The Movie Waffler New to MUBI - WESTERN | The Movie Waffler


Western review
A German man finds himself torn between his migrant co-workers and the locals of a rural Bulgarian community.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Valeska Grisebach

Starring: Meinhard Neumann, Reinhardt Wetrek, Syuleyman Alilov Letifov, Veneta Fragnova

western valeska grisebach poster

Every good western worth its salt includes a scene in which, usually while munching on beans around a campfire, the (anti)hero opens up to his companions about his desire to leave behind his life of violence and settle down, find a good woman and a small patch of land to call home.

In Valeska Grisebach's Western, the hero, Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), has just such a desire, and he may have found that patch of land in the least expected of places - a small village in rural Bulgaria.

Meinhard is part of a crew of German migrant workers sent to lay down the foundations for a power plant on the border between Bulgaria and Greece. Unlike his compatriots - a loud, boorish lot who treat the natives with about as much respect as the German men who rolled into Bulgaria in WWII ("We're back after 70 years!" one of the men drunkenly proclaims) - Meinhard is quiet and introspective, and doesn't view the natives as a lower species.

Western review

Tensions between the German workers and the villagers rise when foreman Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) attempts to flirt with a local woman, Veneta (Veneta Frangova), robbing her hat and dunking her head under water (Jeez, learn some moves Vincent). When Meinhard is bundled into the back of a car driven by Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), who appears to be the Alpha Male of the village, it initially seems he's in for a beating, as the men question him over his involvement in the harassment incident (in a language Meinhard doesn't understand). But Adrian has far more friendly intentions, and despite the language barrier, the two men form a bond.

When a dispute arises over access to water needed to mix cement on the construction site, Meinhard finds himself caught between his co-workers and the locals, having grown far more fond of the latter than the former.

Right wing (and, increasingly, left wing) groups in Western Europe are forever pushing a xenophobic, anti-Slavic narrative that portrays Eastern Europeans as an aggressive people prone to criminal activities (and interfering in western elections). The truth is that every Western European nation has a high portion of immigrants from the East, and the amount of trouble they've caused in comparison to the natives is practically non-existent. The same can't be said for Western Europeans, who on visits to Eastern Europe (usually for stag nights) are forever bringing disrepute on their countries by causing all manner of alcohol inspired trouble, displaying an obnoxious, arrogant air of superiority.

Western review

The douchey Deutschlanders portrayed in Western are just such a lot. They view the locals as a hindrance at best, someone to be conquered at worst. The prevailing attitude is that they're doing them a favour by installing a power plant, an echo of the classic "we're bringing civilisation" argument of colonialism. Stoking tensions further, they hoist a German flag high over the construction site as if to mock the village below.

It's easy to see why Meinhard puts on a clean shirt and heads down into the village at every opportunity. Though he can't speak the language of Adrian and the rest of the locals - save for Vaneta, who spent time working in Germany - he feels at home in their humble, heartwarming company, and happily embraces their way of life, essentially working two jobs when he begins helping out Adrian with his legally dubious business dealings, serving as a proxy bodyguard when local gangsters come calling.

In some ways, Grisebach's film plays like a platonic version of Call Me by Your Name, two men forming a bond of friendship in a beautiful, sun-baked corner of Europe, and with physical attraction off the table, it's arguably the more romantic film. In the film's key scene, Meinhard and Adrian find themselves opening up to each other about their families - Meinhard's brother passed away at some point, while Adrian's children have emigrated to America and England - and though neither man can understand the words of the other, they interpret the sentiment. "You're saying something sad," Adrian notes. There's more of a charge in a handshake between these men than in any of the ludicrous sex scenes of Blue is the Warmest Colour.

Western review

Grisebach shunned professional actors in favour of a largely amateur cast, and the two central performers - Neumann and Letifov - are real finds. With his bushy Fassbinder moustache, Neumann looks like a man out of time, and he possesses that classic western star ability to communicate a lot with a droop of the shoulder and the gait of his walk - there's a touch of Steve McQueen about him. Letifov has as pleasant a face as you'll find on screen - how could you not warm to him?

Cinema tends to favour romantic relationships over their platonic equivalent, arguably because they're easier to convey. The simple but essential notion of friendship has gone relatively unexplored on screen by comparison, but Western is a compelling tribute to our ability to find a soulful connection that transcends the obstacles of language and culture.

Western is on MUBI UK now.