Custody of a white horse is one of several bones of contention between Bulgarian locals and visiting German laborers in Valeska Grisebach’s “Western,” a dispute that takes on the most classic symbolic dimension of the traditional oater: Does he who rides the white horse also get to be the good guy? That’s one of several oblique ways in which the eponymous genre improbably bleeds into this quietly involving culture-clash drama, down to its lone-wolf protagonist (Meinhard Neumann): a strong, mostly silent stranger whose incursions into the Bulgarian community set masculine tensions flaring on both sides. A welcome return for writer-helmer Grisebach, ending the too-long hiatus that followed 2006’s heart-piercing “Longing,” “Western” lacks that film’s emotional force, but it’s a sharp, expertly slow burn; discerning distributors should saddle up.
Maren Ade may be among the film’s producers, though even if she weren’t, “Western” would make an illuminating companion piece to Ade’s 2016 Cannes sensation “Toni Erdmann.” Though the films are tonally and narratively disparate, both examine Germany’s business presence in Eastern Europe (Bulgaria here, Romania in Ade’s film) with a keen, jaundiced eye to the brittle political discord left in its wake. 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.
In the case of chief cowboy figure Meinhard, he’s regarded with equally distrustful curiosity by foreigners and compatriots alike. The newest and least gregarious member in a team of German construction men, sent to a remote green patch of rural Bulgaria to build a modern water power plant, he’s an able, aloof worker less fazed than his colleagues about resistance from the local villagers — as a former legionnaire, with service in Afghanistan and Africa under his belt, this job presents no particular hardship to him. Heading up a compelling cast of non-professionals — drawn largely from the blue-collar sector shared by their characters — Neumann plays Meinhard with the tough, taciturn poise of cinema’s calmest gunslingers.
He stands in notable contrast to Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), the team’s boorish, short-fused foreman, who swiftly raises hackles among the Bulgarians by planting a German flag above the site and harassing women at the local swimming river. Meinhard, who already has little time for the team’s after-hours bonding, opts to reach out to the locals instead, befriending village bigwig Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov) and borrowing his aforementioned steed. It’s a gesture that brings out the pettiest, most parochial instincts on both sides, aggravating deep-seated resentment over Bulgaria’s unhappy history of German occupation. “He’s clearly not one of the decent ones,” says one ill-acquainted resident, with spitting contempt, of Meinhard; Germans in this region, it appears, remain guilty until proven otherwise.
Grisebach has an acute, intelligent ear for the micro-aggressions — some accidental, some deliberate, some not so micro — that can escalate into more heated cultural battles in this particular east-meets-west showdown, where even attempts at diplomacy are rife with opportunities for misunderstanding. And in a manner that recalls Athina Rachel Tsangari’s more overtly satirical “Chevalier,” she regards the dynamics of all-male collectives — and all the hyper-macho intimacy and infighting that comes with them — with a mixture of gentle bemusement and scientific distance. When they’re not huffily trying to outrank each other, the Germans are shown in almost comically idyllic repose, even washing each other’s hair in the orange sunset. “It’s a blessing when you reach 40 and your testosterone diminishes,” Meinhard observes, though not everyone is quite so accepting of such truths.
Permitting all these tightly knotted tensions to reveal themselves at leisure, Grisebach keeps her filmmaking low-key and exactingly measured, resisting any startling formal coups. Which isn’t to undervalue the crisp precision of Bernhard Keller’s lensing, which directly doffs its cap to John Ford in certain serenely composed frames, and gradually identifies in the grassy, bucolic Bulgarian landscape all the sparse, atmospheric menace of the most parched Wild West frontier.