In an interview with Film Comment, Western’s director Valeska Grisebach had some curious words when describing her leading man, nonprofessional actor Meinhard Neumann. “I saw him in a horse market near Berlin. He was sitting there in a cowboy hat, but I was more impressed by his face, because it’s such an iconic face.” Certainly Meinhard Neumann’s furrowed poker face would blend seamlessly in any of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Valeska’s love affair with westerns, however, surpasses a mere aesthetic appreciation for the genre’s grizzled masculinity.
In her first film in more than ten years, Grisebach’s work plunges into the western genre’s hidden throes. Hers is not merely a western stripped of the stark iconography and bellicose heroes, but rather a challenging work gleaning from the prose of screen poets like John Ford about the creeds of conflict, community and the individual’s place in it. From these, she weaves together a subdued yet tapestried work that, more than anything, believes that this age-old tradition still has something to say about the world we live in today.
In the film we follow the German-born Meinhard (named after his leading man), a taciturn and mysterious construction worker who takes a job that ironically sends him east (rather than the other direction of the title) of his native country into Bulgaria. The project he and the other Germans have been assigned send them to a stretch of land bordering a small town, where most of the residents are apprehensive of outsiders. Meinhard, unwary of his unwanted status in the community, travels away from his worksite to the town and is initially refused cigarettes by a shop vendor. In the same sequence however, Meinhard is talked to in a more friendly fashion by two of the village’s residents just outside the shop. Meinhard, not familiar with the language, can barely tell the kind from the unkind locals.
These lines of communication are blurred in Western, but Grisebach’s world isn’t one dominated by barriers. Hers is an abstract world without obstruction; Meinhard roams almost freely between the German work crew and the Bulgarians. He is warmly invited to break bread with Adrian, a soft-spoken local with an open and empathetic look in his eyes. Meinhard, caught between loyalty to his crew and a hidden, powerful yearning for the familial closeness of the Bulgarian town, subtly forms a subversion of Ford’s iconic final image in The Searchers. Where John Wayne’s Ethan is drawn away from the confines of the family homestead, Grisebach’s lone and solitary figure is drawn towards them.
Valeska Grisebach’s appreciation for the genre her film is named for is matched only by her ability to upend the genre’s trademarks, or alter them just enough to fit a more contemporary frame. Taking place in present day, her western unfolds in a modern Europe united by trade and commerce, but divided by ancient attitudes, traditions and prejudices. That steady friction puts just enough strain on Meinhard’s growing presence in the town. Grisebach, however, makes Meinhard’s background ambiguous. Not molded by prejudice or tradition, Meinhard seems less a John Ford ideologue and more a Jean Renoir idealist. Caught hopelessly in between conflicts, Meinhard offers that curious, elusive and often unwelcome proposal of unity and open borders in a hopelessly stratified Europe.
Such an image of two societies at odds personifies Grisebach’s modern vision of the classic western. Hers may be a western bereft of cowboys and gunslingers but one—like the works of Anthony Mann and John Ford—immersed in challenges of America’s founding myth: male tribalism, ethnocentrism and miscommunication. Grisebach’s slow burn approach may not be the most appealing to the casual filmgoer; the narrative’s leisurely and meandering approach will certainly throw off most. But to those with the stomach (or fondness) for Grisebach’s sensibility, Western will gradually and irresistibly draw one into the story of Meinhard‘s endless search with its equally endless opportunity for discovery.