Rating: 5 out of 5 (classic)
Director: Valeska Grisebach
Cast: Meinhard Neumann, Reinhardt Wetrek, Syuleyman Alilov Letifov
Synopsis: Sent to a remote corner of Bulgaria, a German construction team find themselves at odds with the locals. Grizzled former Légionnaire Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) is the outsider of the team, integrating with the locals and placing himself between both sides.
Germany, the unaware King
Since Rome every European power has tried to scramble for the continent, but Germany is the anomaly, in defeat and disgrace its has become the victor. Marked as the Cold War default line and then moulded into the E.U’s protector and financier, Germany today is the King unaware of the crown it has unwillingly built. Returned to global status and granted an empire in all but name, Germany struggles to lead Europe to the future. Why Germany cannot move forward is because it cannot move on, its misdeeds litter the continent. From Anne Frank’s home in Amsterdam to the husk of the Warsaw ghetto, the spectre of the Nazi empire still lingers, if only by shallow breathes.
Looking into the past
Set in a country which was allied with Germany in World War Two, Western confronts the Nazi legacy contained in Bulgaria. The older villagers fondly remember the German soldiers who passed through to invade Greece. The promise of development espoused by the construction team harks to the Nazi’s quest of butchering Eastern Europe under the banner of ‘progress’. It is a past which the German building crew instinctively, and triumphantly, connect with. When the German flag is hoisted atop the construction camp and it unfurls across the idyllic mountainside, the builders become the arriving conquerors, achieving what could not be done 70 years ago. The German builders are bound by past stereotypes while the Bulgarian villagers are caught by the present prejudices in Western Europe held towards the Slavic countries. The name itself, Western, alludes to the clash between the two groups, between East and West as the image of both sides is both affirmed and changed.
A hall of mirrors
Nothing and no one is clear in Western. The Germans’ promise of development is underpinned by profit and the villagers are friendly but hostile, forgiving yet vindictive. The villager leaders who Meinhard befriends straddle a line between farmer and gangster, men who comfortably attend meetings with a pistol and whose business veers into outright criminality. Surrounded by two ways of life and two peoples so alien to each other, the film’s borderland locale is a warping hall of a mirrors; a place where the viewer can never expect the next moment. Bloodshed constantly seems inevitable between the groups, yet Western surprises at each possible breaking point.Western’s constant is its ambiguity, to be a Western film far removed from America while sporting a plot that says much while little happens. What allows Western to maintain this balance are the cast of non-trained performers and in particular Meinhard Neumann. Neumann mesmerises, his slightest actions grip every scene and his silent intensity indicates a man who is not acting but relieving his own life. Being ordinary people, the rest of the cast grant Western’s pace the slow burn of a documentary unlike the dragging plot of many independent films.
Two faces of Colonialism
In the dichotomy between Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), the construction leader, and Meinhard lies the two faces of colonialism, the desire to either impose or integrate. Vincent may resent Meinhard’s seeming success in befriending the locals and learning their way of life, but in the end both know that the land can not and will not become their own. Although the traces of Germany’s past resonate through the wild borderland, the nation’s future as Europe’s vanguard is more obscured. It is in Vincent’s promise of infrastructure to the area that belies Germany’s role of moderniser among the E.U’s poorer states. It is a role which Germany, like the construction crew, is unsure how to perform in practice. The recipients of German toil accept it begrudgingly, dismissing it as another attempt to rebuild the Reich.
To be a man
The Western genre is about masculinity and masculinity to the Western is two things, sex and violence. The men forming the two sides of Western clamour for parts of the genre’s masculine image, the Germans eyeball the local women while the Bulgarians talk of toughness, soldering and killing. Only Meinhard the outsider has both, but far from the stoic cowboy figure Meinhard is vulnerable and volatile. He is a man envied by either side while in reality he has nothing. Meinhard, like any gunslinger, must move on, and that is the tragedy of Western’s subverted take on the genre. Meinhard will always be the outsider, no matter his efforts to fit in both at home and far away.
Western may look like a BBC Four film, something to be enjoyed by the middle class and the middle aged on a Saturday night, but it is worth far more appreciation than many Anglophone films out now.
By Saul Shimmin
For the trailer see below: