At the Frontier: Valeska Grisebach on Western

By James Lattimer

Why would anyone claim to be something they’re not? For Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), the protagonist of German director Valeska Grisebach’s long-anticipated third feature, it’s a way to get himself out of a scrape. Wedged in a car at night with a group of people he can’t understand, Meinhard declares that he was in the French Foreign Legion—and they believe him. In calling her film Western, Grisebach appears to make a similar claim, although she’s smart enough to pick a label far harder to pin down. Even if she is suggesting that her Bulgaria-set, modern-day drama is a new entry to the ranks of the Western film, what would that even mean? With a genre as endlessly malleable as this one is by now, belonging to it is a matter of interpretation anyway: you can sprinkle a film liberally with Western tropes and it can still elude easy classification, much like you can follow a conversation without necessarily grasping exactly what’s being said. Whether genre, language, or indeed culture in general, Western is about tracing out the surplus that each of them carry.

Meinhard belongs to a gang of construction workers who have travelled from Germany to an isolated patch of rural Bulgaria to lay the foundation for a future hydroelectric power plant; as it’s his first time working abroad, Meinhard enters as an outsider. The workers set up a makeshift camp in the middle of nowhere and start clearing land, although not before the German flag has been erected. Grisebach’s precise focus remains hazy: there are snatches of landscape and sunshine; snatches of conversation about the work to be carried out and the working process itself; snatches of individual personalities and group dynamics. Detail after deliberately offhand detail is parcelled out, and when nominal events emerge, they cause little more than gentle ripples of tension across an alluringly languid river. Two men from the surrounding area show up, communication problems ensue, and one of the Germans is quick to pull a knife; Meinhard maroons a digger in the water; an afternoon bathing session is spoiled when Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), the group’s foreman, clumsily flirts with one of the three Bulgarian women on the opposite bank, provoking indignation, then anger when he awkwardly confiscates one woman’s hat.

The same dramatic de-emphasis remains in place once the Germans and Bulgarians begin to commingle in earnest, a process kick-started by Meinhard, who befriends what appears to be a wild white horse one afternoon and rides it bareback into the nearby village. He shares a cigarette with a couple of older residents, who, in Bulgarian, talk of Teutonic sophistication and of how the Germans sent donkeys carrying flashlights along the nearby Greek border during the Second World War to coax out enemy firepower. Another night, the locals creep up on the workers’ camp and are chased away. Abandoned on the side of the road, Meinhard is picked up by a gang of Bulgarians who may or may not have been the ones scoping out the camp, whereupon he makes his audacious claim. They appear fascinated at having a potential killer in their midst, and Meinhard, marginalized in his own group, is fascinated by their attention, setting in motion a process of reciprocal admiration and projection that pushes Meinhard away from his compatriots and into the bosom of the village, which might just be the home he apparently yearns for. The atmosphere grows ever more charged, although to talk of action would still be an overstatement. The villagers can’t forget Vincent’s disparagement of one of their own; Meinhard tries ever harder to forge links with the local flock and attains go-between, even brotherhood status; negotiations over water and gravel emerge between camp and village; and Meinhard and Vincent vie for power and influence across both groups.

Practically every interaction adds a fresh wrinkle to the intercultural encounter, and the number of potential sources of conflict multiplies in tandem, together with the growing feeling that any one of them could erupt at any time. Like Grisebach’s previous films Be My Star (2001) and Longing (2006), Western is rooted in extensive preparatory work with its entirely nonprofessional cast, which is evident in the easy, lived-in quality of their performances and the entirely organic feeling of the social situations that make up the bulk of the film. Yet while this accomplished quotidian veneer further de-emphasizes narrative, it is itself rendered unstable by the occasional, obviously pre-written lines of dialogue Grisebach surreptitiously places in her characters’ mouths, creating a subtle dissonance between improvisation and construction more felt that actively noticed. The frequent bilingual exchanges add an additional layer of uncertainty; while the viewer is able to follow every word thanks to the subtitles, there is no way of knowing precisely how much of what the Bulgarians say is actually picked up on by the Germans and vice versa, not least because certain villagers keep their true linguistic abilities to themselves and Meinhard progressively starts lacing his dialogue with Bulgarian words. Although the success of each negotiation hinges on nuance, language remains as stubbornly indeterminate as everything else.

