Building society: Western is a masterclass in storytelling
Racial tensions bubble beneath the surface in highly watchable story of construction worker sent from his native Germany into the Bulgarian hinterlands
12 April, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
Meinhard Neumann in Western
Directed by Valeska Grisebach
THIS highly original film tackles a number of issues in a thoughtful, watchable and intriguing way.
Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) is a construction worker, sent from his native Germany into the Bulgarian hinterlands with a crew to build a new water plant on the banks of a mountainside river in a heat-addled countryside. But the project is running into difficulties.
A lack of water provides a plot pinch point: with just one source serving three villages and for irrigating their scrubby fields, the workers are well down the queue when it comes to using a pipe to do the washing up.
And then there is the matter of five 40-tonne trucks of gravel they have bought, which has gone missing en route – and now appears to be in the hands of a local quarry owner who has links with Bulgarian criminal gangs and want paying before it can be delivered.
The classic Western ideas of masculinity and a battle to be top dog are themes, but there is much, much more to this film than transplanting such concepts into an Eastern European setting. There are racial tensions bubbling beneath the surface: gang foreman Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) appears to have little respect for the culture or situation the villagers find themselves in, dropping in a quip of how they have returned 70 years after their last visit, and causing friction with his boorish behaviour.
As the work slows down, frictions rise up – and Meinhard is caught between the pressure to be part of the gang and his curiosity of the people who live in such a landscape. The language barrier doesn’t help, nor does the natural guardedness of those he seeks to befriend. While little is said directly about the lead, we learn of his situation incrementally: he might have once been a member of the French Foreign Legion and seen active service in Afghanistan, he has no home to speak of back in Germany, has lost a brother, and finds the culture of the people around him more intriguing and attractive than the testosterone-fuelled, boredom-riddled hi-jinks of his fellow construction workers.
Reinhardt Wetrek as Vincent
A way in is offered by the appearance of a horse owned by villager Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), which Meinhard takes a shine to: the shared love to the creature breaks down the barriers – and later provides a plot thread, too.
Western offers not just a highly watchable story about friendship, loneliness and the need to feel rooted and to belong, but offers something more – a musing on cultural clashes in contemporary Europe, a sense of a shared and often fraught history between peoples who have been economically successful and the left-behinds, about development encroaching on older ways of life.
Using non-professional actors adds to the sense of reality, and the cast is superb across the board.
It is fascinating, well paced, enveloping in the way the heat seeps off the screen and tensions rise – a masterclass in storytelling.