The Cowboy Way:
An Interview with Valeska Grisebach (Western)
by Matthew Eng
Guns are drawn, damsels courted, and stallions mounted in Valeska Grisebach’s Western, even though the film, the eagerly awaited follow-up to her 2006 breakthrough Longing, defies easy genre classifications at every turn. A subtle, awe-inspiring cross-cultural character portrait, Western dramatizes the tensions between a crew of rambunctious German contractors and the tight-knit Bulgarian villagers whose expansive countryside is in the process of being disrupted and industrialized by the former faction. When Meinhard, a maverick worker whose body and mind are mapped out with extraordinary, hard-edged finesse by the spindly, dour-eyed newcomer Meinhard Neumann, enters the scene, he wanders smack dab into the middle of a war between the two working-class communities, striking up a friendship with Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), a diplomatic local stone supplier, much to the envy of Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), his outfit’s boorish, alpha male leader.
Grisebach has populated her unpredictable, slow-burning narrative with flesh-and-blood characters who also function as political symbols. This is a film about ingrained prejudice and the permeability of borders, broached with skillful obliqueness by each and every member of her ensemble. The tenuous alliances and calculated betrayals that emerge during Meinhard’s stay in Bulgaria would not seem to closely mirror the grim gunslingers and upstanding frontiersmen of American westerns. Instead, the writer-director places Western in dialogue with this time-honored genre by allowing her vivid assortment of weathered, world-weary men to boldly and vulnerably inhabit the conflicted emotional places—the quiet yearning for home, connection, and companionship—that cinematic cowboys have always occupied but seldom made explicit.
While Grisebach was in New York for Western’s American premiere at the 55th New York Film Festival, I talked with her about deconstructing the western in a polyglot European milieu, collaborating with nonprofessional actors, and the benefits of leaving oneself open to surprises during filming.
Reverse Shot: Western is such a brilliant re-envisioning of the western, arguably the most American of all cinematic genres. I’m curious about what the western tradition means to you as both a filmmaker and filmgoer from another part of the world.
Valeska Grisebach: For me, [the western] was a very special and interesting and cozy experience as a little girl because I was growing up in West Berlin, in the American sector [laughs]. I was watching a lot of westerns with my father, and that was something I shared with a whole generation. At this time, I was just fascinated by the setting on the border that separates wilderness from society, and all these decisions between bad and good. And I really identified with these cowboys on horses who were searching for something and making decisions about whether they wanted to be a part of society or not. At some point, I realized, maybe when I was a little bit older, how oppressively male this genre was. It was very interesting to look at these westerns as a girl. I once talked to a friend who’s also a director and she told me that, when she was a kid she would fall in love with the male heroes, but at the same time she would identify with them. That was a bittersweet experience.
I felt very at home in westerns. Even though it’s such an American genre, I think Europeans also internalized it and know a lot about it because there are such intense and romantic motifs and themes, especially that desire to search for something, that feeling that life owes you some adventure or freedom or independence. Sometimes society is not yelling for you [and] you have to decide your own law. Maybe it’s the law of empathy or the law of who is the fittest or strongest. For me, what was very interesting to explore in Western was the idea of masculinity through this duel happening between these two men. It was also interesting to show these two faces that are not allowed to show emotions, even though there are a lot of emotions behind them. I wanted to come closer to the western genre by exploring masculinity and reflecting on the construction of society. What does it mean be part of a society, to be in or out or ambivalent?
RS: What are some of your favorite westerns?
VG: Winchester ’73 is so exciting. I was always interested in these male figures who weren’t just cool, “gangster” cowboys. In this film, James Stewart is this guy who was maybe just a farmer’s boy, but by looking for revenge he gets a taste of new feelings. There’s this one night scene where he’s sitting by a fire and his buddy asks him if he can return to his old life because he has now had these new experiences. He’s maybe a little addicted to these new feelings of revenge and adventure. The film also has this figure of a “coward” [played by Charles Drake] who doesn’t fit into the system. When there’s an attack by Native Americans, he runs away and leaves his fiancée alone there with the Native Americans. And [his cowardice] is a fate he can’t escape in the story, so by the end he has to die because he was such a coward. Also, Henry King’s The Gunfighter, which is about a famous gunfighter who wants to come home but cannot and, in a way, has to die. It’s centered around this ambivalent moment of searching for a kind of freedom that is connected to violence, while also searching for a home you cannot return to. Also, Stagecoach! I think I’ve always related to older westerns.
