Cultural difference, masculine bravado, and national pride lead to high tensions in the latest from Valeska Grisebach, about a group of German construction workers labouring in the Bulgarian countryside.
Its title deliberately evoking the legacy of classic Hollywood frontier sagas, Western — the long-awaited third feature from talented German filmmaker Valeska Grisebach (Longing) — follows a group of German men who depart for rural Bulgaria to earn money on a water facility project. Dust-ups between the newly arrived workers and the locals quickly ensue as the problem of language barriers is compounded by residual postwar resentment, antagonistic nationalism, and the workers' aggressive behaviour towards the local women.
Tensions are only exacerbated by the efforts of one of the Germans, the angular, sad-eyed former legionnaire Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), to communicate and create meaningful encounters with the villagers, as his empathy and quiet reserve are deemed suspicious by his loutish colleagues, as well as some of the residents. The atmosphere is pregnant with distrust and even danger as the testosterone and bravado amp up, and an old-fashioned showdown seems ready to break out at any given moment.
Co-produced by Maren Ade (whose own brilliant Toni Erdmann played TIFF '16) and a critical hit at Cannes, Western achieves an astute naturalism awash in formal beauty: each composition by terrific director of photography Bernhard Keller is precise and beautiful. Casting non-actors in all of the roles and embedding herself in the Bulgarian countryside for a long duration, Grisebach subtly and intelligently forges a new kind of revisionist western, taking the tropes of filmmakers like Howard Hawks and John Ford and relocating them to a new frontier — one traversed by an unforgettable cowboy who ventures beyond the fear of the Other.