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When a group of Germans enter rural Bulgaria on an assignment to divert water towards a new power plant, those unversed in the area and its history wouldn’t think too much about it. Those like me would assume whatever conflict at this story’s back would arise from differing languages and cultures, but be sparked by individual personalities rather than inherent nationwide prejudices. As Valeska Grisebach‘s Western proves, however, that is far from the case. As one character explains around midway through the runtime, the Germans who occupied Bulgaria during WWII would trick Greek soldiers on the border into giving away their positions before sneaking up and slaughtering them. We’re talking bad blood and long memories. But maybe the stoic yet compassionate Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) can bridge that divide.
He (a non-actor like everyone in the film) has come to this village for the money. No one knows much about him and it seems his fellow countrymen are as uncertain as the locals spying from afar. Meinhard watches, soaking in his environment and the mood while the rest boast loudly and cause trouble. So when construction has to stop due to a lack of water, he’s the one who finds his way to the small community down the mountain from their work camp. He enters with a smile only to be rebuked. But he continues returning nonetheless. He finds a white horse and rides down everyday until he eventually befriends its owner and entrenches himself as a part of the family with cryptic talk of his past.
While its many synopses love describing the result as a thriller, Western is hardly that. It’s instead a nuanced character study full of run-of-the-mill tensions and drama. Sometimes these men will puff out their chests and act the part of fierce adversaries to reckon with, but rarely do any have the gumption to back it up. In fact, Meinhard is the only one who’s truly willing to get into another’s face and threaten him with a whisper. Maybe it’s to knock his boss Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) down a peg or two or maybe it’s to protect the Bulgarian who welcomed him into his home as a brother (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov‘s Adrian). We’ll eventually discover Meinhard is no saint himself, but he definitely carries himself differently than the others.
He’s a straight shooter this community can trust, one keeping a weary eye upon Vincent and his crew knowing they’re the outsiders here. This isn’t Nazi Germany coming onto a foreign land as a hostile force. They’re merely workers on a job and should therefore take into consideration the wellbeing of those whose land they’re on. But even that seems to be a contentious subject as Adrian has someone trying to tell him what he can and can’t do with his own quarry (my assumption is that this man is a Greek who owns adjacent, border line property). So Grisebach introduces all these opposing forces and has them fight and argue about things important (how to treat the local women), volatile (money), and inconsequential (a cigarette).
It allows for a poignant display of masculinity’s many disparate forms. The title compares this contemporary setting to a genre with specific tropes all while positioning its white hat with a dubious past in the middle of a situation that could ignite without warning. Meinhard is the man with a smoke in his mouth and a face devoid of judgment until the moment he’s triggered into action via respect, honor, love, or pride. His being here at all is enough to diffuse rising tempers because his desire to get to know the villagers regardless of their inability to communicate with each other humanizes the Germans by association. Because of him Vincent and the town can sit down and discuss a mutually beneficial relationship. But animosity won’t disappear completely.
Grisebach creates tiny conflicts as her characters’ emotions run high. How will everyone react if the white horse Meinhard rides is found injured at the bottom of a hill? How will the townsfolk react to Vincent sexually harassing Viara (Viara Borisova) in the river? What happens when gambling is introduced? How about a water supply that can only reach one party at a time? Or an accidental punch thrown across ethnic lines leaving the guilty party unconscious and unable to admit the one who’s still standing wasn’t the aggressor? Every single event carries with it decades of anger. Every interaction is steeped in mistrust and confident yet misunderstood posturing. Either someone will underestimate the danger of a given circumstance or he will escalate things out of proportion.
All we know about the men onscreen is therefore what they show at any given time. We have to take them at their word and hope they’re either telling the truth or able to run out of trouble if not. Meinhard is no exception since his talk of military experience is never backed up with evidence or anecdotes. His motivations are never wholly transparent and he’s prone to hiding information that will do him no good to reveal. We yearn for the rare moments of vulnerability—both tearful and violent—because they take us beneath the cowboy façades in order to see the man behind the voice. Sometimes that’s acknowledging Vincent’s rage as a mask covering his insecurities and other times it’s Meinhard’s silence hiding an intense darkness.
And through it all is nary a false move. Grisebach isn’t about to sacrifice honesty for theatrics. If Vincent is accused of something he did, he’ll admit his wrongdoing. We get real, unavoidable consequences rather than finger pointing and it’s absolutely refreshing since Hollywood seems to only ever want manufactured conflict without legitimate cause beyond a screenwriter checking boxes off a generic blockbuster list. Western is instead a slice of life that exposes how reality is always more interesting, unforgiving, and empathetic than contrived melodrama. The best films are generally those that craft their characters first and let the plot write itself through them. Grisebach draws these men with three-dimensional, complex identities and watches them butt heads and shake hands knowing their inherent drama is enough.
 Meinhard Neumann in “Western.” Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
 Meinhard Neumann in “Western.” Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
 Reinhardt Wetrek (center) in “Western.” Courtesy of Cinema Guild.