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“Where Are the Men I Can Imagine on a Horse?”: Valeska Grisebach on Western

Meinhard Neumann in Western

Given the sense of suspended time often pervading the narratives and atmospheres of classic westerns, perhaps it’s appropriate that the wait for Valeska Grisebach’s own Western was a protracted one. Arriving eleven years after her previous film, the understated Sehnsucht (Longing, 2006), the third feature by the German filmmaker (and Berliner Schuler constituent) sacrifices none of the depth and focus of her previous work.

With a plot following a group of German construction workers in Bulgaria, the film is in some ways far removed from the vast plains and Monument Valley iconography we identify with the Hollywood western tradition, while at the same time wringing out several key themes with a distinctly feminist cloth. In Western, as with the actual westward settlement of the Americas, ideas of progress are wrapped in toxic masculinity and xenophobia. Updated to the present European Union, such concerns are amplified by an awareness of inequitable contemporary flows of populations and capital.

The clarity of the film’s construction, predominantly featuring classical compositions and editing, belies the deep ambiguities lying beneath the surfaces of the characters and their interactions. Chief among them is the slow-burn pas de deux between brash construction boss Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) and the film’s protagonist Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), an outsider among his countrymen seemingly able to ingratiate himself with the locals as he continues to test the limits of such receptiveness.

Filmmaker spoke with Valeska Grisebach about the setting and context of her exercise in genre, and the challenges of negotiating such iconic terrain.

Filmmaker: Why did you choose Bulgaria as the film’s setting? Was this always the intended locale?

Grisebach: I was very happy when I found this setting and context of German construction workers going to the east. I’d long had this Western genre fascination — a genre which tells so much about the construction of society — and had wanted for years to tell something about this diffuse xenophobia, this impulse to put oneself on a higher status. I had no idea how to do it in Germany because I was a little afraid that I’d immediately enter into this kind of “neo-nazi genre,” which has certain associations, so when I found these Germans going to the east it was perfect. For me it also has these doubling moments, where they are strangers and are confronted with their desires, mistrust and prejudice.

East Europe feels totally different from Germany, to name one example; it’s a totally different Europe. Even if the borders are open they are very real, existing borders. For example, people from Bulgaria (including people in the film scene) can’t always afford to spend a week in Berlin because it’s just too expensive. There also a lot of tension from the East directed towards the West, but there’s also another kind of tension from the West towards the East. We always have in mind here the idea of the people travelling from Bulgaria and Romania to Germany, but there are these other kinds of travel in the opposite direction. This is often in the form of business, like these big EU projects where money is given to big projects like highways or dams, very often done by firms from Germany, Austria or Italy. So this was my starting point, but at the same time I knew it shouldn’t just be a totally realistic and naturalistic film.

I was looking for some kind of border area, which creates this sort of fantasy or idea of “wilderness” — or a “fake wilderness.” For the Germans there has long been a fixation on the frontier, so we were looking for a frontier and in the beginning I was travelling to Romania, to Bulgaria, and I was very open. When I finally found this place close to the Greek border I know it was where we would shoot. In retrospect it’s interesting because the first sketch of the script I wrote was without visiting the location. It’s a little embarrassing to be honest, a bit like [German novelist] Karl May, who was writing about America without having been there. It was interesting afterwards to see how we share certain ideas about East Europe. But the travelling was very important — searching for something but at the same time very open, wandering around and hoping to experience something…and then you stay. But this is something I’m always interested in, this combination or contrasts between an idea, fiction and then some kind of reality.

Filmmaker: Can you say a bit more about these EU infrastructure projects and how you chose to focus on certain elements? Interestingly, the film is produced by Maren Ade, whose own Toni Erdmann also deals with Germans working on construction projects in Eastern Europe, though while hers is seen through the white-collar administrative side yours is centred on the actual construction workers. It’s one of the less direct connections to the classical Western genre and the American westward expansion — with a certain imperialism masquerading under the guise of benevolence and development — but an extremely rich one.

Grisebach: Big European films apply for EU projects supported by EU money, but only the wealthy countries can really afford it because these application documents are so complicated. Firms from West Europe have much more experience and capability to complete these applications, as it’s not only about knowledge. Last year there was one big highway project in Bulgaria and there were firms from Austria, Italy, and then some sub-firms that do come from Bulgaria. The film is a bit ambivalent about it all, as sometimes German firms come back and can’t believe the amount of corruption in Bulgaria.

In terms of focusing on construction, that was in part a way to find this old fashioned masculinity. It is very important when I start a project that I don’t have a strong story — it’s more like I have an interest or a question, and sometimes a very abstract construction. Then I try to find a surface for the story. So everything goes hand in hand: the research, the casting, and writing. In the beginning I started to do interviews with men — later also with women — about the Western moments in their daily life. At the same time I also knew there would be a man on a horse and I was looking for some iconic signs for the film. I took these personal pin-up moments to the street and was looking around for men: “Where are the men I can imagine on a horse?” I started to ask them if we could meet and very soon I ended up with the men on the construction site because of their body language, the tools on their belt, etc. I was really fascinated by this quite old-fashioned form of masculinity, where women are very absent but also very present, because there is so much talk about women. This was one step to the construction site.

