When the Berlin Wall came down and the Iron Curtain came up at the end of the 20th century, vast new business opportunities became available for Western capitalists. These opportunities weren’t limited to banking and resource exploitation, however: they also extended into moviemaking, with previously forbidden locations no longer off limits for European and American movie producers searching for new, exotic, and (most importantly) cheap places to shoot.
Southeastern Europe soon became a favorite location for frugal filmmakers, and the result was an avalanche of low-budget thrillers and horror movies, most of which were awful: from Seed of Chucky to An American Haunting to Hostel, a parade of Golden Turkeys marched out of the Balkans and into American theaters.
Valeska Grisebach’s Western (screening at Pacific Film Archive at 7 p.m. on Friday, June 8, and again on Thursday, June 21) takes some of the familiar (and frankly racist) tropes of those films – that the Balkans are a mysterious otherworld populated by untrustworthy, superstitious untermenschen – and turns them on their head.
Meinhard (newcomer Meinhard Neumann) is one of a crew of German construction workers hired to build a hydroelectric plant somewhere in rural Bulgaria. The Germans largely keep to themselves, but Meinhard – a one-time mercenary who’s fought in Iraq and Afghanistan – is open-minded enough to spend his off hours drinking and dancing in the nearest village, where he befriends local bigwig Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov).
Meinhard’s compatriots, however, are wary and dismissive of the villagers, who especially resent foreman Vincent’s (Reinhardt Wetrek) riverside flirtation with one of the local woman. The pompous Vincent proceeds to make matters worse by tapping into the village water supply without permission, and the construction crew soon find themselves walking on rather thin ice.
The legacy of Bulgaria’s uneasy 20th- century relationship with Germany provides Western with its largely unspoken subtext. Initially an ally of the Third Reich during the Second World War, Bulgaria quickly changed sides in 1944 as soon as Soviet forces crossed the border. That historical memory pervades Grisebach’s film, with the villagers regarding the German interlopers as efficient but callous taskmasters solely focused on their own needs and concerns: to them, everything in Bulgaria is broken or inadequate; even the river itself is “in the wrong place”.
There’s toxic masculinity to spare in Western, which highlights the boorish behavior of both the locals (who are determined to protect ‘their women’ from foreign predators) and the German workers, who keep to themselves until threatened by a shortage of booze or cigarettes. The exception, of course, is Meinhard: the only member of the crew who treats the Bulgarians as equals, he’s all but gone native by the final fadeout.
Of particular note is Grisebach’s writing, a woman’s eye view of hypermasculine men which earned her a Best Screenplay nomination at this year’s German Film Critics Association Awards. Indeed, though largely unknown in the United States, Western was a massive success on the international festival circuit and is worth a look for anyone interested in German cinema.