Review: Something New From Something Old—Valeska Grisebach’s “Western”

Pastiches, homages, and carbon copies of films made years, decades, and movements ago clog today’s cinema. Art house fare as diverse and varied as Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), Queen of Earth (2015), The Death of Louis XIV (2016), The Untamed (2016), and First Reformed (2017) all draw from a—now sizeable—history of cinema, for better or for worse. Add Valeska Grisebach’s Western to the batch. Eleven years since her previous work, Longing (2006), Grisebach returns to cinema with a slow-boiling film that injects the DNA of the western genre into a narrative concerning inter-European relations. And to be sure, Grisebach had some movies in mind while making Western (a few low-key nods to My Darling Clementine here and there), but as she told Daniel Kasman on this site, “it was more like they were traveling with [her] while [she] was making the film.” Western isn’t so much an homage as a muted mutation.
A ragtag group of German workers travel to Bulgaria to install a hydroelectric water plant. The leader of the pack is Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), a mirthless man swaggering with machismo. Wiry yet muscular, restive yet yearning for a place to belong to, Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) is Vincent’s foil. With loads of downtime, the men lounge about, erect a camp (designated German with a flag flying in a makeshift hut), swim in a stream, visit the nearby village and wearily interact with the natives. As Western progresses, Meinhard becomes the go-between for the workers and the villagers. Both parties use their bodies (hand gestures, posture, movements) to convey what they mean. For his part, Meinhard even establishes a brotherly bond with Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), one of the respected men of the village. The film concentrates on Meinhard; it is his story. He’s in a period of flux, for he is rudderless and without a home. But he’s taking a liking to the Bulgarian way of life. It’s just that Vincent is getting in his way and jeopardizing the work they are supposed to do there in the first place.
Although she references Ford—and mentions Winchester ’73 (1950) and The Big Country (1958) in several interviews—the aesthetic of Grisebach’s film is more Hawksian. Western is simple, direct, and transparent. Character movement motivates camera movement; and in rare instances Grisebach assumes the point of view of a character. Editor Bettina Böhler opts for straight cuts rather than “softer” transitions, giving Western a materiality that is reinforced by the fact that every shot contains some form of movement, whether its by the camera, the character, or something within the frame. The rhythm is deliberate and slow as tensions simmer between characters. There’s a natural flow to the proceedings, so much so that one doesn’t exactly know what’s going to happen next. One scene seems to just lead into another. “I’m always a little bit irritated if everything is planned perfect, I start to make something with a little chaos,” she told Kasman.
This sense of finding formal elements among the world around her and constructing a story structure from it is a kind of materialistic approach to filmmaking. And this even extends to casting; in all of her films, Grisebach uses the performance and persona of non-actors. Years ago, when she started thinking about Western, Grisebach spotted Meinhard Neumann at a horse market near Berlin. What he brings to his character is a presence that’s stoic, graceful, and sensitive. Vincent, on the other hand, is the opposite. He’s sneaky, spineless, cowardly, and full of bravado—an odious combination that jeopardizes relations with the villagers. With his tattoos, his ear piercing, and his leather vest he cuts an aggressive figure and oozes toxic masculinity.  
Western is a western—and one of the finest in recent years. Grisebach film uses such re-jiggered generic tropes as a confrontation between the East and West; a dialectic between civilization and the wilderness; the beauty and chaos of the wilderness; modernized cowboys and gunslingers; and a hoedown. Gun duels are replaced with glares and stares exchanged between well-worn faces. So much could’ve gone wrong with this film. The allegorical, mythical, and iconographic elements could’ve come off baldly, but Grisebach executes Western with such ease and subtly that its generic quality is organic. Centered on one character, the film is a nuanced tale of cultural identity and diplomatic relations bolstered by its reworking of genre. Western is something new from something old.

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