Germany has not just lingered at the intersection of the East and West, it has properly experienced being both. Dealing with the past like that is something that we Germans have been obsessed with ever since, and it has shaped our cinematic landscape like nothing else, resulting in an endless stream of films about the war, its aftermath and the separation. The recent films seem to indicate a newly-found understanding though, that we learn most about ourselves in communication with others and not in the sense of non-believable encounters on the front line of a battle field. In SebastianSchipper’s Victoria a young Spanish twenty something rides through present-day (or rather present-night) Berlin. In Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, a German business woman gets her world shaken up when her father visits her corporate bubble in Bucharest.
Western, directed by Valeska Grisebach and produced by Maren Ade’s Komplizen Film, sends a group of German construction workers to the Bulgarian mountainside to build a dam. Living in a camp outside a tiny village, they are soon met with suspicion from the local inhabitants whose last contact with Germans goes back 70 years and did not leave an overall positive impression. While most of the workers act reserved in return, one of them quietly explores the area and the village, following his curiosity to meet the locals and befriending some of them eventually, despite the language barrier. His peers, above all his boss, are not too happy about it.
The clash between East and West can presumably be found already in the double meaning of the title, and is the first conflict to arise. The motivation of the Germans to come to Bulgaria is left unexplained. Judging by their accents, they are all from Eastern Germany, where opportunities have decreased for manual workers since the fall of the wall. Yet, arriving to Bulgaria, they are the Westerners.
Communication becomes the biggest challenge, but the certain air of superiority of the workers leaves the impression that they make little effort to overcome the language-imposed barriers. Caught in the middle of all this is Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), an army veteran with an inscrutable face that seems to tell a million stories. His calm yet strong presence is the pillar of the film. Not a man of many words, he is the only one who manages to communicate effectively – through being silent.
The film has other means besides silence to unfold this story based on communication. The primarily non-professional cast was forced to work with treatments instead of the traditional script, having to make use of their own words and dialects. The characters therefore reach a degree of authenticity that is rarely seen in cinema nowadays; blue-collar workers are very often belittled through the lens of social drama.
But here, as the title suggests, we have a Western. And it works, because Grisebach isn’t merely trying to resuscitate a slightly dusty genre through a contemporary story, but she uses the familiar genre to tell the tale of communication and identity in a place seemingly disconnected from time.
Where do Germans find their identity in all this then? The divide is not as simple as East and West, as Meinhard has to realize, too. The clashes of this nature have been portrayed a lot in films about the Cold War, that live off the suspense of a potential devastating catastrophe. Similarly, Westerns are not about the escalation but the anticipation of it that makes the whole endeavour so thrilling. The underlying tensions of a seemingly perfect place come to light in small doses, each step could be the final one. But then it is so much more fun to see if it could go further. In correlation with its style, Western ultimately opts for a less-is-more approach. But man, is it rewarding.
Name: Cora Frischling
"Western" by Valeska Grisebach (DE, BG, AT)
KVIFF - Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2017 - Horizons
C. Photo Credit: Western (2017)