Dir and Writer: Valeska Grisebach
Cast: Meinhard Neumann, Reinhardt Wetrek, Syuleyman Alilov Letifov, Viara Borisova
119 mins, Germany/Austria/Bulgaria 2017
In her first film for more than ten years Valeska Grisebach (who, she says, has been busy bringing up a daughter, screenwriting and teaching) casts a compassionate eye on men and masculinities: specifically, a group of German construction workers in Bulgaria, and the men in the remote village which is meant to be benefitting from their hydro-electric project. I don’t usually find myself attracted to films that focus on men and their problems, but I really liked this one.
Early on we see the German workers raise the German flag over the living quarters they’ve built for themselves. The boss, Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), behaves boorishly to three of the local women who come down to the river to bathe, seizing a hat belonging to one of them and refusing to give it back. The Germans think the Bulgarians should be grateful for the work they’ve come to do. But they don’t seem to be. Work soon grinds to a halt anyway, as the gravel that’s been ordered fails to arrive and there’s no piped water to mix the cement.
Meinhard Neumann plays the outsider: a silent observer of the joshing and jockeying for position amongst the construction workers. He goes up to the village and despite the language barrier slowly makes friends, most notably with Adrian (beautifully played by Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), a thoughtful generous man who is one of the leading villagers. Adrian allows Meinhard to borrow one of his horses, a lovely grey roan.
The setting is beautiful. Is this Paradise? asks Meinhard, taking in with a sweep of his arm the milky green rivers, the wooded hills, the sweet-natured horses that graze untethered amongst the trees. But of course it’s not. The economy is rotten and most of the younger generation has left.
While Meinhard seems at first to be the good German, gentle, tolerant, seeking and offering friendship across the language and culture divide, Vincent seems at first to epitomise the bad guy, not only crassly insulting the women, but stealing the villagers’ water and, well, this is a terrible sequence, killing the beautiful horse through his carelessness (I wish I’d been warned beforehand). But things shift. We see that there’s no clear good and bad, but just men lonely for home and family, at first feeling superior but then coming to envy the village life despite its backwardness and impoverishment.
Why is the film called Western? Maybe because it’s about a group of men riding (metaphorically) into a beautiful but hostile place and being changed by what they find there. But I’m not completely sure. Much is left unexplained or unknown – not least the background of the charismatic Meinhard. I’ve just thought that that itself is a western trope: think Clint Eastwood riding in from nowhere. And perhaps if Meinhard and Vincent are modern-day cowboys that resolves the puzzle of how come they’re such assured riders – riding bareback and without a bridle, what’s more.
When I got home I read an excerpt from an interesting interview with Valeska Grisebach conducted by Jordan Cronk in Film Comment (reprinted on the Watershed hand-out), in which she said inter alia about westerns in general and about her protagonist Meinhard in particular: ‘It’s such a contemplative genre, so you’re dealing with contemplative role models, but at the same time it’s so modern in reflecting questions of the society. You’re looking for this romanticism or freedom, but at the same time you’re looking to come home. Maybe Meinhard is not so much looking to be an outsider, maybe in a way he’s looking more to be an insider, a kind of projection, that this foreign society could be happier than home.’
At various moments I felt a fearful dread of the violence or potential for violence that lurks in the men, German and Bulgarian, but Valeska Grisebach offers neither grand narrative nor violent epiphany. Far from it: this is a slow, almost plotless film that invites you to look at the detail of small moments, and to withhold judgment. Although plotless it is beautifully structured through recurring or echoing images: horses, guns (yes, I realize more and more how much of a western it is!), Varya’s hat snatched by Vincent in the river at the beginning echoed in the closing scenes when some of the villagers run off with the German flag and throw it in the water.
The slowness, the attention to the detail of daily life in the village, reminded me of Edgar Reitz’s magnificent Heimat; then I realized that Grisebach is exploring the same feelings too: loneliness, the longing for home, and the question – a 20th century one in Heimat, a 21st century one here – of whether that home exists any more, except in the heart’s yearning.
NB: The producer is Maren Ade, who was writer and director of the wonderful (strange and funny) father/daughter film Toni Erdmann (see review some way below), also about a German (young woman) working in Bulgaria.