“I’m here to earn money,” says Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), the protagonist of Valeska Grisebach’s stunning new drama. An abrupt cut to the title card, Western, follows immediately after. With that gauntlet throw of an opening, the German director summons decades of cinematic history to the remote patch of Bulgaria that is the film’s setting, forcing the viewer to frame—or at least consider—the remainder of the film through the lens of one of the medium’s most enduring genres. “Now we’re back. It only took 70 years,” says one of the group of German construction workers to whom Meinhard belongs, who’ve come to the region to build a water facility for the locals. But that line might as well be the film’s statement of intent—an attempt to transplant the Western to the remote reaches of Eastern Europe. It’s an audacious assertion of territory, one that could even be termed immodest were Grisebach not also fully up to the task of following up such a bold statement. Western—it’s a film at the frontier, in more ways than one.
Of course, it’s not as if Grisebach emerged from the wilderness fully formed (Western is her third film), aligned as she is with the Berlin School of filmmaking, under which one could include recent works such as Christian Petzold’s postwar-Germany, Vertigo-facelift Phoenix (2014), Angela Schanelec’s singularly discombobulating The Dreamed Path (2016), and Maren Ade’s audacious, highwire comedy Toni Erdmann (2016). But it has been over a decade since her last film, Sehnsucht (2006)—a deceptively slim, yet precisely realized evocation of the ineffable titular feeling (which translates, imprecisely, as Longing). The film's nominal plot, a love triangle between a man and two women in a small German town, is the height of simplicity, yet it’s rendered with such precision that one might wonder at ever having seen this particular story before. Scenes don't flow together so much as tremble individually, with their import and affect resonating throughout the decidedly elliptical runtime. Through Grisebach’s exacting filmmaking approach—a co-opting of surface naturalism for dramatic (de)emphasis, a precise sculpting of narrative, a structural suspension of conventional dramaturgy—ostensibly familiar material is rendered foreign and new.
That impression of foreignness is precisely what Western conveys—remarkably, within a genre framework that is, by now, so ingrained into cinematic convention. (The film premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, and presumably, its exclusion from the competition lineup was due solely to the presence of Maren Ade, who served as one of the film's producers, on the jury.) From its rolling vistas, verdant mountains and arid landscapes, to the simmering tensions of the region, to Meinhard, the stoic figure of uncertain origins at its centre (though he claims to have been a French Legionnaire), the film possesses all the contours of a traditional Western. A white horse even provides one of the film's most charged moments. But watching any given minute of the film's unhurried two hours makes it clear that Grisebach is concerned less with translating convention as she is with actively resisting it; she offers up all the hallmarks of genre, but cannily withholds the expected payoff. (Grisebach herself calls the film a “dance with the Western—a reflection upon it—a marker placed at the start that merely encapsulates particular themes.”)
That's not to say that the film is entirely undramatic; indeed, it offers enough surface incident to continually prime the viewer and recalibrate expectations. As Meinhard begins to ingratiate himself to the locals, particularly Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), the powerful figurehead of the town, he begins to alienate himself from his countrymen, led by Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), the foreman of the construction project. Negotiations and brief standoffs abound; small undulations of tension and release ripple through the proceedings; various threads of conflict—no one given primacy over any other—intersect and expand, yet remain firmly irresolute. But far from dispelling interest, this gradual accumulation of detail, this incremental construction of a phenomenological world, becomes almost overwhelming. Populated entirely by non-professional actors (an approach carried over from Longing), Western has a verisimilitude that, paradoxically, creates an even purer sensation of genre and myth. There isn’t acting so much as embodiment, not plot so much as sculpted existence. At the very least, the film is a remarkable feat of research, an elemental immersion into the dynamics of the region. It’s no accident that Grisebach constructs the film around barriers of understanding—rifts of language, culture and history—better to draw attention to the very act of translation, and to the things that go beyond it. And it's entirely fitting that the most accomplished translator in the film, Vyara (Vyara Borisova), with whom Meinhard gets involved later on, is a woman, since Grisebach occupies a similar role, excavating the storied territory of John Ford and Howard Hawks for a distinctive, contemporary portrait of Eastern Europe—or, more specifically, the presence of Germany within it.
In many ways, though, the most apposite connection that one could make for Western is not to an actual western, but to Beau travail (1999), Claire Denis’ elliptical adaptation of Herman Melville's Billy Budd. For one thing, it's a similar case of a female director exploring traditionally “masculine” spaces (the French Foreign Legion in that film, the Western, here), though Denis’ touch is more sensuous and poetic than Grisebach's terse (though deceptively simple) observational style. For another, both films are defined by a similar cultural rift, a colonial legacy that permeates the spaces of Djibouti where Denis’ film is set, and the eons of Bulgarian-German conflict in the town Grisebach explores. Most telling (and most thrilling), though, is the way Western builds, as Beau travail does, to its final moment of suspension and release. (It’s virtually impossible to see this film’s final moments and not recall Denis Lavant’s ecstatic final movements set to the “Rhythm of the Night”.) Dislocation, irresolution and unresolved tension—all become sublimated into the movements of a solitary figure, tremulous and uncertain. What, after all, is left when the traditional markers of society are removed, when existence is defined by alienation and discombobulating suspension is the default? Only pure movement and gesture—the stuff of genre, in other words: the echo of a rifle, the edge of a knife, the rhythmic motions and pulsing beats of a dance floor.