A similar sense of the ungraspable is conveyed by the framing and editing before the Germans and the Bulgarians have even met. Rather than calmly surveying proceedings from a single vantage point, Bernhard Keller’s camera frequently jumps around between different ones, skittishly trying out fresh angle after fresh angle on any given situation as if in search of the definitive position, which, unsurprisingly, does not exist. This restless gathering of different impressions throws up any number of beautiful fragments, which stick in the memory all the more because they are captured so fleetingly: the first, indelible impressions of a new place, in the form of a rocky protrusion as inscrutable as a human face; the feel of a horse’s back; the sight of a far-off village in the pinkish light of sunset; the radiant snippet of landscape seen through a dirty, fly-ridden windshield that prompts Meinhard to talk of paradise. And, while, at the start of the film, the Germans and Bulgarians seem to be inhabiting unconnected pockets of the same area, as soon as they start to mix the editing increasingly attempts to smooth away the distance separating them. Scenes showing one group’s interactions segue seamlessly into those of the other, until it’s clear that little keeps them apart, a deliberate act of disorientation that also produces disquiet given the carefully established tensions between them.

Once Western enters its home stretch, a whole collection of generic elements has been accumulated: a lone ranger in love with a trusty white steed whose best friend is one of the “natives”; flags which stake a claim on a new territory and a landscape in the process of being tamed; a woman who seemingly steals the heart of two bitter rivals; a hoedown at what is an analogy for the local saloon; a rifle duly fired. And the same could be said of the elements that govern cultural engagement in the “Wild East” today: economic colonialism dressed up as infrastructural support; past prejudices that nibble at the edges of any new cooperation; the allure of the rural and the bucolic as opposed to that of the big wide world outside; and the limits of the Western approach. Yet the heart of Western ultimately resides in a wonderfully open question: when a set of interrelated concepts are strung together to form a phrase, is that the same thing as a statement?

Cinema Scope: I’d like to start with the title of the film, which initially seems like an obvious statement of intent. But given that the film is so often about not being able to trust everything that’s said, I’d be interested to know whether the title was there from the beginning or was chosen later, and how exactly it relates to the film itself. What’s your relationship to the Western genre?

Valeska Grisebach: When I start thinking about a film, I do so independently of a story. The starting point is a theme, and then I like to devote my time to researching that theme in a very personal way; it’s only afterwards that I start writing a narrative. And the Western genre was indeed the starting point, because I realized just how fascinated I’d been by it, ever since my childhood. It was as if I felt homesick for the Western and therefore wanted to wander back into it in my own way via film. I grew up with Westerns and the heroes of the genre, although looking back I realize that watching those films as a child—and a girl in particular—is different. You tend to identify with the male heroes rather than the women, because they’re simply more appealing. It’s the men who stare adventure or certain missions in the eye or settle rights or conflicts. So, as a woman or as a girl, I was also being slightly excluded from the genre at the same time. But for me, it was just exciting to engage with the Western or even dance with it, as it were, to return to all those solitary heroes, to their loneliness, to the themes they carry with them, all those heavy burdens.

And Westerns also grapple a great deal with society. They show it at a relatively early point of development when things are still in flux, where you’re still asking yourself what are the rules of the game, whether it’s about empathy and compassion or about the rule of the strongest, the rule of force. It’s a very conservative genre, but it also reflects existential questions in an entirely modern way. And so giving the film the title Western started off as kind of a reminder of all those things, and that’s where I set off from. And in talking to other people about it, it became clear that despite it being an American genre, it’s a genre we all carry within us: everyone has images of the Western in them. So the title was there from the beginning and I never managed to shake it off. I thought for a while that it’s too direct, too obvious, or too unwieldy, but actually it’s a good, straightforward pointer.

Scope: To what extent would you describe the finished film as a Western?

