PRINT February 2018


Valeska Grisebach’s Western

Valeska Grisebach, Western, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 119 minutes. Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) and Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov).

IN THE VERY FIRST SHOT of Western, a German/Bulgarian production written and directed by Valeska Grisebach and released this month, a tall, lanky, casually dressed man crosses a street, walks toward the camera, and enters a building. The shot, like the man, seems nondescript—typical, in fact, of the film’s unfussy demeanor and in keeping with its working-class atmosphere. It’s representative of a style and a territory that this director blends with uncanny skill. Like the work of Argentinean filmmaker Lucrecia Martel, Grisebach’s films are few and far between, but each leaves an indelible mark.

Grisebach made her debut in 2001 with Be My Star, but Longing (2006), her second feature, put her on the map. It is a heartbreaking tale: Markus, a fireman and metalworker in a small town in Germany, is caught up in an affair with another woman despite being deeply in love with his wife. Tormented by guilt and emotional needs he cannot fathom, he shoots himself. Though the setting and situation recall Fassbinder’s Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), Grisebach’s style is less detached and more sympathetic. Indeed, it’s rare for a film to so patiently and poignantly explore male psychology without resorting to clichés. As Fassbinder once said enviously of his idol Douglas Sirk, Grisebach genuinely seems to like people.

Western, Grisebach’s third feature, covers wider but not dissimilar ground. Its protagonist, Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), we soon learn, is a soft-spoken, not easily ruffled fellow—a loner among the German workers installing a hydroelectric plant in a small, remote Bulgarian town. Unlike the others, he tries to overcome the language barrier and mix with the locals, as embodied in the film’s final shot: Again, Meinhard walks toward the camera; this time, he steps onto a makeshift dance floor and moves slowly to the music as the screen turns black. A moment earlier, Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), a sensitive soul Meinhard has befriended, had asked, “What are you searching for here?” It is the last line spoken in the film, expressing a sentiment skillfully avoided until then.

It is to Grisebach’s credit that neither Adrian’s question nor the narrative trajectory implied by the opening and closing shots defines her movie or diminishes the effect of its deftly constructed architecture. The film is as much a study of an individual character as it is of group psychology. Scenes of the workers at rest are laced with joshing about sexual potency, directed particularly at Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), the group’s alpha male, whose swagger and leather vest seem suspiciously geared to evoke the kind of bullying associated with the Nazi past. In fact, while the workers face difficulties with local businessmen, they also have to deal with the negative fallout from Vincent’s macho behavior with the local women. Few films manage to be so low-key while sustaining the underlying tensions generated by such situations, and by the turbulent political history that still hovers over these two countries. This friction, enhanced by the unpredictable interactions of the cast of nonprofessionals, is most palpably felt via the language barrier.

Grisebach is especially observant of the ways in which the body speaks when the mind is split.

Here, too, Grisebach surpasses expectations. Language differences do not simply propel the story’s strained relations—they are essential to the film’s aesthetic. In scene after scene, a character’s earnest or hostile efforts to get through to the cultural other parallel the viewer’s struggles to discern facial expressions and body language to compensate for what words fail to convey. As she has demonstrated in previous work, Grisebach is especially observant of the ways in which the body speaks when the mind is split. In Longing, for example, there is a lovemaking scene between husband and wife in which every physical nuance reflects the couple’s tenuous emotions and oscillating trust.

In Western, we sense how easy it would be for any moment of frustrated verbal exchange to turn misunderstanding into confrontation. But Grisebach also stresses a plain truth: Communicating with the other is not only an issue of language. Meinhard’s efforts reveal how fundamental emotional and psychological conditions are to the willingness to understand and the desire to be understood. In one of the film’s most affecting moments, his flailing attempt to recall his brother’s death is instantly grasped by Adrian, who indicates, clumsily but earnestly, that he will be Meinhard’s brother. Although played down by the director and actors, the moment speaks volumes in a film that otherwise avoids sentimentality. Here, the bond between the two men is symbolized by the fortunes of the horse Meinhard “borrows” from Adrian, one of the many delicate threads weaving through this artful and moving tapestry. If current German cinema has lost its way, as some have alleged, the problem may be that there are simply not enough filmmakers like Grisebach to reinvigorate it.

Tony Pipolo is is a practicing psychoanalyst and a frequent contributor to Artforum.