Over 10 years since her remarkable debut feature Longing premiered in competition at the 2006 Berlinale, Valeska Grisebach returns to the screen with the Maren Ade co-produced Western, so far one of the standout films of this year’s Cannes. Following a group of German men who travel to rural Bulgaria to work on a construction site, the film tracks the various interactions and tensions between the men and the local residents with masterful sensitivity and patience. Combining realist features such as non-professional actors and documentary-like cinematography with themes and motifs closely associated with westerns, Western is a fascinating and playful genre blend that defies tidy classification.
The day after the premiere, we sat down with Grisebach in Cannes to talk about the film.
How did you come to find the main actor?
Six years ago when I was starting to think about the project, I found Meinhard Neumann at a horse market near Berlin. All of a sudden there was this man sitting there with a cowboy hat on. But more than just his hat, it was his face that stood out to me, as if he’d climbed out of a film. For the film I was interested in this contrast between what’s perceived as pseudo-documentary but also these exceptional moments, and there he was suddenly as this perfect surface for me to project that onto. But then it took a while, also just getting to know each other – it was a casting process.
How do you convince someone who normally does something totally different to be in your film?
First of all curiosity is important, without being curious about other people it doesn’t really work. And then it’s simply a long process and you have to say to people, you have to figure out for yourself if this is what you want. It’s also just an exciting fantasy, to be in a film. But it’s a bit different when you’re asking people to spend months overseas, other time commitments get in the way. I think it’s important that you protect yourself from all sides, to first of all figure out if it’s what you really want to do and that you get to know yourself a bit. But from the beginning it seemed pretty clear to me that he [Meinhard] wanted to do it.
I found him very interesting, because I always had this feeling that I’d like to have an elegant, attractive figure as the lead actor, someone who you immediately cast your eyes towards, someone who’s the leader of a group. But also someone who carries this smaller man within himself, someone who has fears, and is perhaps their own harshest critic. And I just had the feeling that he could play that really well.
All the actors are non-professionals?
All of them. Most of them also have real building site experience, but they came from all different corners, and none of them knew each other previously. It was important to then make an ensemble out of all of that, and that everyone got to know each other, both in Germany and in Bulgaria. And then everyone simply started acting.
How did you bring that about?
It was just a matter of trusting one’s good common sense, and then that you just simply somehow just start doing something. The moment you do something, some form of material arises out of it. From the beginning there was always a camera around, and then it’s just putting people in situations where they know they’re being watched.
Meinhard reminded me a bit of John Carradine, who’s in so many of the great westerns. I wanted to ask about the title Western, what meaning does it have for you?
That was one of the starting-off points of the film, when I noticed how much the western genre fascinated me. I grew up with the genre, and I had almost this feeling of homesickness for it. I was always watching westerns and asking myself why it was that they fascinated me so much. It was actually a bittersweet feeling, on the one hand watching these films as a young girl and identifying with the heroes, because they’re such attractive heroes, riding off into the sunset. But at the same time as a girl you’re shut out of that, out of this very masculine genre. I think I wanted to get closer to these lonely male figures, and what they carry inside themselves, clearly a kind of strength but also a kind of weight. And how much of a burden those moments of loneliness can be.
I also find the themes explored in westerns very interesting. People asking themselves, “How much responsibility do I want to take on?” – on the one hand dreaming of freedom and independence, but on the other hand longing for a home to go back to. For that reason “Western” stood there at the beginning, because I didn’t really start with a story, instead I start with a theme that I’m concentrating on, and research and cast and look around and write at the same time. It was a bit like a little dance with the genre, or rather a reflection, and then at the end I thought the title had to go, and everyone said, “No, it has to stay!” So it stuck.
It’s a great title.
It’s also so interesting that right now it seems like there’s a whole generation who also have this feeling. When I started thinking about making the film seven years ago, I noticed motifs from westerns popping up in films everywhere, so it’s a shared experience.
Was there a script in the end?
I have a text, it’s actually a kind of treatment, because sometimes there’s just one line for a scene, and sometimes there’s three pages. But I’m always very happy to be able to give the text to the actors, for example. I think it’s great when the story separates itself from the paper, when it’s something in flux.
Do you have some favourite westerns?
The classic black-and-white westerns from the ’40s. One of them is Anthony Mann’s Winchester ‘73, which has very interesting male figures and situations. For example it’s got James Stewart playing this normal farmer, who is out on the road seeking revenge for some reason. Later he finds out that his brother killed his father, and there’s this great moment around the campfire where his buddy asks him, “Can you even go back? How can you keep living this life out on the road?” In westerns there’s often this discrepancy between the fantasy of being on the road and the desire for a normal life. There’s also this great coward figure in the film. Heroes who carry it within themselves, on the one hand this dream of “who would I like to be?” and on the other hand there’s who they are when their behaviour and actions are affected by fear. Those are always really exciting characters for me, and in Winchester ‘73 there’s this coward, who’s always sitting with his fiancé in the wagon, and when the Indians come he rides off and leaves everyone behind. For some reason I find him one of the most interesting characters in the film.
You use pop music in a really interesting way in your films. For example how you use “Feel” by Robbie Williams in Longing and the Bulgarian pop song in the final scene of Western. Can you talk to me a bit about your approach there?
In Longing I used it a lot more consciously, here of course it’s not totally unconscious, but with Longing I really had the feeling that that was a moment where the protagonist steps onto a stage, and becomes the protagonist in his life, too. It was a star moment. For me music is a method of transport, an amplifier of projections and dreams, it’s a part of personal memory but also collective memory. And in Western it’s above all this Bulgarian music, this Schlagermusik…
A Bulgarian Schlager…
That can also trigger these feelings, but of course when you really go into the lyrics they’re about money and women and consumption and things like that. But in the end I felt that it’s also a kind of music that calls to him [Meinhard], that calls him back.
N.B. This interview was originally conducted in German and has been translated into English by the writer.