VIFF 2017: Western (Valeska Grisebach, 2017)

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Most of the filmmakers associated with the Berlin School have rejected the label in some fashion, or at least questioned the label’s applicability to their work when placed in proximity to that of their peers, and given the individual ascendence of people like Petzold and Ade, who do have idiosyncratic interests that extend beyond the pre-defined set of Berlin School signifiers (a superficially televisual look, something something “the European Project,” etc.) it makes sense that artists increasingly want to claim a personal project rather than be lumped in with a brand. And critics have, from my vantage point at least, followed the filmmakers’ lead. There’s a sense that the Berlin Schoolers have graduated from new wave status, or have at least matriculated from Un Certain Regard to Competition, and ought to be taken more directly on their own terms. But then what to make of a filmmaker like Valeska Grisebach, and particularly Western, which emerged in Un Certain Regard over a decade after her last feature premiered during the height of Berlin School attention and which feels more wedded to the school than the likes of Toni Erdmann or Phoenix? To a greater extent than her more famous peers, Grisebach and her films fit right into the box: a markedly plain style of flat key lighting and un-showy set-ups, an unabashed concern about Germany’s place in 21st century Europe, and a fondness for discreet, almost imperceptible abstraction.

Western follows a middle aged man, Meinhard, on a work trip to the capitalist frontier of rural Bulgaria, where he hoists a flag, confronts and eventually befriends the ‘natives,’ and mounts a white horse, in case you were wondering about the title. And maybe that’s the crux of the matter, the reason why Western feels less like a vision of Europe’s present (which it’s clearly intended to be) and more like a garbled transmission from 2006: many Berlin Schoolers love direct, writerly allegory but the movement’s figureheads have, crucially, embraced genre more openly, obscuring and complicating their occasionally obvious ideas. Western’s title and bare genre signifiers seem like Grisebach taking a cue and gesturing towards genre, though she lacks the conviction or interest to more fully deploy it, and instead stays firmly inside the school’s old naturalist playground. Western is, if nothing else, a festival film. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Though, if I’m being honest, lines like “Now we’re back, it only took 70 years” encapsulate the film’s position a bit too neatly for my taste. Which is why the best moments arise from gesture, or at least in the absence of dialogue, where Grisebach’s calculated gaps allow some mystery to slip in. Take our hero’s background, for instance: while hitching a ride with some vaguely threatening Bulgarians, he casually claims to be a well-traveled legionnaire, despite mentioning early in the film that he’s never gone abroad for work before. Initially it plays like spontaneous chest puffing, but as his fundamental comfort with this foreign place grows clearer, and especially after committing an instinctual though rather harmless act of violence during a prank, his claims of military experience seem much more plausible. Grisebach, for her part, never clarifies. She simply places lead actor Meinhard Neumann in the landscape, in contrast with his bumbling compatriots, and observes. Surrounded by Bulgaria and its people, Meinhard slinks around with ease, which suggests everything about the unremarked onthough presumably very drabGerman life from which he’s suddenly freed and communicates the pleasure he takes in roaming the village like a benign colonialist, perhaps relieved to be back in the role of kindly occupier.

Longing, Grisebach’s prior feature, was less ambitious in scope but significantly more daring in conception, and mysteries like Meinhard’s personal history dominate the film. Partly that’s attributable to its brevity: at 85 minutes and with a surprisingly furious onslaught of plot, Grisebach can’t spare a single shot. Each set-up is diamond cut, though unassuming, and the space between moments sharp with unresolvable tension. I found myself, uh, longing for that tension in Western, especially after the umpteenth handheld trip down the gravel road that connects the German worksite and the village. Like its conspicuous themes, Western’s roving impulse left me wondering if Grisebach had wandered in circles these last ten years when she might’ve forged her own path.

Maybe that’s fine. Not all of us are cut out for life on the frontier (which is surely the point). There are plenty of reasons to admire the film for what it is. And yet, I have an unshakable sense that while the rest of the School is moving on up, Grisebach is stylistically stuck near the beginning of the millennium and, despite going abroad this semester, very much still in Berlin.

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