‘Western’ offers a clever study of toxic masculinity
Review: Valeska Grisebach’s thorny film takes a scalpel to male bravado and colonialism
A scene from ‘Western’
Film Title: Western
Director: Valeska Grisebach
Starring: Meinhard Neumann, Syuleyman Alilov Letifov, Vyara Borisova, Reinhardt Wetrek, Veneta Frangova, Kevin Bashev
Running Time: 120 min
The title is partly in earnest. Valeska Grisebach’s clever, thorny study of toxic masculinity, colonialism, and European fissures plays with the tropes of the western, with its taciturn protagonist, frontier taming, and horse-riding. Bernhard Keller’s bright landscapes are too verdant to be mistaken for Monument Valley, yet the composition and scale often nods to the work of John Ford. In common with later disillusioned acid westerns, the men of Western are eastward bound.
A group of German workers, led by the tactless Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), have been sent to a remote area of the Bulgarian countryside near the border with Greece, in order to begin the construction of a power plant. They immediately assert a sense of superiority over the locals with a series of microaggressions. They hoist a German flag over the construction site. Vincent harasses a group of local women who attempt to go swimming. He cuts off the village’s water supply. He brazenly demands a date with the daughter of a local as she attempts to translate his German into Bulgarian.
Despite the language barrier, Meinhard (the brilliant Meinhard Neumann, selected from more than 600 non-professional actors), a new member of the German crew, bonds with Adrian, a local quarry owner (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), over the white horse which is favoured by both Meinhard and Adrian’s nephew.
Tellingly, everybody seems to want to ride the same steed, with the suggestion that they all imagine themselves to be the hero of this simmering drama. Grisebach keeps us guessing as to Meinhard’s motivations. Meinhard may be a Legionnaire who has served in Afghanistan. He may be genuinely enchanted by the locals. Or he may be entirely self-interested, with a more seductive brand of imperialist intent: “The world is like animals,” he tells Adrian. “Eat or get eaten.”
At a micro and macro level, war is never far away. Attempted muggings, water dunkings, and meaningful scowls contribute to an escalating sense of dread. The second World War is often raised by both nationalities. “We’re back,” says Vincent at one point. “Only took over 70 years.”
Unknotting the mechanics of this very colonial encounter is an endlessly fascinating task. An older Russian truck attracts almost breathless admiration. There’s more than a hint of White Man’s Burden. “We’re building infrastructure,” says an incredulous Vincent, when the Bulgarians object to having their water supply cut off for a month-and-a-half. There’s an additional irony in watching the German nomads dig in a region where the Bulgarians insist there’s no work.
Elsewhere, there’s swagger and bluster. There are echoes of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier, and at least one purposeful reference to Claire Denis’s Beau Travail. “It’s a blessing when you reach 40 and your testosterone diminishes,” says Meinhard. He is, perhaps, only partly in earnest.