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Western

[…] Meinhard embodies the Hobbesian anthropological pessimism expressed by the motto “homo homini lupus”, that is the law of the jungle where only the stronger prevail; yet, he is also the only one who is actively seeking out bonds and friendship.

[…] In this way, Grisebach’s movie is much more than an acute criticism of a sort of Western cowboy syndrome that still affects much of Europe, mostly its richer and more rampant countries (like Germany). It is also a universal reflection on freedom and on the meaning of familial and societal relationships.

Regarding the plot of Valeska Griesbach’s Western, there is very little to comment on as the film speaks for itself with an astonishing efficaciousness. This is particularly astonishing insofar as the group of German workers building a hydraulic system near a small village in Bulgaria are not able to speak with the locals, among whom only two can speak a little German. The common language of gestures and deeds, accompanied by the wise use of the camera, relay this story of agreements and conflicts. The geniality of Valeska Grisebach is in her use of the codes of the Western genre, demonstrating how they can be perfectly applied to this contemporary story. The questions of property and the use of natural resources – water and stones –, of the conflict between powerful foreigners and weak natives, and between the ideal of a lawless freedom and the attachment to one’s birthplace, between individualism and collectivism; all of these issues can be identified as characteristic features of Westerns and as central elements to an almost documentary-like film on what is happening today in the very heart of Europe. Grisebach goes further to find physical and visual similarities between the filmic Western and the real wild landscape of the South of Bulgaria: the horses, the bushes, the structure of the village, the saloon/bar, etc.

The story also has a solitary hero, Meinhard, one of the German workers, and former legionnaire, both brutal and gentle at the same time. He is too free to be part of a group, yet he is the one who creates a bridge between the German workers and the Bulgarian countrymen. His simple virtue is the respect with which he treats the natives, and which he gets from them in return, but only because he reveals himself to be a former legionnaire. Even in the gentler society of the small village, violence seems to be the only true frame of reference. Meinhard embodies the Hobbesian anthropological pessimism expressed by the motto homo homini lupus, that is the law of the jungle where only the stronger prevail; yet, he is also the only one who is actively seeking out bonds and friendship. The ambivalence of this character fluctuates between two poles, the Germans and the Bulgarians, and between these two poles a permanent tension can be felt in the air. The conflicts multiply and become more frequent: over a woman, a horse, the use of insufficient water supply. But the conflict between these two poles is always put off; only Meinhard himself has to face many conflicts from both sides. Even if the German workers’ boss, Vincent, represents the evil character, it is difficult to find a purely good character in this context in which there are no rules and in which incumbent violence and continuous competition between the individuals are so prevalent.

However, there are still the village and the land, the traditions, the families and friendships, as they were all stones of resistance against the violence of lawlessness and the freedom of the cowboy. The prevalence of intradiegetic Bulgarian music can also be seen as evidence of this resistance. From the polarisation between the Germans and the Bulgarians (the gringos and the indigenous of the Western…), we slowly slide into a new landscape where the real distinction is made between the solitary freedom and the familial or societal bond. Meinhard is not only the link that builds a bridge between the wildness of the Germans and the civilization of the Bulgarians, he is also the dramatic figure that must choose between his own individual freedom and maintaining collective ties. This dilemma concerns everyone, going beyond any ethnic distinction or language. In this way, Grisebach’s movie is much more than an acute criticism of a sort of Western cowboy syndrome that still affects much of Europe, mostly its richer and more rampant countries (like Germany). It is also a universal reflection on freedom and on the meaning of familial and societal relationships. The filmic genre of the Western can be seen as the paroxysmal paradigm of modernity, in the sense of its capacity for going back to the level of the purely individual in order to be able to found new institutions out of any traditions and former powers. Through Grisebach’s Western, this almost documentary-like unexpected realization of the Western genre at the heart of contemporary Europe, we can well grasp what the alternative to the anarchic soul of the Western can be, a possibility that is intrinsically present in any Western: the real or utopic mirage of a solidary society.

Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore

First published: September 12, 2017

Western | Film | Valeska Grisebach | DE-BG 2017 | 119’

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