The first thing you should know is that Western is not really a western.1 

Just because a film features horses, guns and the great outdoors doesn’t mean that it’s a Western; just because it’s set in Bulgaria doesn’t mean that it’s not one.2

Western (Valeska Grisebach, 2017) is a contradiction in terms. On the surface, the film is an archetypal western, featuring a range of familiar genre tropes: a mysterious loner, a ‘land baron’, a ‘fort’ in unfamiliar territory, a village community under ‘attack’, mano-e-mano skirmishes, and conflicts over resources. Additionally, naming the film simply Western suggests a distillation of these elements. 

However, Western is not a clearcut tale featuring western-like heroes in the vein of the mythical titular character played by Alan Ladd in Shane (George Stevens, 1951) or Gary Cooper’s upstanding marshal of High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). Nor is it a comedy like the madcap antics seen in The Hallelujah Trail (John Sturges, 1965) or an excoriating takedown of the genre like Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974). Neither is it a revisionist look at the genre, like the historical myths exposed in Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970) or the story of a taciturn loner who regains his humanity like The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976). Instead, Grisebach’s film views a clash of contemporary cultures and the conflicts between tough men through a western genre prism. She takes a languorous approach, hinting at character motivations and teasing references to her film’s forebears, such as “…the Henry Fonda Clementine moment” that evokes My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946).3

One western-type film that parallels Western is Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971), which plays like the inverse of Grisebach’s film. Western presents an all-male group of German construction workers as the interlopers in a Bulgarian village, with the new arrivals viewed with suspicion by the locals. In Peckinpah’s film, Dustin Hoffman’s American intellectual is the newcomer to an English village, with a group of male builders positioned in opposition to him. However, while the simmering tension boils over into extreme violence in Peckinpah’s film, Grisebach mostly keeps things calm. Awkward and tense situations throughout Western seem like a prelude to potentially explosive conflicts, but fighting or outright hostility rarely occurs. 

Early on in Western, the Germans establish their camp outside the village and later relax by a river. The river is a liminal space, a kind of ‘no man’s land’ where both sides meet, the male workers on one side, a group of female villagers on the other. In these initial scenes of the Germans arriving, the film individuates two figures from the group, Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) and Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), the former a newcomer to the group, the latter a boss of the workers. Grisebach shows Meinhard as a wanderer, walking through – and gazing at – his surroundings, curious about the land and its inhabitants, which results in him establishing cordial relations with the villagers, notably Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov) and Veneta (Veneta Fragnova).

As Tanner Tafelski notes: 

The film concentrates on Meinhard; it is his story. He’s in a period of flux, for he is rudderless and without a home. But he’s taking a liking to the Bulgarian way of life. It’s just that Vincent is getting in his way and jeopardizing the work they are supposed to do there in the first place.4 

While Meinhard is the dreamer, Vincent is a pragmatist, there to do a job with his crew, impatient with Meinhard and mostly indifferent towards the locals, at least before he creates an ‘inciting incident’ at the river that shows him to be – and taints his coworkers as – an uncouth intrusion. Although Western initially appears to define its hero as Meinhard and villain as Vincent, Grisebach muddies the waters as the film progresses, never completely deifying Meinhard or entirely demonising Vincent.

Grisebach summarises Meinhard and Vincent thus: 

…at this point in their lives maybe they share this expectation that life owes them an adventure or something more, some emotion, or something which is missing. I think this is one thing about the conflict between the two of them, that they’re dealing with it in different ways. Vincent is more kind of aggressive and flirtatious, and Meinhard is more…I don’t know…the way he is with the horse – maybe this says something about his emotions.5 

The horse is a key element of the film: after Meinhard discovers the animal, he rides alone into the village. This image of Meinhard evokes the ‘lone gunslinger’ archetype from countless westerns and represents the gulf between Meinhard and Vincent: the former respects the mount, learns how to ride it. In contrast, Vincent clumsily tries to ride the animal over rocky terrain, with disastrous results.

Even when Vincent dunks the head of Vyara (Vyara Borisova), one of the female swimmers, under the water in the river and then later attacks Meinhard, Grisebach hints at Vincent’s discontent with his work and its effect on his personal life, which may contribute to this behaviour. Grisebach does not excuse Vincent’s actions, but nor does she just condemn him. Aside from the similarities between Meinhard and Vincent, Western also has a symmetry in its scenes. The moment when Vincent jokingly swipes Vyara’s hat at the river (which escalates into bullying) is echoed later when the German flag (erected by the Germans in their camp earlier, but which went missing), is brandished by a local man, with whom Vincent has a playful struggle in the river to retrieve it. Whereas Vincent can be arrogant and bullish, Meinhard is more reserved, a mysterious figure. In the film’s opening shot, Meinhard appears like a western hero, emerging from the landscape. While Western does not show Meinhard as an overtly mythical figure, he remains an enigma throughout. 

Aside from reconfiguring good and bad guy western archetypes, what does Western say in broader terms? Guy Lodge suggests: “Without advertising itself as such, “Western” could be viewed as a wry reflection of the European Union’s sometimes fractious present-day state — though much of its character conflict hinges on a more universal fear of the other.”6 Whilst Western is a 21st century creation, Grisebach’s film feels almost timeless: for instance, we get no explicit references to any late 2010s European politics. The film also feels rooted in the past: as well as the references to classic westerns, the village feels like a remnant of another time, a simpler way of life. 

As Grisebach notes about westerns: 

It’s such a contemplative genre, so you’re dealing with contemplative role models, but at the same time it’s so modern in reflecting questions of the society. You’re looking for this romanticism or freedom, but at the same time you’re looking to come home. Maybe Meinhard is not so much looking to be an outsider; maybe in a way he’s looking more to be an insider, a kind of projection, that this foreign society could be happier than home.7 

Perhaps Meinhard, like Alan Ladd’s Shane, is destined to pass through the world, but not be a part of it, like a 19th century western loner adrift in a 21st century world of uncertainty. 

Western (2017 Bulgaria/Germany 121 mins)

Prod Co: Komplizen Film Production, Chouchkov Brothers, Coop99, KNM, Das Kleine Fernsehspiel (ZDF), ARTE Scr: Valeska Grisebach Prod: Jonas Dornbach, Janine Jackowski, Maren Ade, Valeska Grisebach, Michel Merkt Dir: Valeska Grisebach Phot: Bernhard Keller Prod Des: Beatrice Schultz Mus: Stuart Staples

Cast: Meinhard Neumann, Reinhardt Wetrek, Syuleyman Alilov Letifov, Veneta Frangova, Vyara Borisova


  1. Daniel Witkin, “Oh, Give Me a Home…,” Reverse Shot, 30 September 2017.
  2. Jonathan Romney, “‘Western’: Cannes Review,” Screen International, 18 May 2017.
  3. Daniel Kasman, “Their Western Moment: A Conversation with Valeska Grisebach,” MUBI Notebook, 27 May 2017.
  4. Tanner Tafelski, “Review: Something New From Something Old – Valeska Grisebach’s ‘Western’,” MUBI Notebook, 15 February 2018.
  5. Daniel Kasman, “Their Western Moment: A Conversation with Valeska Grisebach,” MUBI Notebook, 27 May 2017.
  6. Guy Lodge, “Film Review: ‘Western’,” Variety, 19 May 2017.
  7. Jordan Cronk, “Interview: Valeska Grisebach,” Film Comment, 23 May 2017.

About The Author

Martyn Bamber has previously written for Senses of Cinema and is a contributor to the book: Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium: 1964–1999.

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