Written and directed by Valeska Grisebach, Western tells the story of a group of German construction workers who take on a job in a rural part of Bulgaria where they discover an isolated village near their construction site. The village becomes of interest for the workers, as they try to blend in and gain respect among its natives, setting the stage for a clash of tradition and modernity between Eastern and Western Europe. (FEA 4/5).
Review by FF2 Intern Farah Elattar
“Meinhard” (Meinhard Neumann) is a German native who decides to take on a job in Bulgaria seemingly because he cannot find work in Germany. However, the viewer immediately senses that there is more to his story due to his strange, laconic nature. His decision leads him to a job with a group of German men, who know nothing about one another, set in a remote location in the Bulgarian countryside. This isolated environment creates a sort of transcendental, detached world, which allows the viewer to focus on the characters’ complex and seemingly inaccessible psyches, without the distractions associated with modern-day locations. The access to their inner selves is only possible indirectly, which is where the village comes in – enabling Grisebach to create situations that show the traits of the terse men.
The lack of a common language allows the film to rely on the beauty of silence. The film does not make much use of non-diegetic music either. In fact, there are only a handful of moments that incorporate music at all. Instead, the film relies on the sounds of Nature in Bulgaria, which creates a peaceful environment. In this stillness, which is reinforced by scenic shots of their daily view, the viewer is allowed time to reflect on the characters. In fact, one can even argue that Meinhard is also a viewer. He presents himself as a culturally relativistic person, who shows genuine interest in the village and the locals, allowing them to express themselves and show him their customs. Despite the barrier of language, Meinhard proves to be the best at finding ways to communicate and even go beyond discussing the project, creating connections that surpass the exchange of words, and are based on the universality of emotion. He is even able to form a rather deep friendship with “Adrian” (Syuleyman Alilov Lefitov), despite the lack of a common language. They have exchanges about the law of the jungle, and the survival of the fittest, which reveals bits about Meinhard’s troubled war-torn past. Looks, gazes, glances, and expressions replace the superficiality of language and allow for more sophisticated relationships based on what cannot be anything but intuitive feelings and hopefulness for the best in others’ intentions.
On top of its very humanistic side, Western also includes a social aspect. One has to go into the film knowing some information about the socio-economic disparities that exist between the countries of Eastern and Western Europe, despite the presence of the European Union. Of course, the EU is very much headed by Germany, which has since been rather successful in bridging the gap between its former Soviet side and its Western side, becoming the largest national economy in Europe. Therefore, Germany is very much the epitome of modern Europe in its economy as well as its very secular, individualistic, freethinking social values and customs. Bulgaria, on the other hand, is an example of European countries that still rely very heavily on group values and traditions. The German workers represent an instance of what occurs when the “West” reaches out to the poorer countries of Europe, offering technological advances at the expense of their traditional mode de vie. The relationship that forms between the two groups, and especially between Meinhard and the villagers, is a perfect example of the love/hate relationship that characterizes the modern-day European Union. Of course, the villagers want the benefits that come with Germans, however, they still feel this hatred, this inferiority towards them, that the Germans reinforce by acting irresponsibly towards them (e.g. when “Vincent” (Reinhardt Wetrek) harasses one of the local women).
The film is both fascinating and frustrating in that it is more of a peek in the lives of both groups, rather than a well-defined story with a beginning, middle, and end. One is left feeling rather ambivalent, much like the contradiction in the relationship between the villagers and the workers, as to where each of the characters is going to end up after the film. Nevertheless, Grisebach created the perfect environment for a social experiment, allowing for the exploration of the complex dynamics that exist within a strong but flawed modern-day Europe.
© Farah Elattar (2/18/2018) FF2 Media
Featured Image: Meinhard looking at the Bulgarian landscape, next to a German flag
Middle Photo: poster for Western (2017)
Bottom Photo: Meinhard and Adrian
Photo Credits: The Cinema Guild (2018)
Does Western pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?
Although there are many female characters in the film, they are in supporting roles and have no scenes that do not include men.
Coach Corner with Contributing Editor, Lindsy M. Bissonnette
Farah, Jan, and I had a wonderful time watching WESTERN. This was a film unlike anything else I’ve seen. Written and directed by Valeska Grisebach, Western is a complicated film both in terms of plot and emotion. Main character “Meinhard” (Meinhard Neumann) gives an absolutely stunning subtle performance. His performance is filled with nuance and beauty as he navigates his way through lies, lust, and loneliness. His experience as a German in Bulgaria –unable to speak the language or find home anywhere—leads him to appreciate the little things and he finds that he can surprise even himself when he begins to pick up the language and befriends the locals. His empathy is astounding, and his appreciation for the simple is stunning. Though the film runs an hour and 59 minutes long, it flies by with a steadily paced plot that whips through potential dangers at every other turn. Grisebach’s writing and direction is stunning, and somehow gritty and slick at the same time. Inexplicably, this film sticks with you. I’ve found myself contemplating the importance of language, and honesty all weekend, while also marveling at the humor and realness of the film.