The American Western — usually identified by its action, machismo, and its oftentimes flimsy portrayal of Native American genocide — has also always dealt with borders. The Mormons of John Ford’s Wagon Master drift into the territory of Utah sixteen years before its statehood in order to find their Eden outside America proper. The Arizona of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar exists outside federal jurisdiction, which means Joan Crawford’s Vienna can only run into trouble for supporting the up-and-coming federal railroad that threatens the local farmers’ business. Even the Suphan Buri Province of Tears of the Black Tiger is a wild west outside Thailand that can only be tamed by a large invading force. Following in this tradition, Valeska Grisebach’s Western imagines the sort of animus that can come from a place where wealth’s borders are closed, but capital’s borders are wide open: the EU. Grisebach throws a group of German workers into rural Bulgaria (one of the EU’s poorest, and, as recently discovered, unhappiest countries) as imported labor to build a hydroelectric power plant, much to the chagrin of the locals. However, the film’s pace, sparse plot, and little need for character-driven anything (some hallmarks of what’s become known as an amorphous “Berlin School,” to which Grisebach is attached) disallow the same sort of action, explicit racial tension, and law-and-order dialogue that defines the typical Western. Instead, politics is front-and-center, as eventual standout Meinhard (played, as with every role here, by a non-actor) slowly gains the trust of several key villagers and acts as an intermediary, despite not speaking the language. In this way, Meinhard is a bit like the new, centrist Germany: nice, understanding, willing to smack down any compatriots who become a bit too aggressive, but simply not radical enough to be truly helpful. Like Germany’s adherence to the austerity that has doomed the Balkans to poverty, Meinhard never quite emerges as a true hero. Grisebach’s Brechtian touch merely renders him an observer with limited power, simple action, and no room for sentiment. Meinhard’s journey is one from passivity to mild assimilation in the Balkans; it features a horse companion, chauvinists, and other Western signifiers, skirting the borders of the Western genre, without fully committing.
Published as part of New York Film Festival 2017 | Dispatch 2.