After an 11-year hiatus, German filmmaker Valeska Grisebach returns with an intelligent, subtle, consistently engaging culture-clash drama. Grisebach’s naturalistic style and refusal to adhere to convention brings Western’s remote Bulgarian setting to life and, despite her time away, foregrounds her as a director to watch.
Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) is the newbie to a group of German construction workers who have been tasked with erecting the foundations of a power plant in the Bulgarian countryside. Led by foreman Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), the crew are loud, boorish and disrespectful of the neighbouring village locals. They ignorantly plant a German flag at their camp and harass local women at a nearby river. Meinhard, a quiet, reserved individual, finds himself struggling to fit in. He doesn’t share the group’s disdain for the locals and, despite the language barrier, he slowly warms himself to some of the Bulgarian villagers, particularly local quarry owner Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov). When a lack of water in the area causes tensions to rise, Meinhard becomes the middle man between the two groups. Having grown closer to the locals, Meinhard soon finds himself in direct discord with Vincent.
While some viewers may be put off by Western’s slow-burn approach, the film remains engrossing as it continually subverts convention. Although the film shares several of its themes and tropes with the western genre it cleverly plays with audience’s expectations by diffusing potentially violent confrontations. There are various moments where tense conflicts almost boil over but Grisebach masterfully controls the suspense of these scenes and adeptly dissolves the bubbling tension. Some may find the lack of catharsis on offer frustrating, however Grisebach’s re-shaping of age-old western tropes is bold, surprising and draws out subtleties in character and setting.
The cast of non-professional actors help bolster the film’s convincing, lifelike tone, especially Neumann who brings a terrific believability to the lead role and puts in a compelling turn with a limited amount of dialogue. Still, Meinhard remains a pretty enigmatic character and his motives are kept unclear, yet we connect with him via his blossoming relationship with Adrian. The film’s best moments lie in this cross-cultural relationship as the pair tenderly use body language, gestures and halted speech to negotiate their language barriers. It’s a joy to behold this compassionate communication process on-screen.
Grisebach gracefully captures the beauty of the Bulgarian landscape and creates authentic characters whose nuanced interactions allude to pertinent issues of toxic masculinity and cultural identity/understanding. Western’s refreshing rejection of formula and celebration of cross-cultural connection proves highly resonant in an increasingly divided world.