The oddest thing about Western (2017), the third feature film by the German director Valeska Grisebach after Mein Stern (Be My Star, 2001) and Sehnsucht (Longing, 2006), is its title. Borrowing neither an original English title nor using the German translation of a specific western, the film employs only the generic term. One might expect this European film, a co-production of Germany, Bulgaria, and Austria that premiered at the Cannes film festival in the Un Certain Regard section, to share many characteristics with the western genre. But does it? 1 I am inclined to respond both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Let’s start with the latter answer.
In the past, many European westerns were set in the American West, even though they were usually shot in the south of Spain (by the Italians) or in the former Yugoslavia (by Germans). By contrast, Grisebach’s feature takes place in Petrelik, a village in the rough mountains of Bulgaria, not far from the border with Greece. Its few landscape shots may slightly resemble the American West, but none of the film’s characters ever pretends it is (like) America. Moreover, since the film is about a group of German construction workers who have been hired to build a hydroelectric power plant, the main characters have gone east, the opposite direction a western protagonist traditionally takes. What’s more, the best example of a simpleton from Texas who goes east in a cowboy outfit is Joe Buck (Jon Voight) from Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969). Buck thinks that the women in New York will fancy a tough stud, but he is shocked to discover that he is terribly out of place in the Big Apple. ‘That great, big cowboy crap of yours,’ his vagabond-buddy Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) tells him, ‘is strictly for fags.’ Whereas a cowboy is conventionally seen as a hero of the Great Plains, Buck comes to realize that he is taken as a queer fish in an urban environment. Because his appearance as a ‘longhorn bull’ meets ironic glances only, Midnight Cowboy had better be labeled as an anti-western.
Despite the ‘Eastern’ elements, it makes sense to interpret Grisebach’s Western against the background of this genre. If we restrict ourselves to the main character, Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), one of the construction workers, he is not, strictly speaking, a cowboy. But we will see this taciturn, mustachioed stranger tame a white horse, use a knife and a gun, drink alcohol, win at poker in a bar with the locals, and walk through an inhospitable landscape. And, perhaps most importantly, in his (attempts at) conversations with the Bulgarians, Meinhard hints that he had once joined the Foreign Legion and perhaps even has killed someone—but he prefers to keep silent, so we do not know for sure if this is true. Hence, his past is shrouded in mystery, just as many a cowboy is assumed to have a history of violence about which he discloses little. So in terms of both the protagonist’s routines and iconography, the film recalls at least some conventions of the western. But just to note these similarities is hardly significant, and in this article, I set myself the task of making the generic references meaningful. On the one hand, I will read Western as an ‘unacknowledged remake’ of the American film Run of the Arrow (Samuel Fuller, 1957), bearing in mind that this title would have been even odder for Grisebach’s feature because there are neither runs nor bows nor arrows. On the other hand, I will suggest that the actual title, in spite of its oddity, has the advantage of privileging images over story.
