Western (2017) | Three Films from Valeska Grisebach | The Berlin School
Starting life as a documentarian, German director Valeska Grisebach’s stunning feature debut MEIN STERN (2001) **** is an intimate vérité portrait tingling with the awkwardness and confused elation of first love experienced through the day to day existence of teenage Berliners feeling their way into adulthood. There is an old-fashioned yet timeless to this traditional depiction of innocence. Nicole Gläser has a face that echoes a Medieval painting yet her disco dancing style is thoroughly modern. Christopher Schöps practises a manliness he cannot sustain with Nicole but will resonate with viewers of all ages – we have all been down this route before. Observational rather than dialogue-led, the first time actors give naturalistic performances aping ‘cool’ adults in a stylishly framed and contemplative piece of social realism that lingers affectively on sideways glances and thoughtful moments of silence, winning the FIPRESCI prize at Toronto in 2001.
Grisebach moves confidently forward along the same lines with another realist and realistic view of human emotion in LONGING (2006) **** explores the fragile nature of love through the experience of a working class man (Markus, played by Andreas Müller) whose formerly placid family life is disrupted by a traumatic opening event that changes the status quo in his quiet marriage to a childhood sweetheart. Here Grisebach once again takes an observational rather than a morally judgemental viewpoint on her characters’ lives, in a narrative that relies as much on what is left unsaid as on what is actually stated. The seismic shifts in the story develop subtly but affectively and once the die is cast the ensuing practical consequences mean there is no going back, despite the destructiveness of what follows. Despite this Markus evokes considerable sympathy in a strong performance from Müller, but the narrative is not quite thematically developed enough to support the rather predicable ending, despite a brilliant final scene where the events are discussed by villagers sometime later when Markus’ story is viewed in hindsight as a local romantic fable. Taking her cue from Michael Haneke with the underlying sense of doom, LONGING is also infused with Teutonic echoes: bucolic landscapes with villagers celebrating in traditional style seen in in the Heimat films that extolled the virtues of rural German values from 1930s to 1950s, while Grisebach eschews the social agenda of the new German cinema of the late 1970s and early 1980s, her films are concerned more with people and their relationships, rather than with politics. And here the title seems to imply a longing for a life not lived, rather than an unhappy existence. Here Grisebach explores different forms of loving through Markus; the secure and familiar with the thrill of the new and exotic. He changes his style along with his new lover, drinking Sekt instead of beer, and wearing a white cricket sweater rather than a cosy fleece – the two women are equally loved, but in different ways.
WESTERN: Cast: Meinhard Neumann, Reinhardt Wetrek, Syuleyman Alilov Letifov, Veneta Frangova, Vyara Borisova | 100′
Arrogance, cultural prejudice and tradition are the themes explored in Grisebach third feature, Un Certain Regard drama WESTERN, a more plot-led but similarly smouldering slow-burning piece of cinema verite that feels its way forward bristling with tension as it follows the day the day existence of a group of German construction workers tasked with connecting a Bulgarian village to the water supply of a nearby river. Arriving proudly from a rich Western country they quickly assume authority, but soon find the challenges of the landscape and climate and strength of the local community more difficult than anticipated and they are forced to compete and bargain to get their job done.
Grisebach’s enigmatic style of storytelling has much in common with that of Christian Petzold in the way she slowly builds her narrative offering plausible characterisations and a palpable feel of the locale. And here the sweltering heat of the Bulgarian summer adds to the feelings of simmering tension under the surface of the uneasy bonhomie that develops between the two sides. The same sideways glances and slight suspicion is again present here as it was in her two previous features, contrasting girl with boy (Mein Stern); man with wife (Longing) and German with Bulgarian. She again uses non-professional actors in a drama that is strangely unsettling, while also remaining enigmatic, particularly in its inconclusive but non unsurprising finale.
The action focuses of Meinhard, a strong and silent former soldier “The Lieutenant” (Neumann) who has only recently joined his German co-workers but instead of bonding with them, keeps his own counsel, exploring the area on a white horse he has borrowed from a local teenager Wanco (Bashev). Recalling a German version of Clint Eastwood in his strong and silent demeanour, his killer stare comes in handy when signalling disapproval. It emerges there were sociable links between the villagers and German soldiers during WWII) and he quickly makes friends with Wanco’s uncle, Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), who turns out to be the owner of the horse, and the two become strong buddies using hand signals, despite the language barrier.
Grisebach explores cultural differences and it soon becomes clear that the locals are not to be messed with when a young woman is challenged by Meinhard’s co-worker who takes her sunhat while they are all swimming in the river. This becomes a simmering bone of contention between German and Bulgarian, clearly establishing the close ties and fierce protection of the local woman by their men.
There is an enigmatic and meandering quality to the narrative that could have benefitted from some tightening up in the second act – two hours running time is a tad too long when suspense and atmosphere is all that drives the narrative forward. As in LONGING, Grisebach’s signature subtle seimic change is shifting the the social scenery, niggling away at the fault lines as the unrest between foreigner and native grows more apparent. There is much to be enjoyed from the interplay between the characters. Neumann is a fascinating performer in his role as a quintessentially mercurial but benevolent presence who has nothing to lose but is never malicious. MT
ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM 13 APRIL 2018