Grisebach: Now I can very easily let go of that idea again. Like I already said, the film is more of a dance with the Western—a reflection upon it—a marker placed at the start that merely encapsulates particular themes. The film is more about trying to approach a male character, and the story of Meinhard Neumann, the protagonist of Western, differs from the stories of the heroes from the American Westerns, who are always torn between civilization and wilderness, between wanting to belong and not wanting to belong, and usually end up stepping out of society. Meinhard’s drama is that he ultimately wants to belong, that he wants to enter into a sort of community, even if it’s a foreign one, even if it’s more projection than reality.

Scope: The region where the film takes place is very precisely chosen, an area of Bulgaria close to the Greek border that’s also marked by German influences from the past. How did you come across this particular area and what was the first point of contact there?

Grisebach: I started off by travelling between Bulgaria and Romania because the story drew me to Eastern Europe and also because of all the legends that sprung up there following the end of communism: the idea of the “Wild East” or the feeling that that was some sort of vacuum or empty page at the time, even if things are already very different there now. And once I was in Bulgaria, I was drawn to the border region because so much cultural mixing has taken place there, between Bulgarians and Greeks, Turks, and Serbs. And, at the same time, for the people that arrive there, it’s as if for every place you reach there’s another just beyond it; the area just pulls you in further and further. To begin with, I was just wandering through Bulgaria, armed with nothing but a few tips I’d received, but drifting like that is important to me in all phases of a film. Before the shoot began, I felt I needed to introduce a degree of confusion, to work based on the idea of “let’s just see what happens.” After exploring different border regions, I ended up there, in the south, where the warm wind blows up from Greece. It’s a region that the Bulgarians themselves see as very mythical. The area touched me immediately—you can feel that so much has happened there over the centuries, all those population movements and shifting borders. And it was a restricted area during the communist era. The people that lived in these villages needed permits even to just go to their fields. And a lot of very tragic things have taken place on this border, as the Bulgarian border was one of the harshest back then. But ultimately, I just came to the place and everything clicked.

Scope: Just like in your previous films Be My Star and Longing, your work with nonprofessional actors in Western is hugely impressive. Can you describe the process of casting them? And what sort of challenges did you face in working with people whose language you yourself don’t speak, particularly when linguistic nuance forms such an important part of the film?

Grisebach: I pretty much jumped in at the deep end, as I did the casting the same way I always do, even if the process obviously changes slightly with each new project. For me, the research and casting processes often go hand in hand, together with the search for specific motifs. I start by looking out for people who create some sort of associative connection to what I’m planning to do or arouse some sort of feeling in me, a fantasy. We start with interviews that revolve around a particular theme and then introduce a fictional idea into life experiences and biographies, but these interviews are already like a sort of casting. I begin the process with just one assistant, and as soon as I’m clear about what I’m exactly looking for, the team grows and I can pass on the baton and let others cast the roles still missing. And the whole process started from the very outset in Bulgaria, on the many trips we took there before the shoot itself. I always had a translator with me, but so much takes place alongside language, whether through eye contact or certain gestures. It’s interesting to notice how many other channels come into play when you’re observing or negotiating. And I always tried to create an acting-type situation with the people and sidestep the translator as much as possible. During the shoot itself, I had a translator who doesn’t actually speak German that well, but for me that was just another part of surrendering control. For me, shooting the entire project in two languages in a foreign location was a very positive lesson in the benefits of not being able to control everything. You realize that you have to believe that everything will probably turn out all right.

Scope: And in that sense, does your experience reflects what actually occurs in the film?

Grisebach: Absolutely, the way the film was made obviously affected how it ended up being. While I do write certain things for each film, they’re often just statements of intent, things I can imagine happening. And the decision to shoot in Bulgaria introduced a big unknown variable into the project in terms of what I was thinking of, or hoping for, but that was also really exciting. And the language that the people speak with one another in the film, which is composed of both gestures and words, is anyway a fictional construct—because you also have to think about creating something within the film itself that narrates the process of understanding, about selecting the right words to use, so that the viewer also grasps what’s being said. And it was really interesting to find out which words they were with the actors. It was akin to a partnership.