Homages, true remakes, and non-remakes
Following the argument of Thomas Leitch’s influential article ‘Twice-Told Tales,’ it is common to distinguish between homages and true remakes. 2 The homage is meant to pay tribute to a film rather than usurp its place of honour. 3 Despite some transformations and a more subversive ending, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu, the Vampyre) (Werner Herzog, 1979) follows so closely the visual design – costumes, performance style, camera angles – of Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror) (F.W. Murnau, 1922) that the main purpose seems to gloss the primary text. 4 The true remake, on the contrary, presupposes a competitive relation to a previous version, presenting the new film as just like its model, only better. The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, 1999) is a good example, because its added theme of ‘repressed homosexuality’ is offered as a motivation for Tom Ripley’s (Matt Damon) behaviour, which is missing from both the novel of the same title (1955) by Patricia Highsmith and Plein Soleil (Purple Noon, 1960), the adaptation by French director René Clement starring Alain Delon. Thus Minghella’s remake presents itself as an improved and updated version. Or, paraphrasing the amused scorn of Slavoj Žižek: The Talented Mr. Ripley fills in the gaps of both the literary source and the previous adaptation, similar to the ridiculous assumption that the one-armed Venus of Milo would be a better artwork if the sculpture had two arms. 5
Leitch’s taxonomy, albeit influential, has been criticised as too restrictive a paradigm, as if there were basically a choice between admiration and competition. Moreover, Leitch focuses on textual relations as a given: the more recent film has the same or a similar title to its predecessor, whether credited or not; the film is based on the same novel as a precursor film. To acknowledge that the categorisation of the remake is a much greyer area than Leitch would have it, several in-between terms and strategies have been proposed. Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991) is indisputably an acknowledged remake of Lee. J. Thompson’s thriller of the same name (1962), for it even cast the earlier film’s actors Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, and Martin Balsam in minor parts and recycled Bernard Hermann’s score. But what if, in a comparative analysis, a critic like Lesley Stern invokes a third film, suggesting that Scorsese’s film is as much a remake of The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955) as its more obvious namesake? 6 Taking the validity of Stern’s act of interpretation into account, one can add two categories to Leitch’s list. First, the non-remake, which according to Constantine Verevis ‘may have more in common with the narrative attributes of a genre or production cycle than with a particular precursor text.’ 7 Judging from the title, Western, alluding to a generic pattern rather than a specific model, seems an exemplary non-remake; Grisebach herself has called it a ‘dance’ with the western genre. 8 Second, in the case of an unacknowledged remake, the critic points out that allusions to a specific precursor take precedence. 9 Just as Stern reads Scorsese’s Cape Fear in tandem with The Night of the Hunter, I will regard Western to be an unacknowledged remake of Samuel Fuller’s Run of the Arrow.
Run of the Arrow
Fuller’s Run of the Arrow starts with the surrender of the Confederacy, ending the American Civil War in 1865. Frustrated by the peace treaty, the white infantryman O’Meara (Rod Steiger) expresses his discontent with civilisation and refuses to recognise the national flag of the United States. Wanting to be an outsider (‘I am a rebel because I want to be’), he decides to go to the Far West, since the ‘savages have more pride than us.’ On the road, he meets the old army scout Walking Coyote (Jay C. Flippen), who teaches him some customs of the Sioux. While reading a track, O’Meara tells Walking Coyote that he cannot see any Indians, the scout responds: ‘When you can’t see them, they are looking at you.’ The scout is immediately proved right: having failed to notice the Sioux, the white man is caught by surprise from behind, and he and his companion must surrender to a group of young warriors.
After the Indians have bound Walking Coyote and O’Meara, the former knows their fate has been sealed: they will be tortured to death. So he challenges the Sioux to submit them instead to the ‘run of the arrow,’ a barefoot race against a group of pursuing warriors that is virtually impossible to win. No one, in fact, has ever survived it, but the game at least holds the slimmest theoretical promise of escape. Walking Coyote’s physical condition is so compromised that he indeed dies during the run. O’Meara miraculously survives. What the Indians do not know is that he had received help from Yellow Moccasin (Sarita Montiel), who had hidden him under animal skins. As a token of respect for his achievement, chief Blue Buffalo (Charles Bronson) accepts O’Meara as a member of the tribe. In a conversation with the chief, O’Meara says that, though he is a Christian, he considers his heart and nation to be Sioux, and he is permitted to marry Yellow Moccasin. When the Sioux later appoint him as their scout, he regards this honour as the ultimate proof of his acceptance. Commissioned by the Sioux, O’Meara will accompany white soldiers to a place within Sioux territory where the soldiers can build a fort.
