Western is a cinematic slow-burn that masterfully captures many of the central paradoxes of globalization.
Western is a cinematic slow-burn that masterfully captures many of the central paradoxes of globalization without ever feeling heavy-handed or hasty. The film speaks about communication across cultures, economic development, gender, historical memory and the inherent clash between local knowledge and outsider expertise. But Western also tells a very human story about loss, social isolation and friendship. Director Valeska Grisebach has somehow compellingly combined these two contrasting scales—the universal and the personal—in an entertaining package that has much to say about being a person today.
Western is centered on protagonist Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), who appears in nearly every scene. Meinhard is part of a German construction crew deployed to the rural hinterlands of Bulgaria and tasked with beginning the construction of a hydroelectric dam. The crew is what might be expected in such circumstances: all single males, each something of a shady character and mostly concerned with making a few Euro and drinking heavily after their shifts end. Meinhard is both like them and unlike them; he does not fit into the group dynamics of his colleagues and is quite cagey and guarded about his personal backstory.
Slowly over the course of the film, interactions between the German construction crew and the local Bulgarian villagers become more common. Meinhard goes full native, more or less abandoning his co-workers to spend all of his free time in the village. He makes friends and becomes part of the community. Western does a spectacular job of rendering the immense communication difficulties Meinhard and the villagers face in trying to get to know one another; Meinhard does not know any Bulgarian and few of the locals speak more than a few basic words of German. They muddle through with gestures, body language and tone of voice. In one of the more pathos-laden (and funny, in its own way) scenes in any recent film, Meinhard is mournfully discussing his recently-deceased brother to the villager Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), who had just finished telling a joke. Adrian recognizes the shift in mood and change in Meinhard’s face, and, even though he could not understand a word Meinhard was saying, matter-of-factly declares “Oh, you are talking about something tragic” in Bulgarian. Meinhard nods and continues, in German. The film does much with these sorts of moments. Grisebach has done what Iñárritu tried (and failed) to accomplish with his messy, boring Babel, connecting people across cultures and places in an organic, believable way.
There is much latent conflict simmering under the surface in the film. Some of the Germans are knuckleheads and some of the Bulgarians are enraged by the presence of outsiders. Unspoken for most of the film is a historical legacy, as the last time Germans came to the Bulgarian hinterlands they were wearing Wehrmacht uniforms emblazoned with the swastikas of the Third Reich. There is violence on the peripheries of the film, too, with guns and knives both sometimes being wielded by various characters. The conflict occasionally boils over, giving just enough narrative momentum to keep the film moving languidly along. The story here is always secondary; what Western is really about is the confused and mostly friendly encounter between Meinhard and Bulgarian village life.
Ultimately, Western comes to focus in on the theme of masculinity. While this is certainly a worthwhile topic to emphasize, the move is still disappointing: recent screen culture is already packed full with explorations of male identity construction and all the problems it engenders. Toxic masculinity is hardly a novel concept with which to grapple. Grisebach could have honed in on a different, more underserved topic—cultural interaction, economic development or the role of history in identity construction, for instance—and her decision to look at masculinity feels almost too easy or obvious. But that is unfair to her; she has crafted a beautiful and emotionally-affective film that does manage to say something. Western is, in sum, gorgeously shot, wonderfully paced and thoroughly enjoyable to experience.