Graham Williamson’s review published on Letterboxd:
52 films by women 2018: 32/52.
You couldn't, realistically, say the white working class have been out of the spotlight recently. As someone who is white, and who is working class (but also left-wing and queer, so Not The Right Type), I get a sinking feeling every time I see the dread phrase used at the start of an article. But how many people have seen us? How many people have shown us? How many pieces of art or journalism about working-class people are interested in them as something more than just a human shield, a way for middle-class writers to push the guilt of their own horrible, failed politics onto some imaginary hive-mind of bigots? The day before I saw Valeska Grisebach's third film I read a piece in Private Eye exposing where several Spectator writers - including alleged intellectuals Douglas Murray and David Goodhart - were getting their information on what policies Europe's white working classes support. Were they travelling Europe, talking to the people, relaying it without prejudice to their audience? Of course they weren't. They got it from an organisation connected to that noted salt-of-the-earth, outside-the-Beltway type, er, Viktor Orbán.
It's like money laundering, except with opinions instead of money, and my fucking identity forced to take the place of HSBC.
Grisebach's film is like a soothing bath, then, a healing alternative to all that shit. It's the story of Meinhard, a German construction worker who has travelled to Bulgaria to help build a hydroelectric power plant. The moment I saw Meinhard I couldn't help but think about how much he looked like my great-uncle; the same bristly grey moustache, the same squinting half-smile, the red, leathery skin that comes from a lifetime working hard outdoors. He, like all the other mostly non-professional cast members, is astonishingly real, and the story he's in respects that. Towards the end of Western I got a little tingle when a confrontation called back to the beginning of the film; as in Sean Baker's similarly well-observed The Florida Project, I'd been witness to a plot developing without even realising it.
Grisebach never pushes anything, never tries to make the characters mouthpieces for some view or other. There's an unsettling moment towards the beginning when one of the villagers, thinking he's complimenting Meinhard, praises the efficiency of the German soldiers he met during World War II. But Meinhard can't speak Bulgarian, and the villager can't speak German, so the possibility of a confrontation passes like a summer cloud. In any case, the environment Meinhard is working in doesn't tend towards big, emotional blow-ups. Sometimes there are fights, and they end as soon as they begin. Whatever ill feeling caused them is left to simmer away until the next fight; anything to avoid the embarrassment of actually addressing it.
It's been obvious for a while that films written or directed by women will have better female characters, but after this and You Were Never Really Here I'm starting to wonder if they aren't better at observing us men as well. Grisebach's camera is casual and detached, sometimes hand-held but rarely moving, and never getting closer to the characters than a waist-up shot. Sometimes there's a witty cut - after Meinhard befriends a horse, one of his co-workers jokes that it would make a good steak, then there's a cut to a barbecue that lingers just long enough to make you wonder... before panning to show the horse in the background. Mostly she remains an invisible observer, watching her characters' body language for signs of what the language barrier is keeping them from saying.
And the title? There are a few moments which nod towards genre, like the cutaway during a fight to people sat on the porch watching. They could have come straight out of an old John Wayne movie, as could the relationship between Meinhard and his horse, which is thankfully much less schematically symbolic than you expect from a modern social realist picture. But the real connection between Western and westerns is the relationship between man and the land, which is almost reversed here. Rather than colonising or 'taming' the country they come to, the German workers start as people who will casually say the river is "in the wrong place" for their construction project, and end up having a wary, confused but genuine respect for the village they're in. It's a relationship that's ripe for political readings - about the environment, about class, about the European project - but Grisebach never pushes any one interpretation. Like her protagonist, she keeps her head down and gets the job done.