’s colleagues proudly hoist a German flag over their work station and in the evenings sit around with beers in hand. Grisebach observes their conversations with the subtle subtext of machismo-driven hierarchical jousting on display.
One of the more overt displays comes from Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) as he attempts to flirt with a local Bulgarian woman in front of the group. Vincent’s determined but borderline forceful attempt at seduction receives a mixed response from his colleagues and a reluctant response from the woman. This incident is just the beginning of a strained relationship between the German construction workers and the local village. A dispute that Meinhard, drawn to the locals and neglected by his group (Vincent in particular), puts himself in the middle of.
Grisebach’s film is rich in small moments and utilises the language barrier to impressive effect, conveying the small misunderstandings and resentments it can bring. At one point, Meinhard heads into the village in search of cigarettes. A local store-owner refuses to sell him anything, using the language barrier as a shield.
When Meinhard leaves the store, he comes across two welcoming locals who hand him a cigarette. They engage with Meinhard, telling him about the savviness of the German army in World War Two as they defeated the Greek army just miles from their Bulgarian village. It is a sequence that speaks to the complicated confusions between deep-seated mistrust and respect. The Germans, on the other hand, are less mistrusting and more supercilious, claiming that visiting the village is like going back in time.
At the heart of it all is the excellent Meinhard who like Stewart in Winchester ’73 brings a fascinating earthy on-screen presence to proceedings. Even more so when you consider Grisebach discovered him in at a horse market in Berlin.
The authenticity of his performance is typical of Grisebach’s entire cast – mostly made up of non-professional actors – who create an immersive story against a backdrop of an imposing hilly and patchily forested landscape. One that, under the beating tension-heightening sun, could be mistaken for an American setting.
Grisebach’s love for the American Western has come full circle. She has transported the genre to a European setting and given us a thoughtful tale that reaches into the masculine psyche and the difficulties of belonging.
Western is a must-see film for those who value reserved and observant cinema.This was review 2/30 of the Close-up Culture Monthly Film Challenge – Female Filmmakers.