By virtue of its name, a film called Western should have a horse—and it does. It should also have a cowboy, and here’s where things get interesting. There is a cowboy-like figure by the name of Meinhard, but he is no lone ranger wandering barren landscapes and dusty saloons. He is a part of a German team of labourers building a hydroelectric plant in rural Bulgaria. Work stalls when the water supply dries up, so in his downtime, Meinhard begins making the acquaintance of the local villagers. Not an easy task when barely anyone there can understand his German. The subtitles unfortunately dim the effect of this linguistic struggle, since we are privy to both sides of their conversations, but imagine if only Meinhard’s German were subtitled. What a fascinating test of our viewership would it be if we shared Meinhard’s dilemma, and couldn’t decipher the Bulgarian either. The effort to understand would become even more imperative, and ultimately more rewarding when we would begin to discern the clues from various situational cues being presented. A sense of trust would begin to take shape, and perhaps we would feel closer to these Bulgarians, too.
Two hours is a long time to tell a story as unadorned as this one, but Valeska Grisebach packs a surprising amount of tension in unexpected corners. Meinhard’s campaign of acceptance, for instance, always feels fraught with danger, since there is every indication that someone will misread his intentions or take advantage of his trusting nature. At times, Grisebach shoots Meinhard from behind, as though asking us to anticipate only the worst. This is especially true of the final ten minutes, where nothing seems out of the realm of possibility. You wonder if Meinhard truly can find a place in this remote community, or whether he was doomed to fail from the get-go. Grisebach is wise enough not to make any definitive conclusions. Cowboys traditionally belong to no fixed point. They roam the earth with the breath of freedom guiding their compass. There comes a point in Western when you wonder if Meinhard holds the same conception of freedom, or if his ulterior motive has been to assuage his loneliness. Maybe he is a cowboy only against his will, and when the opportunity comes to erase the sobriquet, he is more than happy to pursue it. But if so, why does he accept a new sobriquet from the Bulgarians—that of Legionnaire? One can only wonder, because Grisebach’s only role is to tell this story with dexterity and artistry, which she does. The extent of Meinhard’s secrets, successes and failures are left to us to debate, making Western a much more enigmatic piece than I would have expected.