RS: When did you initially think up the concept for Western? How did its basic narrative take shape?
VG: I started working on Western five or six years ago, but it was more of an abstract thing. The very process of research is like writing for me. Everybody’s researching, but I don’t really like to be alone in a room all the time. It’s always very exciting to go outside and confront the story with reality as your partner. So, I went for research and created subtexts for the story, and find out its construction and mechanism. And then I tried to find the setting and scenes and surface of the story. It was very important for me to find the setting of German construction workers in another country, this double moment in which they’re strangers and have to deal with desire and xenophobia. I knew at the beginning of writing the film that I wanted to focus on this intense xenophobia, which can be found everywhere, not just Germany. But I was interested in something between the lines, not these very offensive moments of xenophobia, but these more delicate ones.
RS: I understand that you ultimately shot the film using a treatment, as opposed to a more traditional screenplay. I would never have guessed this considering how deliberate and particular the dialogue feels in the final version, specifically in the dual-language conversations between the workers and the townspeople.
VG: There was a screenplay. I write in a conventional way, but it just doesn’t look like a normal screenplay. I try to be very precise and to create scenarios and dialogues. But sometimes I know that [these are] only [suggestions]. There’s time transformation when I come into contact with the real places and you’re finally working with the actors. For instance, I don’t want the actors to read [from] the script because I think it’s not so good when they’re trying to learn the dialogue. It’s much more interesting to talk about the scenes and the dialogue with the actors. There’s this kind of transformation through contact. So, I wrote a script, and every night I would rewrite the scenes before the shoot. But I didn’t look to the script so much and that allowed me to re-memorize and improvise and find new ways of telling.
RS: Does this scaled-back approach allow you a certain freedom during production?
VG: When everything is planned, I really start to get nervous. [Laughs] It’s very important that my actors and I have these interactions that are happening in this moment about this situation.
RS: When did you decide to use only nonprofessional actors and how did you ultimately assemble this ensemble?
VG: It was quite clear in the beginning. I adore actors, but it really depends on the project and the materials that the film should be made of. But I am always so fascinated by the very simple process of material, light, and the face; this very simple physical moment with the body. And I thought, I can’t direct ten actors as construction workers—it’s impossible. There’s something written in the bodies, there’s something in the language. Even if I made the dialogue as real as possible, there’s some very special power in the construction site. And I was going to film in Bulgaria. I’m not from Bulgaria. I can’t write Bulgarian dialogue. I could have offered to, but I wanted to develop and experience and lose control. To do this, it was clear that I needed the support of the nonprofessional actors, from both Bulgaria and Germany.
RS: Meinhard Neumann is such an astonishing discovery. He has a face made to be captured on film, but this is his first time acting. Your collaboration with him is probably the most important component of Western, since the camera is essentially locked on him for nearly every second. What did this partnership entail and how did you make him comfortable enough in front of the camera to elicit this magnificent performance?
VG: I think it was really a question of time, because I met him near the beginning of my research and writing. I saw him around Berlin. It was a horse market, but he wasn’t close to the horses; he was just selling old stuff. And he was so iconic; it was really just a shock to see him. It’s like he jumped out of an old western and went into our film. But then I really took my time casting and rehearsing so that he felt comfortable with the camera. He’s really like a dancer. For years, he worked at amusement parks. And he really has a feeling for poses. He knows that people are looking at him. And I say he’s really like a dancer because he could always perfectly remember the choreography of a scene. I think, for him, it was harder to trust his language. He was very shy with words… He also has a very strong relationship with women. When he’s working with a woman, he’s very open and open to change. But within time, I think he felt like he could trust us. We talked a lot, although sometimes he was the one who didn’t really want to know so much. With Syuleyman and Reinhardt, I could totally talk about everything. But Meinhard always told me, “Please, don’t tell me everything! I need these kinds of surprises.” Normally, that is not so much my style. But I didn’t reveal surprises and I didn’t tell him so much before the day of shooting, so that it would be like a fresh situation for him.
RS: The film is clearly dominated by men, but I was intrigued by the townswomen in the film, particularly the characters played by Veneta Fragnova and Vyara Borisova, who draw out an unexpected vulnerability from Meinhard during their scenes with him. They also each fulfill a symbolic function that harkens back to—yet also subverts—the more conventional depictions of women as wives and conquests in westerns. How were these characters conceived?