Events take an unexpected turn when O’Meara’s former war enemy, Lieutenant Driscoll (Ralph Meeker), commands that the designated area be changed. While the soldiers are building the fort, O’Meara arrives as the Sioux’s representative bearing a white flag. He attempts to negotiate with Driscoll and his men and warns them of an Indian attack: the Sioux, in fact, have already assembled for battle. Driscoll, unimpressed, remarks that his lookout says that there are no Indians within sight – to which O’Meara responds, with a slight variation on Walking Coyote’s earlier phrase, ‘When you can’t see them, you are looking at them.’
Driscoll ignores O’Meara’s warning. The Sioux attack and a heated battle ensues. Knocked unconscious almost immediately, O’Meara does not participate in the fight, and recovers only after the Sioux have won and Driscoll has been made their captive. As they are about to skin the lieutenant alive, O’Meara, utterly distressed, shoots Driscoll in the head in order to save him from further torture. According to Yellow Moccasin, O’Meara’s premature execution of Driscoll reveals what the Sioux had already known: he is not a Sioux for he was not born one. After he has shot Driscoll, his wife remarks that O’Meara no longer addresses the Sioux as ‘we’ but as ‘they.’ O’Meara acknowledges the difference and, taking the American flag with him, he returns to the tribe of ‘stars and stripes,’ having experienced the shattering of an illusion. 10
In Grisebach’s Western, one of the construction workers remarks in German, once they have arrived in the barren environment of Bulgaria: ‘We can’t see them, but they can see us.’ As in Run of the Arrow, this is not meant to say that Indians or Bulgarians have better eyesight, but rather that their advantage lies in their familiarity with the space, including its obstacles and hiding places. Just as O’Meara in Fuller’s western is not entirely at ease in the wilderness, the territory of Grisebach’s film is uncanny to the Germans. The problems in Run of the Arrow start when Lieutenant Driscoll decides, out of sheer arrogance, to move the American flag to another spot than had been agreed upon with the Sioux. In Western, there is also a problem with a flag, though of a slightly different nature. The Germans have marked their designated area with their national tricolour, but early in the movie, the flag disappears. Later we discover that some local inhabitants had made it their property. They go into the small lake and make the boorish group’s foreman, Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), who wants to grab the flag, a piggy in the middle.
This playfulness can be taken as revenge for a scene at the beginning of Western: when Vyara’s hat falls into the water, Vincent thinks it an amusing game to make it difficult for the Bulgarian woman (Vyara Borisova) to get it back, but she is clearly annoyed. The teasing with the flag seems an act of vengeance, for even though none of the Bulgarian men witnessed it, they know about the incident. Rumours apparently spread quickly among the villagers: after some of them understand Meinhard has served as a soldier in the Foreign Legion, most of the local inhabitants soon know it. Much like the Indians in Fuller’s western, the Bulgarians give the impression that they possess a strong sense of community. In a conversation with Meinhard, Vyara confirms this idea of the Bulgarians’ solidarity when she says she would feel homesick were she to leave the village. By contrast, Meinhard wonders what homesickness entails: he is single and has lost his brother; he has no sentiments for his home country, and thus his service as a legionnaire is hardly surprising. Though Meinhard has arrived as a member of a group of construction workers from Germany, it will gradually become clear that he is an outcast among them. His colleagues have at least some attachment to their German identity, or perhaps they pretend to have it in order to remain in their leader Vincent’s good graces. The foreman attaches value to the flag; Meinhard hears him make phone calls back home; Vincent is only here to see his job through for the benefit of his German commissioning company. When Meinhard tells him that there are local rules about the distribution of water, Vincent deliberately violates them, to the embarrassment of Meinhard, who, after an exploratory period, is on good terms with the Bulgarians – at least, that is his perception.
