Western Unions: On Valeska Grisebach’s Westernby Sarah Mankoff
It’s the poster image for Valeska Grisebach’s Western, and for good reason: German construction worker Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) rides unbridled and bareback uphill on a long-maned white horse, looking back over his shoulder and down the hill behind him. Out of context, the moment looks as if it were drawn from a chase scene. The suggested circumstances are dire: a man riding away under threat of danger. But as with almost every sequence of consequence in Grisebach’s measured film, the genre beats suggested by its title play more like the stolen personal moments of a man, not the plot points of a cowboy.
For most of Western, that man is Meinhard (non-professional actor Meinhard Neumann), one of a crew of German construction workers hired to build a hydropower plant in a small Bulgarian village near the Greek border. The project is revealed to make little sense given the state of the area’s natural resources—most notably, the lack of water—but this doesn’t prevent the crew from feeling superior to the Bulgarian locals. Not shy about disparaging the village as backwater and provincial, the crew immediately hangs a large German flag at their campsite—a willful provocation by a group of outsiders employed in a work-starved region.
Their detachment from the surrounding land and its people is indicative of the larger issues plaguing their project. By ignoring the needs of the area, they cannot effectively build infrastructure for it. It’s a snag in the dream of globalization: why order foreign supplies when local ones are available? The tension between the villagers and the construction crew is fueled by a larger economic misunderstanding. Most of the Germans disregard the locals, just as the construction firm that hired them did.
It’s a precarious setup, and Meinhard is the first to let it all come undone. After learning about a small herd of horses that graze near the camp, Meinhard hoists himself onto the most beautiful among them and points his steed (with his index finger, not with riderly aids) in the direction of the village. He rides him first into a tree, then down the hill in the wrong direction. Finally, Meinhard looks the horse in the eyes and says, “I want to go that way,” gesturing up the hill and towards town. The sequence is unhurried and comical, and it marks the first time we hear Meinhard say what he wants, or much of anything at all. As if activated by this interaction with the land and nature, from that moment on Meinhard makes a series of choices that bring him closer to the locals and further from his fellow Germans. He looks back frequently, but never quite returns to the fold.
At first greeted with hostility in town, all it takes is one exchange between Meinhard, speaking in German, with a man in town, speaking in Bulgarian, for the cultural barriers to erode. The fact that they don’t understand each other is unimportant—but that they are trying to means everything. (How often do people try as hard to understand someone speaking their own language as they do someone speaking another?)
Meinhard soon meets Adrian (another non-professional, Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), a respected local whose acceptance counts as a blessing and a lead for others to follow. Meinhard finds himself getting invited to cookouts, given riding lessons by Adrian’s nephew, and introduced to grandmas. He becomes extremely attached to Adrian, and they take to calling each other brothers.
For all Meinhard’s sociability and all the friendly interactions we see him navigate, we know little more about him than his new friends do. There are two times he reveals something substantive about himself: The first is when he tells a car packed with locals that he’s an ex-soldier, and it’s hard to tell whether he’s lying or telling the truth (or a joke pitched somewhere in between). The second comes when Meinhard tells Adrian of past loss over countless drinks and cigarettes on a back patio after everyone else has either left the party or gone to sleep.
And yet, that we know so little about Meinhard doesn’t really matter, thanks in part to Grisebach’s faultless casting. In an interview with Film Comment, she revealed that she discovered Meinhard Neumann in a German horse market, years before official casting began. She said, “He was sitting there in a cowboy hat, but I was more impressed by his face, because it’s such an iconic face.” It’s true: Neumann’s face is expressive but withholding, wrinkled but ageless. He projects an unqualified trustworthiness, an assumption checked only after he’s acted contrary to expectation. His posturing makes us feel as if we know so much more than mere exposition ever could.
In another interview, with Cinema Scope, Grisebach says, “Meinhard’s drama is that he ultimately wants to belong, that he wants to enter into a sort of community, even if it’s a foreign one, even if it’s more projection than reality.” Men like Meinhard and Adrien seem to reveal as little as possible about themselves at no cost to their charisma. That Meinhard becomes so attached to Adrien so quickly, or that Adrien accepts Meinhard into the community with comparable haste, is born of fantasy and its projection. The possibility that these men might reveal their true selves to each other and break the illusion is drama enough.
For all the film’s notions regarding fantasy and reality, most important perhaps is that Neumann, Syuleyman Alilov Letifov, and the rest of the actors are so impeccably cast. In the case of a documentary, the presence of a camera inevitably complicates reality. But the presence of reality in fiction—introduced into Western largely by way of its non-professional cast—feels transcendent. There’s no need for Grisebach to be a fly on the wall in order to capture what Neumann, Letifov, and the others inherently bring to the film. They don’t seem skittish, and there’s no danger of losing the air of truthfulness their presence lends to the film whenever Grisebach’s camera draws closer to them or assumes a new position, a new angle on the sheer fact of their existence.
As if to comment on the life cycle of a film running the festival circuit, Western offers its own critical prompt by virtue of its title. Grisebach taxonomizes the film for us and asks us to think about how a film as delicate, nuanced, and with so little pretension as Western fits in with the visual and emotional iconography of the genre to which it pledges itself. There’s always the threat of a tension between the work itself and the festival-generated discourse that tends to envelope it. How clever then that, with its mere one-word title, Grisebach avoids any danger of dissonance by giving us both. The word “western” acts as a tuning fork, calibrating the conversation surrounding the film with Grisebach’s own vision. In place of friction, there is harmony.
Sarah Mankoff is a writer and equestrian living in Brooklyn.