VG: Ever since the beginning, when I decided to tackle these classical situations, I realized, in a way a little bit like an exam, that, okay, maybe now I have to reflect upon the women in the western. And I realized that [the western] is a very strong genre; when it’s more about the female perspective or focused on the topic of female figures, it’s another film. I couldn’t put everything in one film. And for me, at some point, I realized I was really interested in the male figures of the film. But I also knew the women behind them were very important. [Veneta] is really a kind of projection, a romantic ideal. He thinks, I could live here; this is maybe the place where I could arrive. She stands in for this fantasy of a found place where he could live and be happy. But at the same time, there is this conquering, this little business duel with Vincent. And he destroys himself—or this idea of himself—because he decides to have sex with Vyara to hurt Vincent. But then he also hurts himself.
RS: There’s a classical majesty to some of your outdoor and landscape shots that directly recalls the iconography of the frontier in westerns. But for the most part the camera seems almost observational. Bernhard Keller’s cinematography is somewhat documentary-like in this way. How did you two develop Western’s visual language?
VG: It was important that there was not too much pressure on the aesthetic concept. From the beginning, we decided it should be really simple. Not elegant, but simple. And not straight to the point, either. It forced us to really think, what is the content? What is our perspective on the scenery? What is helpful to the subtext of the scene? We didn’t want to take too much from classical western aesthetics, like the wide shots. I think this was very important. And sometimes we would use a stable camera to open these western rooms through shot/reverse shot. It was clear from the beginning that the landscape also plays a role, but not too much so because then it’s like too much butter on the bread. It should be simple. Bernhard Keller and I talked about the context and subtext that could be revealed through the lens. And sometimes we would make some bigger visual decisions. In the morning, before we shot, I would do some sketches of the images and we’d talk about them and try them. It’s really trial-and-error. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t work.
RS: Maren Ade served as a producer on Western, and you’re credited as a script consultant on Toni Erdmann, which I think, like your film, represents a vision unlike anything else we’ve seen in contemporary cinema. How did this professional relationship come about?
VG: There are a group of filmmakers in Berlin who are colleagues and friends and often interact with each other. I really adore Maren’s work. When she writes something, I read it. When I write something, she reads it. It’s very pragmatic. There are people you trust and it’s not about ego or competition. They help you figure out how something works, because it’s not so easy and you need this kind of mirror, even in the montage process, when we are editing. Or sometimes, when I’m casting, I’ll call a friend up and ask her to help me decide between two actors. You can call it friendship, and that’s true of Maren. We don’t necessarily talk so much about private things. It’s a film friendship, which is great. For me, it was especially great because Maren has this wonderful production company [Komplizen Film] that she runs with others. She knew my films before Western and she told me that she wanted to work with me. She said, “I don’t mind what you do.” It was just kind of a handshake. And that was very fantastic.
RS: Not unlike Toni Erdmann, your film examines the tensions that have resulted from Germany’s ever-expansive capitalist presence in southeastern Europe. How did this conflict transform throughout the course of the film’s production?
VG: When I was thinking about making a western, I always thought it should deal with the fear of the stranger and how close we are willing to come to someone or something we don’t know. In Germany, we have this kind of neo-Nazi genre in film and TV where [a character] doesn’t like people from other countries. It’s a very typical film in Germany. And I thought, I can’t do this. I was immediately in this German genre. But then I found the setting of German construction workers in another country where they have to deal with different emotions and desires. They want to get in touch but, at the same time, they have these prejudgments and mistrusts. And they are themselves strangers, arriving somewhere with their big machines and different knowledge. And I thought that balance was clearly more interesting. We have such different Europes. To be in Germany feels totally different than it does to be in Bulgaria. When I was scouting locations, I was traveling back and forth between Romania and Bulgaria, and then I decided on Bulgaria because the landscape creates this pseudo-wilderness. There’s an idea that there is this adventure waiting for [one] there.
I love this idea of Europe, and I think it’s very important for me and a lot of other people. But, at the same time, it’s very fragile. In a way, I really believe in this contact. Some of the most important scenes in the film are those interactions between Adrian and Meinhard, because they’re about two countries trying to get in touch with another.