The title of German director Valeria Grisebach’s Western (***, 12A, 121 mins) sets up certain expectations: big-sky panoramas of the Old Country, adventures in the great outdoors, almost certainly involving horses, and most likely men doing whatever men have traditionally gotta (or had to) do. Grisebach delivers on some of these elements – a white stallion features prominently – but her backdrop isn’t Monument Valley, rather a quarry in the Bulgarian countryside, site of a growing conflict between German construction workers and the locals over whose land they’re trampling. This, then, is a western for the globalisation age, fraught with those tribal tensions presently visible across the New World and Europe entire.
Initially, British viewers may be reminded less of John Wayne than Jimmy Nail in 80s TV hit Auf Wiedersehen Pet. Amid a blazing summer, a crew of grizzled souls – men who might seem terribly solitary, if it weren’t for one another – set up camp on this small scrap of foreign territory, raising the German tricolour high as practically their first act. Though some – like hangdog ex-legionnaire Meinhard (the aptly named Meinhard Neumann) – make fumbling efforts to build bridges with their neighbours, others are rowdier and less amenable. Revving his engine in the town square after midnight, one brickie mutters “Now they know we’re here”; a colleague chips in with the unsettling “It only took 70 years”.
The film is documentary-like in its observance of these men, nudging its non-professional actors into conversations and other projects besides. Meinhard enters a card game that roughly equates to all those pre-shootout saloon-bar scenes; when he admits a mistake, one local exclaims “Look, a German is finally apologising!”, and the camaraderie is unmistakable. Yet others are spied reaching out – for wine, or women – in ways that might well seem invasive. There’s an edge to these interactions one wouldn’t get from casting RADA grads as cowpokes; we wonder just how close these attitudes are to the performers, and whether an assistant director had to break up any non-choreographed donnybrooks.
The approach demands patience. We’re feeling these characters out as surely as they’re feeling each other out, and the fact Western never quite takes the shape one expects suggests Grisebach intends it as a model of open-minded cooperation rather than the cautionary tale it might have been, a kind of cinéma sans frontières. Yet the slowburn technique has a notable dramatic effect: the longer Meinhard extends his hand, the more wounding the sock in the gut whenever his countrymen breach the fragile peace. Given the inflamed rashness of the planet, a little extra context and perspective cannot hurt – and what better way to analyse the state we’re in than through the framework of the most morally instructive of genres?
Western opens in selected cinemas from today.