Filmmaker: You mentioned Karl May, and I was curious to ask you about what seems like a particularly rich and longstanding fascination with the West and the Western as a genre in Germany. Do you know why this might be?

Grisebach: I couldn’t say exactly, but it perhaps has something to do with German Romanticism. There are these romantic ideas of nature and of the stranger, this desire to be somewhere else and experience things from another perspective. Also, I don’t know if it’s like this in France, but in Germany there are all these “Indian clubs” and imagery. In the DDR, for example, there were a lot of these clubs — a wild mix of Western iconography, cowboys, all in combination with nudist FKK (Freikörperkultur, or Free Body Culture) people.

In Europe we also have these myths of the “Wild East.” This was maybe 15 years ago, and it’s still a bit more wild than the West. But there are these legends and for me it’s very interesting, as there are forms of storytelling in so many countries that cover distances or move in reverse directions — we know so much without knowing it. When we meet with someone from another country it’s interesting what subtext informs the encounter. All these legends and perspectives are very interesting to me.

Filmmaker: Can you speak a little bit about how you went about deploying certain tropes from the genre, and how literal you chose to make them? There are hints of the saloon, the showdown and so on, but some are more oblique than others.

Grisebach: For me it was a dance with the genre, and it was clear from the beginning that the film shouldn’t be too aesthetically aligned with the Western with Cinemascope framing etc.. With this film I wasn’t so interested in these dominant concepts — I wanted to be very close to the content, but then sometimes open up the images to the realm of the Western and pursue certain shot/reverse shot constructions. I was maybe more interested in the subtexts, like what does the duel stand for, and from there creating relationships or ambivalences around the duel: It’s something that’s attractive and promise some adventure, where you’re fighting for something, and where you have a certain desire. There is also a tension, where you think that you should look into the eyes of the other while having to defend yourself.

It was always trial and error to see how many of these generic signs can the film balance and what is too much. Connected to this there was a challenge of finding the ideal staging, because for me it had a lot to do with framing of the face, where there is a lot of emotion behind it. Likewise, there is a lot of emotion in two people crossing each other on a street. The showdown was a challenge for me, because I had to confront how forceful the genre was; I was like, “I have to have a showdown.” When I imagined a showdown it always included these close-ups, but then at some point I realized that really the showdown was about something else: that these two German men share something, including an expectation that life owed them an adventure. They have this ambivalence and this desire, where they don’t want to come too close to each other or to a stranger in general.

When Meinhard played the role I explained to him that he is like Walt Disney: you can invent yourself, you can be a legionnaire, you can tell everyone anything about yourself but at some point there’s a break, and he shows his weakness. I think this happens in the in the end, when he’s lying on the ground. He’s feeling shame and he could just hide, but when he comes back it really becomes the first chance for a sincere contact.

For me this was a very strong part of the genre, and I think this is wonderful. I think the Western genre again and again — often in very modern ways — asks questions about society: how much responsibility we want to take for somebody else, how much we want to be in or outside of society, about the survival of the fittest or certain laws of empathy. As much as it deals with traditional topics, I think it’s a very modern genre in a way.

Filmmaker: Were there any particular inspirations you were working with?

Grisebach: I was really a Western junkie when I was working on it. It’s funny now, because when people ask me I find they all blend together. There were for sure some films, like Winchester ’73 by Anthony Mann, because James Stewart is like a normal guy — his brother is a real gunfighter but he’s a real normal guy who is a little seduced by this revenge. The Gunfighter by Henry King as well, which is again about these myths and this legend of a fighter who wants to return to his normal life and doesn’t succeed because the myth sticks to him.

Also, from literature, there is a novel by Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim. This book is always travelling me with, and it’s important in a way because you have these characters, including a young man who is always dreaming about his adventures, but when there is a moment in which he could have an adventure he doesn’t have the bravery. It’s terrible, but this was very informative for me for the character of Meinhard. There is this ambivalence, where he looks like a leader and is elegant in a way, but he’s actually quite small with his opportunistic feelings.

Filmmaker: How much of the script was developed in collaboration with the actors?

Grisebach: Not so much. It was more collaborative in the period in which we’re shooting. There is a script but its always in movement, and I’m always writing the day before. The moments of interaction when we rehearse before we shoot are very important, when the actors learn the script and work with it, to see what is or isn’t working. Some things are very fixed, while others are quite flexible.

In this film it was the first time I brought something private into a movie, which is the brother scene between Meinhard and Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), the man from the village. I always saw them, when I wrote the story, like brothers in some sort of romantic projection. They are not brothers, they’re strangers, but when Meinhard [the actor] was in Bulgaria I learned that he lost a brother. We talked a lot about it and I thought at one point that we should bring it into the film, this pain and longing. We discussed it with him and Adrian, and then we shot it very quickly. It was very important for the film, because I was always looking for this intimate moment where the men can try to come close … and they come close, but it’s a bit of an illusion.

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