Western isn’t set out West but out East, in Bulgaria, where a gang of Germans have just arrived to build a hydro-electric system close to a remote village near the Greek border which could probably do with the infrastructure upgrade. Beware, Indians!
There have been Germans here before, one of the locals tells the new arrivals, back in the War. Nice, respectful, orderly types, he reminisces. Though this guy is maybe 70 and can only have vestigial memory of the Second World War if any at all. The Germans build a camp, hoist a flag, get on with their work and, in their spare time go swimming in the river. There, the boss, Vincent, irritates a trio of local women when one of the women loses her hat in the river and Vincent makes a big show of getting it back and then not giving it to her. A powerplay.
Another German, Meinhard, meanwhile, is investigating the area. A local shop won’t sell him cigarettes but he persists and eventually gets a single. Gradually, over the weeks, with millimetre advances, Meinhard worms his way into the affections – maybe too strong a word – of Adrian, a local somebody, his family and social circle. Meinhard likes Bulgaria.
As time goes by Vincent and Meinhard’s different approaches to being in this foreign land crystallise. One is confrontational, the other gentle. And the different approaches start to repay their investments. Vincent asserts, hectors, confronts; Meinhard persuades, discusses, negotiates. One gets more of what he wants than the other.
Valeska Grisebach’s film gives us the two models of migration: the settler (Vincent, aggressive and at one point literally wrapping himself in the German flag); and the immigrant (Meinhard, accommodating, making attempts at the languge) with the different approaches coming to a symbolic head over a woman – Viara, a single local both Meinhard and Vincent fancy, though Vincent reckons he has the better hand to play.
Grisebach is often lumped in with other film-makers from the Berlin School, a vague movement which resists the term and is ignored as a phenomenon in its native Germany. Her film does have similiarities with the work of fellow Berliner Christian Petzold, most obviously in its reliance on semi-submergerd thriller tropes to deliver dramatic traction. This is a hellishly tense film. Also in Berlin School fashion, superficially Grisebach gives it all a documentary “realism” – clear shooting style, naturalistic performances, matter-of-fact cause and effect. And yet, beneath that she’s building a powerful sense of threat, especially as Vincent and Meinhard make their first forays into meeting the locals.
There is trouble brewing and it could come at any time and from any direction, could be sparked by anything. Arguments over the water supply, a horse Meinhard comes across and starts riding, relations with Viara or one of the other women, the gambling debt one of the locals eventually runs up after a card game gets out of hand, the German workers back at the camp.
Grisebach’s cast – Meinhard Neumann as Meinhard, Reinhardt Wetrek as Vincent, Syuleyman Alilov Letifov as Adrian, Viara Borisova as Viara, to name just the most prominent – are all first-timers and they are all naturals. Neumann is ideally suited to playing Meinhard, the lean craggy loner on a white horse who is the most obvious read-across to an actual western. Wetrek, too, has something of the western in his performance as the black hat of the piece, a boozy braggart who’s more mouth than trousers.
Along the way Grisebach also paints a tender portrait of village life in the Bulgarian summertime, where an impromptu party fuelled by home-brewed rakia gets everyone, young and old, up dancing. Grab these moments of respite in this fabulous and guardedly deceptive film, because they are rare.
Western – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023