WESTERN centres on the lives of a group of German construction workers who have been dumped into a job in rural Bulgaria. It’s a familiar type of film: the sort of low key, slow burn drama that German and Slavic cinema seems to specialise in. However, Valeska Grisebach draws on classic westerns while incorporating contemporary European themes, bringing intensity to what could be a mundane situation.
Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) is a the newest addition to the crew, who head out to the proverbial frontier in search of money, and an escape from their homebound problems. In rural Bulgaria, the boorish behaviour of Meinhard’s colleagues raises the locals’ hackles. Constantly switching between disdain and a desire for approval, each worker’s individual character is exposed by his conflicting interactions with the villagers.
Meinhard’s languid gait and style contrasts with the aggressive masculinity of his co-workers. His background is drip-fed to us, hinting at that his seeking of new pastures has been driven by a flight from personal trauma. For much of the time they seem to lack concern for how they are perceived – they hoist a German flag, they tease a woman by the river by stealing her hat.
Their pre-conceptions of the locals are soon undermined by Meinhard befriending many of them, even if he is shown to be guilty of viewing this slice of rural Bulgaria through розов-tinted spectacles. Underpinning this hyper-localised story are hints to a wider historical and social backdrop. We hear complaints of no work in Bulgaria, as the Germans dominate the workforce. The older locals’ perception of the Germans is clearly based on their experience of military men in wartime. Meinhard wins a game of poker and his opponent is a sore loser – bemoaning the loss of his hard-earned savings.
“…the brutality of 21st century capitalism against a contrastingly vivid and sweeping backdrop.”
The language barrier between the characters means that WESTERN often conveys the story via gestures and simple phrases, narrating the brutality of 21st century capitalism against a contrastingly vivid and sweeping backdrop. These John Ford-esque landscapes range from a beautiful river with a industrial digger stuck in the middle, to a beautiful background panorama with the detritus of a cut-down forest in the foreground.
There is a sense of authorial admiration in this portrait of a group faced with a literal and figurative clash between nature and technology. WESTERN is a film that simmers rather than boils, but Grisebach conjures an atmosphere and intensity which seeps into every inch of the screen.