Most critics have mentioned the casual narration of Western and have emphasised its mixture of scripted dialogue and improvisation: with its non-professional cast, the film is an ‘almost documentary-like feature that slowly builds’ 11, shot in an ‘off-hand, observational style’ 12 with an ‘unintrusive, largely handheld camera.’ 13 Since Grisebach’s film presents us primarily with anecdotes and situations rather than a tightly constructed story, a sense of impending doom prevails. Western has a menacing atmosphere, throughout. We never stop presupposing that something bad will happen to Meinhard. After his compatriots have left him to his own devices in the night, will it be safe for Meinhard to accept a ride from the Bulgarians? Yes: though they talk about him in their native tongue, they drop him off at the German compound. Will Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov) be angry that Meinhard has climbed his horse as if it were his? No: they become close friends. When no one knows that Vincent is to blame for the horse’s agony after a fall, will Adrian hold Meinhard responsible? No: he just takes Meinhard with him when he delivers the animal from its pain, but then his German friend offers to shoot the beloved steed – which is slightly reminiscent of O’Meara’s shooting of the lieutenant when he cannot bear to watch Driscoll’s suffering. When the teenager Wanko (Kevin Bashev), Adrian’s nephew, suddenly jumps on Meinhard, is this an attempt to hurt him? No: it seems a failed prank. Will Kostadin (Kostadin Kerenchev) take violent revenge after he has fruitlessly asked that the money he’s lost at poker be returned? No: because when Meinhard is assaulted behind the trees, outside our field of vision, it turns out that three of his colleagues want to teach him a lesson. But a bit later he is hit by one of the Bulgarians while other villagers stand by, shown to us at a distance. The attacker refers to their women, but are the locals aware that Meinhard has been kissing Vyara, and if so, how do they know? Regardless of his friendly smile, it sounds ominous when Adrian tells Meinhard: ‘This is a village. Anything can happen here.’ The editing underscores that we never quite know what to expect next. The focus is usually on a character, shown in medium close-up, but there is often a quite imperceptible shift from one group to another: suddenly Meinhard, or Vincent, is among not his peers but the Bulgarians. James Lattimer describes the editing and framing as part of a ‘deliberate act of disorientation’: because the camera jumps around among different angles, one group’s interaction can ‘segue seamlessly into those of the other.’
The paradoxical problem for Meinhard is that because he is the foreigner whom the locals respect most, his compatriots distrust him. In this regard, Meinhard is unlike the classical western hero, who usually can cross the frontier between wilderness and civilisation at will. The traditional cowboy is seen as a man who can roam the prairie and liberate society from evil as well. As such, he represents the best of both worlds. He owes this status to his narrative positioning: he excels as a loner and an outsider. He is presented to us via the benevolent looks of other characters, who are impressed by his tough appearance. In some westerns from the late 1940s and early 1950s, we see the focus start to change. The cowboy, once an outwardly insensible man of action, is now a man of action who has psychic troubles: haunted by a trauma from his youth in Pursued (Raoul Walsh, 1947), craving for revenge that borders on the obsessive in Winchester ’73 (Anthony Mann), suffering under the pressure that comes with the acknowledgement of being the fastest gun alive in The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950), or experiencing the frustration about the ingratitude of town’s citizens in High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). From these transitional westerns onwards, the cowboy develops into a hero with psychological motivations. No longer the inscrutable king of the frontier, he is now torn between wilderness and civilisation. His ambivalence is famously illustrated in the final shot of The Searchers (John Ford, 1956). Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is well versed in the customs of the Comanches even as he hates them obsessively. When he brings his niece back to civilization, this is celebrated as a happy ending, but not by him. He has repressed his wild nature to such an extent that though he cannot live among Indians, he is too wild to step over the threshold of the Jorgensen residence: he is doomed to an existence of drifting.
