Western Screen 23 articles



Western Poster
  • One of the best films to premiere last year, Western is probably also the best film since Claire Denis’s Beau Travail to be made by a woman about men (indeed, about men who are without women, most of the time). Like that film, it’s also about men at work—about breakin’ rocks in the hot sun, as the song goes, although the Eastern European climate in Valeska Grisebach’s film is somewhat more moderate than the pitiless desert where Denis’s legionnaires toiled.

  • The general style points at many conventions of European arthouse cinema – the work with types; the favoring of experiential moments over narrative development; the rarefied identity of the protagonist; the open-ended resolution; etc – and while the film is definitely that too, what keeps it from being merely one more product in a lineage that’s by now very clearly established and codified is a more elemental relationship with a different set of conventions that the title hints at.

  • The success of the film, and indeed the video essay that accompanied it, then, is not that it points to the inescapable scale of systemic oppressions and historic violence by drawing comparisons between American colonialism and the disparities in economic development across Europe. Instead, it is in how it shows that real life imitates art and that the violence of cinema extends beyond the parameters of the screen. It is deep set in our imaginations and memories, now.

  • There’s always the threat of a tension between the work itself and the festival-generated discourse that tends to envelope it. How clever then that, with its mere one-word title, Grisebach avoids any danger of dissonance by giving us both. The word “western” acts as a tuning fork, calibrating the conversation surrounding the film with Grisebach’s own vision. In place of friction, there is harmony.

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    Film Comment: Haden Guest
    January 03, 2018 | January/February 2018 Issue (pp. 32-34)

    A sharp jump-cutting montage style inspires a subtle confusion of action and place, partially obscuring causality and continuity in ways that cut against the grain of the Western as an action genre. . . . True to its bold, declarative title, Western offers an original, often provocative engagement with Hollywood's long-enduring and richly problematic genre.

  • As in her quietly moving Longing (2006), Grisebach explores facets of masculinity, but here the focus is on the dynamics of dominance—interpersonally as well as geopolitically.

  • A subtle, awe-inspiring cross-cultural character portrait... Grisebach has populated her unpredictable, slow-burning narrative with flesh-and-blood characters who also function as political symbols. This is a film about ingrained prejudice and the permeability of borders, broached with skillful obliqueness by each and every member of her ensemble.

  • Grisebach has so thoroughly metabolized the conventions of the Western that watching it is like watching someone work directly on the form of myth itself, a form that settles in the miraculous and familiar face of Meinhard Neumann. Genre here becomes a kind of ritual, one aimed at concentrating the dynamics of Germany’s current global position into an immediately legible shape.

  • Meinhard, Adrian, and a few friends orbit each other and the camera, sharing grief and support. It’s an uncommonly powerful representation of sympathy, despite the fact that very little is actually said. In this way, body language does much of the heavy lifting throughout the film, with Meinhard’s posture, abetted by Grisebach’s able mise-en-scène, telling a story that the man himself either won’t or can’t.

  • The effortlessly charismatic Meinhard Neumann, who suggests a Teutonic Sam Elliott, leads the excellent cast of nonprofessional actors in a movie that intelligently examines sclerotic machismo and the hegemonic creep of one wealthy nation over a poorer one.

  • Things don’t quite come to a head—mutual ignorance wins out—but Meinhard’s persistence is, in the end, deeply touching, almost poetic. Assimilation isn’t so much his goal as a kind of placid self-settlement: for a man who chooses “country” over “nation,” what does it mean to truly have a home?

  • Like “Spoor,” Valeska Grisebach’s “Western” doesn’t lead with its politics, but sneaks them into a deceptively modest tale... One German (Meinhard Neumann, a long drink of water), however, increasingly stands apart in a story that can feel as familiar as a John Ford movie, if one attuned to dislocation and discontent in contemporary Europe. Ms. Grisebach has a feel for mood, place and real, lived-in faces.

  • Any standard description of the film and its characters risks diluting Grisebach's free-floating, enigmatic approach. This is a movie of plain, quotidian surfaces (as ostensibly unadorned as that title) beneath which flows an unfathomable undercurrent of existential confusion... Grisebach is asking us to consider these characters as people who are simultaneously with and without home countries. Rooted in various kinds of rootlessness, they know where they're from, but not where they belong.

  • Grisebach’s film brilliantly interweaves a wide range of themes—the tense state of the European Union, in which the West economically colonizes the East; the fraught dynamics of homosocial bonding; the joys and perils of interpersonal exchange in the absence of a shared language. Yet it stands out for the way it turns its undivided attention to the subtle but tangible ways that people, both as individuals and as groups, communicate with and misunderstand each other.

  • What Grisebach’s cunningly political film leaves intriguingly open-ended is the question of whether Meinhard’s community outreach reflects an honest desire to stand outside the inexorable flow of modernity or if it’s merely an opportunistic liberal-minded effort to appear more sensitive and advanced than his peers—and whether answering this question even matters.

  • Grisebach has brilliantly identified a continual human problem -- the need to belong, to "be down," to be the one good guy who is accepted despite the sins of your own kind -- and removed it from the classic "Cowboys and Indians" template where, it should be said, it has become offensively simplistic... In Western, the question is not so much one of white privilege -- all parties in the equation here are white -- as it is one of East vs. West and the economic power that comes along with it.

  • Populated with utterly convincing nonprofessional actors (casting alone accounted for years of pre-production), the film gains its force through a steady accretion of seemingly minor incidents and inconspicuous subtexts. No less than last year’s Toni Erdmann (whose director Maren Ade serves here as a producer), it’s sharply attuned to the reshaped economic contours of 21st-century Europe.

  • Detail after deliberately offhand detail is parcelled out, and when nominal events emerge, they cause little more than gentle ripples of tension across an alluringly languid river.

  • Eleven years after Longing, the underrated but highly talented German director returns with a likewise delicately nuanced, psychologically astute study of human relationships: this time between German construction workers and the locals in a Bulgarian village. A marvellously authentic account of a certain kind of masculinity.

  • Adopting many of the classic movie Western’s most recognizable visual motifs (long, languid shots; expansive, sun-dappled horizons) for a more allegorical take on the genre’s thematic hallmarks—including entrenched notions of ownership, masculinity, and xenophobia—Western updates Grisebach’s intentionally modest formal arsenal by investigating age-old cinematic and cultural tropes through a distinct, unfamiliar, yet nonetheless modern lens.

  • It’s better to forget the title of Valeska Grisebach’s Western while you’re watching it, though the film reads perfectly well that way. Though this brilliantly observed mood piece about a German road crew arriving in rural Bulgaria centres on one lone quietly watchful man doing his best to assimilate, it feels as true to, say, the builders’ milieu of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet as it does to an oater... The film unfolds from these tensions in deeply satisfying intimate, brooding encounters.

  • This organic individual charisma and chemistry unites with Grisebach’s as-it-goes storytelling, creating the sense that this “western” scenario was discovered rather than created. As in Broken Arrow, the filmmaker approaches her fraught collision of nations with humaneness and hope—and the result is utterly captivating.

  • It’s accepted that there’s a dearth of complex female characters in cinema; Western demonstrates how rare it is to find genuine complexity in male characterisations as well... Grisebach’s vision is undeniably romantic, but never does she allow herself to slip into sentimentality. Free of affectation and distinguished by a generosity and sincerity exceedingly rare in cinema, Western’s poignant celebration of human resilience is nothing short of spectacular.

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