Written and Directed by Valeska Grisebach.
Starring Meinhard Neumann, Reinhardt Wetrek, Syuleyman Alilov Letifov.
A group of German construction workers start a tough job at a remote site in the Bulgarian countryside. The foreign land awakens the men’s sense of adventure, but they are also confronted with their own prejudice and mistrust due to the language barrier and cultural differences. The stage is quickly set for a showdown when men begin to compete for recognition and favour from the local villagers.
Western is a western in both style and substance. The story, which illustrates the struggle between a group of German construction workers and the residents of a local Bulgarian town, is bathed in the quiet, tense, and unnerving atmosphere, and focusses on the influence of western technology upon a poorer, eastern(ish) settlement.
Of the two, style and substance, I found myself drawing more enjoyment from the style. Western does a great job of taking tropes associated with the genre – ambient noise replacing music, a stoic hero (with a dubious military history), man taming the wild, downtrodden towns with empty streets, forceful acts of patriotism in the name of the greater good – and repurposes them for what is still undoubtedly a European film. This unique perspective sets the film apart from the standard neo-western, piquing at least my curiosity, although not necessarily my prolonged interest.
This hyper-awareness of genre permeates every inch of the film, from the direction to the acting. Meinhard Neumann, who plays the protagonist Meinhard, embodies the western genre perhaps better than anyone in the movie. He remains silent for long spells, patiently acclimatising himself to his new world. He tames a wild horse, despite having limited riding experience. He is the first to make meaningful contact with the locals, and stands tall against his own countrymen when the time comes, despite his wiry frame.
Both technically and stylistically, all is well with Western. However, there is a distinct lack of substance that causes it to drag, especially in the later half.
As far as plot goes, there is very little. The Germans arrive, have problems sourcing water and gravel from the locals, and continue to struggle with their problems throughout the duration of the film. Meanwhile, Meinhard makes peace with the locals, and absorbs himself into their culture. There are no real turning points, except for a possible revelation as to Meinhard’s military history towards the end of the film, and there seems to be no point at which things come to a head. Things just happen, and happen with little overall consequence. There is definitely a real sense of personal consequence, but quite frankly it’s not that interesting.
In a lot of ways, Western feels more like a stylised documentary than it does a work of fiction. I don’t know a lot about Bulgaria, but I will give Western the benefit of the doubt and say that it probably does a good job of capturing the culture, as well as the relations between Germany and Bulgaria. Furthermore, it’s obvious that the director wanted to make a film that was more of a mood-piece/character-study than it was an action-fuelled neo-western. However, as I have said in previous reviews, having an eye for the hyper-real is a great skill, but portraying a world as such is not the peak of artistic achievement, and it is certainly not something that entertains most audiences.
Western is a successful rendering of the western genre in a European setting. It also contains some very admirable performances and manages to create a world that feels very real. Though looking at this real world through the lens of a western is interesting at first, the lack of dramatic progression turns Western into a tedious bore. Watching it once, mull it over a bit, and add it to the “I’m glad I’ve seen it but I don’t need to watch it again” pile.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
James Turner is a writer and musician based in Sheffield. You can follow him on Twitter @JTAuthor