O’Meara from Run of the Arrow represents the other side of the coin: he dearly wants to side with the Sioux, but he will come to experience that he is not one of them. He cannot deny the fact that he has been bred as a white man after all. Fuller articulates this insight in a cinematic manner. During the battle between the Sioux and the Americans, O’Meara is unconscious while an American soldier lies over him. When O’Meara rises, still dizzy, we see a subjective shot. The camera swings unsteadily and produces blurry contours. It is clear that O’Meara fails to see the ruthless superiority of the ‘natives.’ He does not witness their brutal violence, but sees only its outcome. The shaky, out-of-focus subjective shot becomes a sign of O’Meara’s restricted frame of mind. He identifies with the Sioux insofar as they conform to his preferred idea of the ‘noble savage.’ They encompass this idea as soon as they are provoked into battle and show themselves off as ‘brute savages.’ Their intention to cruelly torture the evil Lieutenant Driscoll is unbearable to O’Meara. And thus Run of the Arrow reveals that it can be attractive for a white man to be accepted as a member of a ‘savage’ tribe on the condition that the tribesmen curb their wildness. But what if they also unleash their brutal possibilities? In the case of O’Meara, he beats a retreat with the American flag.
Much like O’Meara, Meinhard considers the Bulgarians to be benevolent primitives who live in a ‘paradise.’ Whereas O’Meara has a low opinion of his fellow Americans, Meinhard disdains Germans or at least an arrogant German such as the bulky Vincent who regards the stay in Bulgaria as a travel ‘back in time.’ Moreover, though one old Bulgarian man (Georgi Stoychev) narrates in his native tongue to a non-understanding Meinhard how the ‘elegant and proper’ Germans outsmarted the Greeks during the Second World War, Maria who runs a kiosk (Maria Prokopova) holds contempt for the stranger. ‘Yes, they were here once, but …’ and then she stops short, for she probably does not want to enter into a discussion about the ‘barbaric’ history of Nazi-Germany. This Bulgarian woman represents the attitude that Germans are to be regarded with suspicion until proved otherwise. For a while Meinhard may think that he has successfully gone ‘native’ by showing himself off as an open-minded German; but then his beating at the hands of one of the young Bulgarians gives him food for thought, especially since none of the villagers protested or interfered. At the end of the film, Meinhard returns to the party and though he is not a great dancer, he gives dancing a try before the end credits appear.
A double reading
Western consists of a relatively unconnected series of quotidian scenes, and, as Grisebach herself asserts, the ‘sense of nervousness conveyed by the editing’ 14 indicates that a constant tension lurks underneath. Though she considers the western to be a ‘very conservative genre,’ the film’s title is a ‘good, straightforward pointer’ to explore ‘existential questions in a modern way.’ If Grisebach were to think in terms of category, her Western would be a non-remake, for she claims that her film is engaged in a dialogue with the particular themes encapsulated by the genre. For my part, the analogies with Fuller’s Run of the Arrow are so irrefutable that Western is also its ‘unacknowledged remake.’ 15 If we regard Western as an (unacknowledged) remake, Fuller’s western can function as a narrative grid placed over the loose ends in Western. Meinhard may hope he can ‘go native’ all the way, but as the unfortunate fate of O’Meara has taught us, that scenario has its limits: ultimately, Meinhard will be disillusioned.
But though the references to Run of the Arrow that I have pinpointed evoke convincing echoes, they are not, we should note, acknowledged. When thinking of westerns, as Grisebach observes, we think of certain ‘images’ rather than a specific plot. She herself is delighted with the moment when Meinhard is smoking a cigarette on the porch because this is a spitting image of the iconic Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946). 16 Because the film uses a generic term for a title, Grisebach’s Western to a certain extent escapes the shackles of a story arc, including its cause-and-effect trajectories. Western offers us, to quote Kalman, storytelling ‘as-it-goes,’ giving the impression that this ‘western’ scenario was ‘discovered rather than created.’ Her feature is not so much subjected to the narrative pattern of a genre film as it brings, rather, a range of generic images to mind.
