Germany (2017) Dir. Valeska Grisebach
In the long running radio comedy panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue one of the games played is One Song To The Tune Of Another, a self-explanatory musical round in which the teams sing the lyrics of one song to the tune of a completely different one. This might sound like an odd reference point to start a film review but Western feels like a cowboy film played out as an arthouse drama.
A group of German construction workers have travelled to a remote part of the Bulgarian countryside to build a new water power plant to relieve local arid villages. For some this is an adventure to explore a different culture, for others it is rude awakening when their pushy ways and the language barrier creates problems between them and the locals.
Brash foreman Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) almost causes an international incident when he upsets Viara (Viara Borisova) daughter of a local who can help with his project woes. Taciturn Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) tires of his gregarious co-workers and wanders into town alone, gradually ingratiating himself with the villagers through his gentle demeanour, including well-connected Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov).
Not exactly your Clint Eastwood type western where the gun-slinging stranger rocks up in town to help fend off a bullying bandit, or John Wayne saving a damsel in distress from those pesky injuns, so where is the connection you may ask? It is there but subtly so, in mood, characterisation, and texture mostly with further surreptitious nods to the genre if you pay attention.
Valeska Grisebach relates a story that, with a few tweaks, could feasibly be set in the wild west instead of rural Europe; the vast spartan landscapes of verdant greens and remote dusty roads prove the most evocative reflection of the genre. Being female doesn’t prevent Griseback from tapping into the vain bravado of the male characters that inspired many young boys to don a cowboy hat and terrorise everyone with a cap gun.
Meinhard is our Eastwood-esque proxy, a tall, thin, moustachioed man of few words preferring his own company. His speaks of a military background that may or may not be genuine but the weathered look in his steely eyes suggest you don’t push the subject. But he finds a white horse roaming the fields (revealed to be owned by Adrian) which he tames with ease and he carries a knife with him so maybe there is some truth to it after all.
The reaction from the locals towards the Germans tells two different stories – the older generation are keen to see them as “civilised” and “sophisticated”, the younger ones find them arrogant, bossy, and treat them with disdain. Vincent and the others seem to encourage this, exemplifying the boorish, haughty stereotype associated with Germans, with the foreman chucking his weight around with his crew and the locals alike.
His first act of flying the German flag at the construction site to make his boys feel at home results in it being stolen. Teasing Viara angered many of the villagers and set the relationship back before it was actually established. As the most visible of the group, it takes a while for Meinhard to earn the goodwill of the villagers, bearing the brunt of the hostile reaction to Vincent’s behaviour but his earnestness in trying to integrate pays off.
So far, the subtext is one of a wandering spirit trying to find a home, with the slight irony of a man representing a nation that once tried to take over the entire world looking to fit in wherever his heart feels comfortable. He may have toured Iraq and Africa as a legionnaire but when asked if he is homesick, Meinhard replies “What is homesick? – is he saying he is sick of his home of Germany?
Grisebach appears to be propagating the policy of making an effort to fit in with your surroundings and show respect if you’re a visitor, but also explores the myopia created by extreme patriotism. Meinhard becomes subject to snide remarks and physical attacks from his compatriots for reaching out to the Bulgarians, further echoing the Eastwood lone drifter comparisons sans poncho and cowboy hat.
Added frustrations arise as work at the construction site begin to progress but thanks to Meinhard, not Vincent’s divisive tactics – offering to date Viara in return for speeding up the job – which drives the testosterone fuelled conflict central to many a wild west opus. The difference is Grisebach doesn’t deliver the typical pay off so no guns at high noon here I’m afraid, but the build up is rife with prickly tension and intrigue.
It should be apparent by now this isn’t a film for everyone and if slow-paced gritty drama isn’t your thing I doubt you’ll be sticking around for the brisker final thirty minutes in which the energy and intensity pick up considerably. If you have the patience however, you’ll find the way the film holds your interest is sneaky, the naturalism of the quotidian activities blended with the stillness of the bucolic setting proving oddly compelling.
The assured direction from Grisebach reveals nods to Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Cristi Puiu when focusing on the mundane with a touch of Cristian Mungiu in capturing so much uneasy mood with silence and occasional natural ambient soundtrack. What holds the film together are the impressive performances of the non-professional cast, Meinhard Neumann in particular for his studied essaying of his broody, conflicted namesake.
Western may not be a wild west shoot ‘em up affair, instead offering a quietly profound, astutely observed deconstruction of nationalism and macho posturing that could have played out with a cast of cowboys and Indians if you strip it down to its key elements. Its audience will be selective because of this and admittedly it does take a while to appreciate what Grisebach is going for with this slice of poetic cinema, but our patience is rewarded.