Scope: While watching the film, I often felt that a lot of the scenes were improvised or simply observed, while at other points you can sense that particular lines are very much written and placed in the mouths of characters, albeit in a very subtle way. What was the relationship between script and improvisation?

Grisebach: The film contains both far less and far more improvisation than one would think. I do set out a great deal in advance, and the script certainly contains the basic construction of the film: that is, the scenes and the subtexts attached to them, the mechanics of the story. There are scenes where I set out what’s supposed to happen in a very specific way, but I do so verbally. I don’t give out a script, but rather describe beforehand what I want to happen. When we’re shooting, it’s then always interesting to see how things move away from what was originally written down. And there are then other moments where I describe things far more generally, and there’s far more scope for improvisation. It’s always exciting to describe a particular dialogue to those actors who are supposed to be delivering it and then seeing what actually happens when they have to remember what was said and reproduce it. I was also shooting on an Alexa for the first time, and, in that sense, I was also improvising more than ever before. I never shot such long scenes when I worked on film. Sometimes I was tired and run down and I thought, “I’ll just leave the camera running.” And then I would reconnect again and intervene in the scene as it was already playing out, which is also another form of improvisation.

Scope: So you were improvising across different levels at the same time?

Grisebach: Yes, absolutely.

Scope: I think I’m not alone in saying that I was very eagerly awaiting what you would do after Longing. What was the reason behind the 11-year gap between the two films?

Grisebach: Several things came together. First of all, at the end of 2007, I had a baby daughter, and for a while after that I just couldn’t imagine shooting a film, as I knew what a tough ride it always is; it’s all-consuming. I was also teaching a lot at the film school in Berlin, the dffb, and it was great to be so intensively engaged with the students about film. And then, I have to admit, I thought about this film for a very long time before I had my foot in the door, as it were, and realized I could actually make it in the way I wanted. That lasted a long time and I really enjoyed the research period, which is the time I almost enjoy most when making a film. I’m therefore currently asking myself how I can bring the different phases, the research and the actual shoot, closer together. The research phase is so alluring and it produces so much material. Usually I carry out research with a tiny team and find really amazing stuff, but then at some point the phase ends, the official shoot begins, a bigger team arrives, and that changes the setting entirely. And that’s where I’d like to try out a few different things now.

Scope: The film is really beautifully edited. Bettina Böhler has obviously edited for many other very established German directors like Christian Petzold, Thomas Arslan, and Angela Schanelec, and her work is always excellent. For me, the sense of nervousness conveyed by the editing stops the film from merely luxuriating in the beautiful landscape, with all the impressions and insights collected resounding all the more because of how briefly they’re shown. Was that the idea for the editing rhythm from the outset or did it emerge during the process? And what was it like working with Bettina?

Grisebach: I absolutely agree that Bettina is a really great editor! Every time I edit with her, it’s a huge learning process. There’s so much I can learn from her, and the connection was even closer this time around. Just like with Longing, I did a rough cut to start with to bring the 80 hours of material down to four-to-five hours. It’s interesting with Bettina because she says she doesn’t actually have to see all the material shot, but yet she deals with it very specifically and is still able to find or remember things that are important. And we talked a lot about the landscape in particular: there shouldn’t be too much of it and a balance should always be maintained, as you can quickly grow tired when you see too much of it, and it can quickly become banal. What I liked about the collaboration is that we talked a lot about content, about subtexts, as that’s how I often construct scenes, and then I try to find a sort of surface level to house them. And it was amazing how she was able to then condense those ideas into the editing. The same applied to working with cameraman Bernhard Keller: the idea of talking together about a particular motif and then allowing everyone to have their say or bring in their own creative ideas, so that it’s like a joint translation being performed on those ideas. And that’s such an exciting process, another form of surrendering control, about not giving yourself a heart attack at any given moment, but rather allowing yourself to enjoy a collaboration based on total trust. And that itself is like a process of translation.