“These villages are like time travel,” Victor (Reinhardt Wetrek) tells Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) as they drive around a small town in Bulgaria early on in Valeska Grisebach’s “Western,” unaware of how accurate he actually is. While his words are dismissive, consigning the dusty rural locale where the water needs to be rationed to the past with the knowledge that he represents the future to some degree – in town to help build a hydroelectric power plant, Victor, in his obliviousness towards the locals, is painfully of the present, riding in like so many others throughout history with a sense of superiority over a culture he has no desire to assimilate into.
This isn’t the case, however, with the soft-spoken Meinhard, who understands Victor as much in his native tongue as he does with Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), a pillar in the community who speaks no German, but starts to bond with the construction worker after Meinhard finds his horse out in the wild. The connection proves critical at first since the locals aren’t initially welcoming of the Germans and the construction crew led by Victor does more damage than actual building, depleting the village’s water supply and leering at the local women in the pond. But as little trust as there is between the two sides, Meinhard ingratiates himself to the Bulgarians through his gentility, seen as weakness by most of his brusque German peers.
Grisebach doesn’t lean too heavily into the allusions cast by the film’s title, but there’s a little bit of Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart — stoic men known to tip their hat to a lady — in Meinhard, who despite the construction worker garb cuts a dashing profile, and what gives “Western” its considerable torque is how she places him in a tradition of outsider cowboy heroes, yet expands the notion of the frontier – once being the American West, holding the promise of unsettled land, to a globalized economy where despair fills the open range as every acre seems to belong to someone, or rather something. As a struggle to survive has commenced with resources pulled out of local economies to be put into the pockets of unseen multinational corporations, the need to hold onto cultural identity seems stronger than ever — realized by both the Bulgarians and the Germans in “Western” — and at the same time, threatened to be diminished by the same homogenizing forces that are meant to bring efficiency to the marketplace, if little concern for the human element of the equation.
That Meinhard isn’t deeply invested in either culture makes him a particularly fascinating figure to throw into the mix, often seen following his whims and luxuriating in the unknown wonders the world still holds for him, which makes it all the more crushing when he returns to civilization where trivial matters can quickly escalate into full-blown culturally-charged conflagrations. Although the characters onscreen learn all too well how being unaware of history they’re doomed to repeat it, the writer/director takes what she knows to boldly capture a time when it seems like descriptors like east and west may be on the precipice of collapse in all of the unexpectedly good and bad implications that that has.