Western ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.


A "Western" in much the same sense that Claire Denis' Beau Travail was an adaptation of "Billy Budd," Valeska Grisebach's masterful new film does include certain ingredients. We have a horse, which serves several very pivotal roles in the plot. We have someone we might reasonably designate a "black hat" bad guy who represents the unchecked forces of capital and civilization of his day (i.e., globalization). And we have a protagonist who, though he has a name, does not necessarily have a country or a home. By the end, he is just as lost and isolated as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers or, for that matter, Galoup in Beau Travail.

If I keep bringing up Denis' film, it's because it and Western share more than a superficial resemblance. On a structural level, both films are about groups of men seen as invaders, going to places where they don't belong under the guise of service. This tension between Western imperatives (uplift the two-thirds world, make a little money) and the local economy (pride, machismo, sex) sews a rift within the invading ranks, with someone defying authority in a manner that is tantamount to a rejection of cultural norms. Whereas "Billy Budd" and Beau Travail map authority and defiance in somewhat more predictable ways, so as to explore epic desires, Western complicates this matter very intriguingly. What if the good guy turns out to be less generous than he knew?

Where John Ford set this trap in The Searchers by making John Wayne's antihero a murderous racist, Grisebach is subtler and diagnoses her present moment to a fine point. Her lone-wolf figure, Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), is merely a liberal, blinkered by assumptions he scarcely knows he has. So when he is on a job crew from Germany, stationed at the Bulgarian border to build a hydroelectric pump, he adamently rejects what he sees as the chauvinism of his fellow Germans, who keep to themselves and, in a crass move, fly the German flag from their campsite wall. Instead, Meinhard is going to go into the nearby village and try to get to know the locals.

This isn't a huge stretch for Meinhard, who, we learn, has done time in the Foreign Legion. But this move sets Meinhard apart, since he is willing to struggle with those whose language he cannot speak, putting himself at a deficit of power. This, of course, is one of the tenets of good liberal behavior, and over the course of the film Meinhard is rewarded for it, not only through friendships and acceptance, but in more abstract ways such as tone, lighting, and framing. Grisebach makes it clear that he is our preferred point of identification. By contrast, Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), the job foreman, is repeatedly shown to be a cheat and a boor. His bullying interaction at the lake with local woman Viara (Viara Borisova) pretty much cements his status as a little man determined to seem big and bad.

In small, minor interactions, though, we begin to see Meinhard take liberties. At first, they are the sort that come along with not wanting to be taken advantage of, behaving as though he and the locals are on even footing and he is not a foreign patsy to be trifled with. But over time, as the villagers accept him, Meinhard starts to believe he has found the home that has eluded him throughout his life, and this is when he makes several strategic missteps. All the same, whether he had or not, Meinhard could be said to mistake hospitality for belonging, and in so doing he reveals himself to be far more presumptuous than Vincent or any other "rude" tourist from the West.

Grisebach has brilliantly identified a continual human problem -- the need to belong, to "be down," to be the one good guy who is accepted despite the sins of your own kind -- and removed it from the classic "Cowboys and Indians" template where, it should be said, it has become offensively simplistic, mixed up with overtones of Rousseau's "noble savage" myth. In Western, the question is not so much one of white privilege -- all parties in the equation here are white -- as it is one of East vs. West and the economic power that comes along with it. This is not to say that Grisebach is replacing raced or gendered power with class. But she is making a problem of structured oppression, one which also impinges on the emotions, something legible outside of kneejerk stereotypes. Because of this, Western can show us the problem of cultural appropriation as more than just a power move. It is also an act of misguided sincerity, a structure of feeling.

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