Germans and Bulgarians in an uneasy contemporary encounter.


Meinhard Neumann


On paper, this film sounds distinctly promising. It is the work as both writer and director of Valeska Grisebach the German filmmaker who won acclaim with her first full-length feature Longing made in 2007. It may have taken her all this time to follow it up but Western, like Longing, displays her skill in obtaining convincing performances from non-professional players. It's also the case that the setting for this new work, rural Bulgaria, provides a pleasingly unfamiliar location and, as photographed in colour by Bernhard Keller, the film makes the most of this. More importantly still, the subject matter is interesting.


Western explores the outlook of a group of German workers including Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) who, with Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) as their foreman, arrive in Bulgaria to build a power plant in an area where water can be in short supply. Meinhard, a former legionnaire, instinctively seeks to get on good terms with the inhabitants of the nearest village who are curious about the newcomers. This leads in time to a bond developing between him and a leading villager, Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), while Adrian's teenage nephew, Vanko (Kevin Bashev), represents the younger generation. But Meinhard's fellow workers are macho types keen to assert themselves and play up the local girls. That is particularly true of Vincent who early on harasses one village girl, Vyara (Vyara Borisova), who later on will attract Meinhard.


Western certainly means well as it offers a critique of the male group mentality with its aggressive potential and invites the viewer to sympathise with the goodwill of Meinhard and his belief in cooperation across borders. But, although Grisebach's film has received very favourable reviews on its festival screenings, I fail to understand its appeal. The limited talk between the Germans and the Bulgarians is quite natural given the language barrier, but Grisebach's minimalistic style extends here to giving us very little information about the characters. We may learn the names of some of the subsidiary figures but that is about all, and even in the case of the main characters information is scarce - one telephone call indicates that Vincent has a troubled partner back in Germany and Meinhard eventually mentions a dead brother but no details emerge.


Presumably because of the film's title, admirers of this film have come up with comparisons with John Ford. But, while it is true that the film features men in the outdoors and tells a story in which a white horse plays a significant part, nothing in it strikes me as echoing western movies - it doesn't even end in a shootout! What one actually hopes for is a subtle everyday drama in which conflicts of outlook may or may not be overcome but, convincing as the players are, the slow pace and the absence of detail that would encourage us to respond to the characters in depth make for a drawn-out and arduous couple of hours.




Cast: Meinhard Neumann, Syuleyman Alilov Letifov, Reinhardt Wetrek, Vyara Borisova, Kevin Bashev, Veneta Fragnova, Aliosman Deliev, Momchil Sinanov, Robert Gawellek, Jens Klein, Waldemar Zang.


Dir Valeska Grisebach, Pro Jonas Dornbach, Janine Jackowski, Maren Ade, Valeska Grisebach and Michel Merkt, Screenplay Valeska Grisebach, Ph Bernhard Keller, Pro Des Beatrice Schultz, Ed Bettina Böhler, Costumes Veronika Albert.


Komplizen Film/Chouchkov Brothers/Coop99/KNM/ZDF-das Kleine Fernsehspiel, ARTE-New Wave Films.
121 mins. Germany/Bulgaria/Austria. 2017. Rel: 13 April 2018. Cert. 12A.