Film Review: WesternA potentially fascinating character study gets lost in a diffuse, minimalist film about the tedious lives of German construction workers laboring in Bulgaria.
Valeska Grisebach’s Western is a minimalist, atmospheric film evoking the bleak existence of German construction workers building a water-power plant in Bulgaria and the equally futureless men and women of the poor, rural Bulgarian community they’ve invaded (or that’s how it’s perceived). Everyone on both sides feels slightly menaced by the “other” as well as by members of their own tribe. With its multi-leveled title, Western is of the slow-burn genre; tension mounts incrementally, and a sense of doom is pervasive.
The problem is largely this: Besides lack of narrative drive—and arguably that’s a deliberate choice designed to mirror the tenor of the men’s lives—the story lacks structure, focus and purpose. The dialogue is sparse and the rhythm is static. The theme is manifest early on and within short order it becomes largely an exercise in reiteration.
We watch the workers smoking, drinking, discussing this and that. They dig ditches and attempt to run non-functioning cranes, made all the more difficult because they’re working in a river. The heat is unendurable. Some men are bare-chested. The foreman, an uncouth lug (Reinhardt Wetrek), takes a swim and spies a woman on the other side whose hat has flown into the river. He retrieves it and then taunts her to come get it. She swims out to him and every time she reaches for it he pulls it away. The line between flirtation and rage is thin.
Emblematic is the amount of time it takes before we realize there’s a protagonist at all, a man of few words, Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann). If only he were the centerpiece of a delineated story that traveled an arc—meaning, forgive me, a beginning, middle and end—the potential for a fascinating character study is there.
For starters, Neumann is a remarkable-looking man, lanky, leathery-skinned, with a chiseled, expressive face. Like the rest of the cast, he is a non-professional, yet quite the actor. Indeed, he’s a charismatic presence. Without saying anything, he suggests a profoundly private figure who has lived an intense life. We learn he was a former legionnaire who served in Afghanistan and Africa. His interpretation of the world is Darwinian. It’s either “eat or be eaten,” he says. He has neither wife nor children and doesn’t view it as a loss; his only brother is deceased. Meinhard points to the sky and then taps his heart, indicating that’s where his brother resides now. He is totally alone and concomitantly free.
Perhaps the film’s title sardonically references that freedom (along with the fact that the Germans are from Western Europe). After all, what elicits more freedom than the open-skied, mountainous terrain of the West and, by extension, the mythic western? The expansive, rugged Bulgarian landscape—impressively shot by Bernhard Keller—underscores the western image that’s hinted at throughout. When the laborers arrive at the construction site, they plant the German flag on its grounds. Later, Meinhard discovers a white horse belonging to one of the locals and grows attached to it, grooms it, takes care of it, and later rides the animal into town.
He is viewed suspiciously. He doesn’t speak Bulgarian and the Bulgarians know little German. Still, a communication of sorts evolves. The men have a shared interest in guns and knives and fights. So, what’s it all about? Is the film exploring concepts of masculinity and or ethnic-national identity and/or cross-cultural conflicts or all of the above in some measure? The disturbing climax centers on the horse, summoning some bonding among the men, though it’s an uneasy rapprochement at best. The locals include ateenager (Kevin Bashev) who loves and rides the horse and his beefy, good-hearted uncle (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), town big shot and owner of the horse.
Western marks Grisebach’s follow-up to her second film, Longing, a critically acclaimed 2006 film that also employed non-actors and was similar in style and tone yet, according to all accounts, far more effective in its storytelling.
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