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Fremdkörper: On Valeska Grisebach’s Western

Western (Valeska Grisebach, 2017)

“That’s how villages are. Anything can happen.” Indeed, this rare feeling that anything can happen pervades Valeska Grisebach’s Western. It is verbalized in the film’s final line, spoken by a Bulgarian villager, Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), to his new German mate, Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), who linguistically doesn’t understand him, but has felt and experienced what is said. Meinhard is part of a group of German construction workers that alights on the Bulgarian border with Greece to install a hydroelectric power plant. Soon tensions start to build between the newcomers and the inhabitants of the nearby village: the Teutonic technicians appear as Fremdkörper to this environment.

Despite his age, Meinhard is new to the job, as his pale chest and neck and arms – sunburned along the contours of his t-shirt – suggest. He’s the silent type: slender, low shoulders, yet tall and elegant with his blue eyes set deep in his mustachioed face. His posture as well as his desire to seek for middle ground with the locals immediately set him apart from the testosterone-packed team, especially its foreman and Alpha-Mann Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek). Neumann has already been compared to John Carradine, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and, because of the mighty moustache of course, to My Darling Clementine’s Henry Fonda – though Grisebach opted to pay homage to the infamous specimen worn by Gregory Peck in Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950) for her carte blanche program at this year’s Viennale. This long list of references might just as well mean that Neumann is truly unique. He’s no professional actor, and neither is the rest of Western’s cast or that of Grisebach’s previous two features, Mein Stern (Be My Star, 2001) and Sehnsucht (Longing, 2006), for which she recruited people on the streets of Berlin and Brandenburg. She says she worked with Meinhard in a Bressonian way: “It was a lot about choreography and moving through the image.” Western is a reminder that cinema is constituted by captivating faces and bodies.

Meinhard prefers his Zippo lighter to cowboy matches; the wooden porches have plastic garden chairs; belts carry tools in place of pistols; and rather than a railroad it’s a hydroelectric pump that comes to the town. Western reworks the iconography and topoi of the eponymous genre: the lone cowboy, a leather waistcoat, (neo)colonizers and natives, an unsaddled stallion, a fort and a flag, the hills, the valley, the river and rocky terrain, a “saloon” card game and liquor, a dame to conquer, a rifle, a fistfight and other duels and a village square that serves as a dusty main street. With less than a handful of interiors, it’s a cinema of the great outdoors. Here, the frontier seems to run between the German “motor” of the European construction and one of its economically less developed regions – this comes with cultural prejudices, latent xenophobia and nationalism on either side. The film also hints at historical and outer frontiers: asylum seekers crossing the nearby border to the West or Meinhard’s supposed service as Legionnaire in Afghanistan and Africa, the Nazi occupation of Bulgaria and life behind the Iron Curtain.

Maren Ade produced the film, while Grisebach was in turn a script consultant for Ade’s Toni Erdmann, another film of German corporate presence in Eastern Europe. But whereas the latter only glances at the local community from a lofty office window, Western explores it on the ground level; whereas Toni Erdmann only once follows a villager through the bushes from the construction site to his ramshackle house, Meinhard keeps returning. Yet both are Germans who keep inviting themselves to local parties – be it in the guise of an ex-Legionnaire or that of an ambassador. However, Western never operates along any clear-cut divisions. In the first frame, Meinhard is introduced crossing a volleyball court in an open field, passing the net that separates the two sides. Western is a cinema of encounters, of the in-between.

Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)

Bend of the River

Of all the physical frontiers in the western genre, rivers are one of the most challenging. The stream in Western, the one that is to fuel the power plant, likewise frustrates the newcomers. It doesn’t run as straight as the German construction workers would like it to. Grisebach correspondingly engineered her film in a free-flowing, organic and meandering way, constructed around repetitions and symmetries. Story and characters have to follow the lay of the land – often quite literally so, as when Meinhard is taken to the village for the first time by the free-roaming horse he encountered while wandering in the back country, and again in a later scene with the same horse, but a different rider. The builders soon find themselves useless, waiting for water supply and a gravel delivery. Still, it’s in these idle moments that something – be it something less tangible – is actually built; connections and oppositions grow during lunch breaks, summer evenings, camp fires, small garden get-togethers and nocturnal rambles.

Again and again Meinhard sets off to the other side on his own. Framed in foliage-filled foregrounds, he makes pathways through the wooded hills. One never gets a clear sense of the topography. Bettina Böhler’s editing is fairly economical, fragmentary and brisk while leaving room to let certain micro-events develop more languorously. There always seems to be something going on among the villagers and while Meinhard’s same-model-shirts change from grey and brown to black and white as a sort of temporal markers, he just keeps showing up, sticking around. Both sides barely comprehend a word the other is saying, yet they understand everything. Reading the smooth subtitles of the German-Bulgarian exchanges as normal dialogues is misleading. It’s the bodies that speak loudest, in plan américain or long shots: the physical language of looks and gestures – such as Meinhard’s clenched fist or open palm kept next to his thigh.

The night air is thick with secrets, possibilities, desires, longing and an undefined craving for connection. Yet a passive-aggressive atmosphere permeates the film and tension smolders with each drag of a cigarette. The unexpected – surprising or violent – is always lurking, be it off-screen, in a bush, in the dark or in the next cut. The quality of lighting greatly adds to this sense of mystery. Bernard Keller’s camerawork makes the most out of the bright and intense natural sunlight that creates distinct pockets of shade in the frame or casts ominous striped shadows through the reedy roof of the camp’s patio. Road lights are absent and outside of the fluorescent lamp in the camp or the jeep headlights, one is out in the dusk most of the time. MUBI’s Daniel Kasman described it best when he wrote that the film itself is “feeling its way as if in the dark.” The sheer sensation of perceiving the orange coachwork of a truck in the tangerine twilight is just one of the things it finds there.

Western (Valeska Grisebach, 2017)
Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)

Night Passage

Aside from Toni Erdmann, another Western European film set in a neo-colonial context comes to mind when watching Grisebach’s film. It’s not only in the camp life and a melancholic sense of homelessness, of “having time to kill,” or in the shared search for belonging that Western resonates with Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999). Both films are situated in masculine micro-communities and involve a jealousy or rivalry between a calm, “thin and distant” newcomer and a superior. Meinhard claims he was a Legionnaire in Africa, just like the men in Denis’s film are. Most critics accept this as a fact. Although he proves to be nimble and wears a silver necklace that resembles a military dog tag, it could just be a story that he made up to save himself in his first encounter with the villagers. The information actually surfaces in a scene where Meinhard’s colleagues ditch him in the middle of nowhere and drive off with the car, similar to what happens to his Beau Travail pendant. Surprising his colleagues with his swift return, Meinhard laconically replies that he used his “inner compass” – an instrument that in its physical form plays an important part in the marooning of Beau Travail’s outsider. Both characters are the – not always unambiguous – moral compasses of their films, and both films share a last danceGrisebach has already shown in her previous features that she has a real knack for genuine musical moments (set to Grauzone’s ‘Eisbaer’ or Alcazar’s ‘Crying at the Discotheque’) and solo dances (to Robbie William’s ‘Feel’ or French Affair’s ‘My Heart Goes Boom’). set to the rhythm of the night. But while Denis’s lonely Legionnaire in the end finds himself dancing in a corner, with only one way out, no such fate is in store for Western’s lone ranger. The cowboy doesn’t set off into the sunset, but he might have discovered a new horizon. Anything can happen.