The captivating German/Bulgarian culture clash in Valeska Grisebach’s Western could only happen in the EU and it’s subversive.
Lonesome Cowboysby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In Valeska Grisebach’s reworking of the iconic Western, like the mercenaries of The Magnificent Seven in Mexico, a group of German builders descend on a small, sleepy Bulgarian town. Though this time round it’s not to save them from bandits, it’s to despoil their rural paradise by building a hydroelectric plant with EU infrastructure funding, which will ridiculously involve diverting the locals’ idyllic bathing river.
First they colonise their surroundings by raising a German flag over their camp – though it gets torn down. Only one of them, Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), is curious enough to venture outside. He finds a white horse grazing in the fields and rides it into town like a granite-jawed lone cowboy. At first there’s hostility towards him as a German because of the last war. But even though he and the locals don’t understand a word of each other’s language, the human urge to communicate is too great and barriers are laboriously overcome.
Slowly but surely Meinhard integrates into the community, befriending Adrian, the local Mr Big (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov) and his extended family. A rootless ex-soldier with no family himself, Meinhard starts to find a sense of belonging here that he hasn’t felt before. Instead of the ‘Seven’ imposing their culture, it seems that the small-town Bulgarians, with their traditional values, have a stronger, warmer, more attractive culture to offer. Of course, it’s not that simple, the young people are leaving for better opportunities and change is being visited upon the locals. Before the building of the dam, neighbouring villages cooperated over their limited water supplies but the coming of the Germans upsets the natural order and brings discord – both over the water supply in a Jean de Florette way and through the mutual incomprehension and misunderstandings that arise as the two very different communities try to interact.
It’s an apparently meandering film, with rather a documentary feel in the way shots are framed, that constantly subverts genre expectations. Events that you expect would cause insuperable problems, don’t. Tragedies are surprisingly taken for granted and problems aren’t resolved in the way you’d expected. Meinhard isn’t quite the white-horse-mounted hero you thought he was and Adrian is wiser than he seemed. Western is a quietly captivating, subtle film that will stay with you and leave you thinking for a long time.
Western premiered at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, screened at the 61st BFI London Film Festival and is released on 13 April 2018 in the UK.