Western – a title meant to be symbolic – reminds me in some ways of the Polish workers I have around me as I write this review, grouped to assist with the heavy construction work recreating a Roman garden. They chatter and laugh, swear and spit, but get the job done seemingly without a break that might signify indolence.
Each morning they arrive on site they shake hands, share a story from the evening before or an anecdote about the morning’s trip to work, and then begin their allotted tasks. They are a terrific bunch, work hard in all weather, but to my nation’s shame tell me they have been verbally abused by Scots who tell them to go home. They have lived in Scotland almost twenty years and have families.
Polish people have been here in large number since 1850. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s mother was Polish. We should all be taught in schools how the Poles helped us in the Second World War and what they have done for Scotland.
Western has a similar group of hard graft workers, all German. They are short-term migrant workers sent off to a remote area of the Bulgarian countryside close to the border with Greece. Unlike my construction of a Roman Garden on archaeological ground, a domestic construction, the German workers are there to help build a massive hydroelectric power plant in the middle of nowhere. With such a big project come big problems, delays and frustrations.
The first thing we see is how easily the Germans adopt a sense of superiority towards the locals. They post a German flag in their encampment as if conquering Roman centurions, spout the worst kind of aggressive nationalism, harass local women, and begin jockeying for position among the local community. If you were to challenge any of the workers about their attitude they’d be shocked, and Lord Sugar-fashion claim they mean no harm by their racist remarks.
Watching their behaviour I had an uneasy feeling of seeing the English disease at work, the colonial mentality, a presumption Scots are backward, lazy, and that scurrilous insult of all insults, ‘subsidy junkies’.
Good films are supposed to be universal in application so I presume people of other nations as subservient as the Scots will see similar parallels with their own country.
The various transgressions committed by the German workers, the mocking, and the ridicule, are seen by the locals as insulting or abuse, much to the bemusement of their ‘benign’ tormentors. It’s impossible not to see parallels with the sneers and jeers regularly thrown at Scots by Union zealots. They simply do not realise how aggressive or how prattish they appear.
Among the various Auf Wiedersehen types there’s one unusual worker. Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) keeps largely to himself and avoids the horseplay of the others. This annoys the hell out of the squad who show their dislike of individuality that doesn’t conform to their code, especially to the bombastic hot-headed Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek). Vincent enjoys harassing the local women who go skinny dipping.
One day, while off on his own, Meinhard comes across a white horse in a field and rides it into the nearby town, ostensibly to buy some cigarettes but presumably also to encounter the locals without having his fellow workers escalate tensions through their boorishness. Things get off to an uncomfortable unfriendly start when a woman in the store refuses to serve him because of his German heritage. She remembers the German occupation of the past and is understandably resentful to see Germans back in her village. But Meinhard assumes a laid-back demeanour and rolls with the punches.
He eventually befriends a number of the townspeople, chiefly Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), the area’s powerful stone merchant and owner of the white horse, and his nephew, Walko. Adrian’s horse, used by Meinhard to ride into the village, becomes a key player, as does the symbolism of the horse.
As the plant construction drags on, Meinhard makes frequent journeys into the town presumably looking for some sort of camaraderie and an escape from his own past, (we learn he’s a former Legionnaire) away from his fellow workers.
The scenes between Meinhard, a man who might or might not have killed people in the line of regimental duty, and the townspeople are full of gentle and rough moments, but above all a wish to be understood. They don’t share a common language but take the time to find a way to communicate with each other through simple phrases and gestures. There are lots of awkward staccato conversations, all of which begin to create well rounded human beings doing their best to get on with life as they find it. As friendships gel we get a sense that locals are helping the mysterious Meinhard to find a sense of community that has been absent from his life for too long.
In time Meinhard’s co-workers resent his identification with the townspeople, his intense dislike of their boorishness. Gradually, almost imperceptibly a toxic mixture of male masculinity, dulling conformity, and alienation coalesce into deadly confrontation. While there are lots of similarities with the archetypical American western in structure and indeed cliché plotting, it also subverts the genre.
The film is a triumph of natural expression, a real joy to watch the nuances of human interaction where tribes meet and clash. As one worker says to Meinhard, “You’re either with us or against us”.
The film is full of recognisable, genuine human encounters one with another. The pace is actual time which might not attract a huge audience, hence the art house release, but it is true to the material. What is more remarkable is the actors are all amateurs, a technique used by Peter Watkins in his wonderful Culloden, and Vittorio De Sica in Bicycle Thieves.
To top it all writer and director Valeska Grisebach has managed to mould a bunch of disparate amateurs into a first rate repertory company of thespians.
Grisebach cut her teeth as script consultant on the German comedy – yes, Germans do jokes, Toni Erdmann, her previous films Longing (2006) and Be My Star (2001) gaining critical accolades if limited releases. In Western Grisebach avoids melodrama to build up tension by silences, looks, and body language, all achieved through the craft of improvisation. Using amateurs in this way can be disastrous in the wrongs hands, particularly if the actors can’t sustain character for a film lasting two hours. Under Grisebach’s direction they all excel.
This is a film about a clash of cultures, German versus Bulgarian, (Scots versus English) and it works on so many levels. Released in the UK in April it won’t be to everyone’s taste, especially the relaxed naturalistic pacing, but it’s a real work of cinematic art that avoids flashy camerawork and the boring three second edit cuts.
The excellent cast are given space to mature and show us well-drawn characters conveying the right amount of malice at the right moments. As the lead character Neumann is outstanding. If he wants an acting career he has the chops to secure one on the basis of his performance. Even when he stands back watching some action or other in silence he has a fine presence.
You never quite know where the narrative is going but you know it won’t be a happy ending. In look, the camerawork is reminiscent of lots of classic westerns but it has its own unique quality.
This is a story about people who value their humanity and community above all else pitted against the few who want some of us to be less equal than others.
- STAR RATING: Four stars
- Cast: Meinhard Nuemann, Reinhardt Wetrek, Syuleyman Alilov Letifov
- Director: Valeska Grisebach
- Writer: Valeska Grisebach
- Cinematographer: Bernhard Keller
- Composer: (Borrowed existing songs)
- Running time: 2 hours 1 minute
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?