In short, Western invites its viewer to engage in a double reading. One can see the film as an update of a specific title – in the case I have argued here, Run of the Arrow – filling in some gaps with story elements of this western by Fuller. One can also take Grisebach’s title Western by the letter: the film alludes to the images this utterly malleable genre recalls, thus de-emphasising its narrative potential in favour of a relatively random selection of scenes. But if the film’s anecdotal moments are not conveyed in the service of a coherent story and scheme, then this corresponds formally to the confusion of tongues among characters. In the absence of clear-cut causality, we viewers are prevented from making any easy judgements about who is to blame for the instances of misunderstanding. 17 Whereas a western conventionally puts forward a statement about the conflict between wilderness and civilisation, the viewer of Western is increasingly confused about this conflict. Meinhard is positioned as the ‘good guy,’ but some key questions linger even after the credits roll, owing to the film’s open-ended conclusion: Will his too-half-hearted attempt to ‘go native’ not add some fuel to what seems now to be no more than simmering flames? Meinhard tries to behave courteous and civilised, but will his acts not work in a counterproductive way? O’Meara ultimately decided to give up his attempt to ‘go native,’ which was his way of accepting and understanding the Sioux’s particularity. Due to the open-ended resolution of Grisebach’s film, however, we do not know whether Meinhard will draw an analogous conclusion, for, as I have tried to explain, he is very much like O’Meara, but not quite the same. 18.
- In general, Western received favourable reviews, ranking number 4 on Sight and Sound’s list of 2017’s best films. ↩
- Thomas Leitch, ‘Twice-Told Tales: The Rhetoric of the Remake.’ Literature/Film Quarterly 18, 3 (1990): 138-149. ↩
- Leitch, 144. ↩
- Lloyd Michaels, The Phantom of the Cinema: Character in Modern Film. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Chapter four is on Nosferatu, 67-82. ↩
- Slavoj Žižek, The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski between Theory and Post-Theory. London: BFI, 2001, 146-148; Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso, 1997: 24-25. ↩
- Lesley Stern, The Scorsese Connection. London: BFI, 1995, 171. ↩
- Constantine Verevis, Film Remakes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 85. ↩
- Grisebach, quoted in James Lattimer, ‘At the Frontier: Valeska Grisebach on Western,’ Cinema Scope (2017), http://cinema-scope.com/spotlight/at-the-frontier-valeska-grisebach-on-western/ ↩
- My use of the term ‘unacknowledged remake’ has to be distinguished from the category of the ‘unacknowledged, disguised remake,’ described in the seminal study by Michael B. Druxman, Make It Again, Sam! A Survey of Movie Remakes. New York: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1975, 13-15. According to Druxman, the audience is deliberately uninformed about its earlier version or versions; the makers do not want to draw attention to the existence of any original. In my use of the term, I leave open the possibility that the makers are simply unaware of (any resemblances to) the precursor text. In short, the analogies I mention are the result of my reading of the films. ↩
- For a longer analysis, see Peter Verstraten, Screening Cowboys: Reading Masculinities in Westerns. Nijmegen: Vantilt, 1999, 150-154. ↩
- Boyd van Hoeij, ‘Western: Film Review | Cannes 2017,’ The Hollywood Reporter (18 May 2007), https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/western-1004945 ↩
- Daniel Kasman, ‘Europe’s New Frontier – Valeska Grisebach’s Western,’ MUBI (21 May 2018), https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/cannes-2017-europe-s-new-frontier-valeska-grisebach-s-western ↩
- Jake Howell, ‘Western | Cannes 2017 Review,’ The Film Stage (27 May 2017), https://thefilmstage.com/reviews/western-review-valeska-grisebach/ ↩
- Grisebach, quoted in Lattimer ↩
- Other critics tend to mention parallels as well. Kasman, for one, refers to among others My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946), Claire Denis’s cine-poem Beau Travail (1999), and the ‘sublimely optimistic’ Broken Arrow (Delmer Daves, 1950). ↩
- Grisebach, quoted in Kasman. ↩
- Commenting upon the awkward communication between characters, Lattimer observes: ‘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.’ ↩
- Thanks to Eduard Cuelenaere for his comments on an earlier draft ↩