Eastern Europe meets west in this simmering, slow-burn drama from German filmmaker Valeska Grisebach

Film Review by Adam Stafford | 28 Feb 2018
Film title: Western
Director: Valeska Grisebach
Starring: Meinhard Neumann, Reinhardt Wetrek, Alilov Letifov, Vyara Borisova

Surely the title of Valeska Grisebach's remarkable, slow-moving drama is an exercise in irony? Of course, there are wild horses that need taming, a gun, an insular village and some outsiders viewed with scepticism and caution. At one point there is an extremely tense stand off, but that's where the similarities end as Grisebach inverts western tropes and turns them on their heads.

Meinhard Neumann is the quiet loner among a rag-tag bunch of burly middle-aged builders sent from Germany to Bulgaria where they have been tasked with deepening the well for the local villagers. Meinhard is tall, thin, never without a cigarette and may or may not be an ex-French Foreign Legion soldier. As the work gets under way, things don't get off to a good start. The foreman, Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), offends the women of the village when a dunking prank during a swim goes too far and a German flag, erected by the builders, is stolen during the night.

From here we may expect Western to descend into some kind of psychogeographic cat-and-mouse thriller a la Walter Hill's Southern Comfort but Grisebach constantly wrong-foots us with set-ups that defy our expectations. A seemingly sinister midnight drive turns out to just be a friendly lift home. The theft of a horse is reciprocated by an act of kindness via the village elder Adrian (beautifully and gently played by Alilov Letifov). As work is stalled at the building site Meinhard begins befriending the locally community, transcending language barriers and helping with their own work in return for horse-riding lessons.

The title may also be symbolic in another sense too: the influx of Westerners into former communist territories to carry out modernised construction work and vice-versa. In one scene, the uncle of a teenage boy tells Meinhard that his parents have emigrated to Europe looking for work. In another, Adrian reveals he has three children that all live in the West. Other themes of loneliness, family and national dislocation are woven into a thoroughly absorbing and restrained film. Grisebach's camera is direct and un-flashy and the performances by (a presumably) unprofessional cast are as tight as a rawhide.

Western screened at Glasgow Film Festival 2018

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