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Go West Young Man: Valeska Grisebach Reinvents The Western
Brian Raven Ehrenpreis , March 18th, 2018 11:22

Western, the new film by Valeska (Sehnsucht) Grisebach takes genre tropes in surprising new directions

Valeska Grisebach’s Western features many of the traditional trappings one would expect in a movie called Western: a rifle, a white horse, a fight in a saloon, a stranger coming to town, a duel (of a sort). And yet for all of its fealty to the western, for all of its referentiality, what Grisebach’s film offers the viewer is a complete rethinking of its genre.

Western manages to completely deconstruct the western and then assemble it anew before our very eyes, updating it for our twenty-first century world of migratory labour and economic precarity while still retaining the feel of the classical Hollywood western. It is that rare film which takes genre seriously, using the western’s well-worn tools to tell its story, while simultaneously examining the limits of those tools. Grisebach’s great strength as an artist in Western is her ability to expose the fault lines in the western genre, the places of rupture where reality seeps in and irrevocably complicates our established cinematic imaginary.

Western focuses on a group of German labourers who are sent to the Bulgarian countryside to build a hydroelectric power plant. The project itself doesn’t seem to make sense, as it is revealed that the region doesn’t even have enough water to make the plant viable. Yet the German crew adopts a high-handed attitude towards the Bulgarian locals, who they view as backward provincials standing in the way of the German gift of globalization.

Produced by Maren Ade, whose hilarious Toni Erdmann also included a cutting critique of German globalization on Europe’s burgeoning capitalist frontiers, Western draws a stark contrast between the xenophobic paternalism of the German crew and the Bulgarian locals who, already freighted with the ignominious history of the Bulgarian-Nazi alliance during World War II that plunged their country into an era of totalitarian rule, are justifiably wary of Germans.

The situation is already a tinderbox, and the Germans make things worse when the boss of their group, Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), harasses a local woman at a swimming hole. One member of the German crew, Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), doesn’t want to be associated with such pigheaded aggressions, and begins to venture by himself into town, making inroads with the locals and forming real relationships with them, despite the language barrier.

We learn little about Meinhard, and we learn only what he chooses to reveal: he is an ex-legionnaire who has seen action on far-flung battlefields, and he has suffered the loss of his brother. As Meinhard pushes through the initial fear of the stranger and develops deep relationships with the locals, we begin to ask ourselves just who he is and what he wants. Meinhard is truly an inspired bit of casting, as Meinhard Neumann has an unbelievably iconic face for a western. Craggy, leathered, and weather-beaten, his face is both expressive while also being stoic. Western, like Meinhard Neumann’s face, is also expressive and yet stoic, emotional yet calculating.

Western is very much a film about a man out of place, a man possibly reinventing (or inventing himself from whole cloth), as well as a film about the difficulty of belonging. Even as the film structurally casts Meinhard in the role the heroic gunslinger, Grisebach is already problematising the classical western by having the hero also perhaps be a coward, motivated by conformity and the desire to be a part of an intentional community. Thus, every heroic gesture which one would normally read as an individualistic expression of will becomes a reflection on the crisis of individualism, the will to conform, the desire to hide in the crowd. It’s a brilliant inversion of the logic of the classical western as well as a poignant commentary on the psychological underpinnings of the (always deeply masculine) lone hero archetype.

The film nominally sets up a contrast between Vincent, the leader of the Germans, and Meinhard. Vincent is, on a metanarrative level, arrogated the role of the villain. He lies, cheats, and steals, and yet is also empty, and by the end of the film seems broken. But at the same time, Meinhard is not as much a hero as the pure plot beats would lead us to believe. Towards the end of the film, when he is asked by one of the villagers “what were you looking to find here?” meaning in the Bulgarian community to which he has attached himself, we see that he can’t exactly answer in words. He answers instead with his actions (like the true lead in a western). He walks into a party and joins in with the dancing locals. In that moment it is clear: all he has ever wanted was to join the dance, to lose himself in the crowd and in the movement and flow of other bodies, fully join with others.

Western is interested in genre as a frame, and it feels like a classical western even when it doesn’t look like one, which is an incredibly impressive achievement. Grisebach isn’t interested in genre tropes in the way the nouvelle vague filmmakers were. Instead, she wants to explore genre as a structuring narrative we choose to employ in our art that can serve to help us understand the real world, or act as an obstruction to fully engaging with it. All of this is not to say that Western is solely about the cinematic imaginary, that it is obsessed with it’s own structuring absence. It is an extremely moving film, which manages to be both formally precise in adherence to its genre frame, but also rigorously realist in its aesthetic.

Grisebach wants us to seriously consider where the mythology of the classical western film ends and where our reality begins. Western is nothing less than a complete rehabilitation and rethinking of the western. It manages to both exorcise the spirit of the genre, pressing it ably into service, while also laying it to rest by the film’s end – shot through with too many holes to count, deader than the bodies of all those misbegotten celluloid gunslingers we know too well. The western is dead. Long live Western.

Western is at cinemas now