The Enigma of Generic Eschewal
Western in its title manages to invoke both a genre and a privileged condition. It proposes a film type of rugged masculinity and stoic solitude, and suggests a person who comes from a wealthier Western country to a poorer one. Here the western country is Germany, and the poorer country Bulgaria. The western character (in the generic sense) is one of the Germans hired to work on supplying a village with infrastructure including a regular, functioning water supply. Yet we might believe that these westerners would themselves be far from wealthy. When at one stage a local character talks about a teenage boy who admires him, and that his parents are working in Greece since there is no work in Bulgaria, we might wonder if Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) and the others are in Bulgaria because they can earn far more money there than they can in Germany. But while the Bulgarians will be going to Greece to make money working in a richer economy, the Germans are in Bulgaria working in a poorer one. Also, while we may assume that the parents of the Bulgarian boy are in Greece long term, the Germans are in Bulgaria working on a very specific project. The man who says there is no work in Bulgaria adds that he and his wife are taking care of the boy, as economic migration creates orphan- status of children that are semi-adopted by others in the community. Not that the German workers don't have emotional problems too: the project leader Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) phones his girlfriend back home and it sounds like she is leaving him, unable or unwilling to live apart as she tells him she is moving out of their apartment.
Valeska Grisebach's film is very good in showing the complications of economic migration as an emotional wrench, with people working and living elsewhere because that is what the global economy demands. But it's also keen to make clear that not all migratory movements are equal, and also, too, that in Meinhard we have a character whose motives for travelling from place to place are obscure. When the locals ask him if he is married he insists he isn't, offering it with assertiveness rather than sorrow. He wants to be free he insists and we see an example of this freedom when he becomes friendly with one woman and has a fling with another. Yet at other stages, there seems to be sadness in this solitude, as when he describes to the villager he most befriends, Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov) that he lost his brother. It would seem to be the only family member he did have and there is no suggestion in the film that his parents are still alive, that he has an ex-wife or any children. If the other Germans appear to be in Bulgaria to earn money all the better to return home with it, and enjoy life there, Meinhard would seem to have nothing to return to Germany for. While we might initially see his willingness to involve himself so completely in the village as a sign of zealous xenophilia, by the end we might be more inclined to wonder if he is just trying to be part of any community all the better to stave off loneliness. Near the end of the film, after one of the locals has beaten Meinhard to the ground, Adrian sympathetically asks "what are you searching for here?" No answer is forthcoming as Adrian pats him on the back and walks away. A moment later, Vincent comes over and says: "you Okay." It is unexpected; Vincent has generally been arrogant, insulting and presumptuous towards the locals, and there has been tension between Vincent and Meinhard that makes this gesture of kindness surprising in the context of character dynamics but plausible within a broader aesthetic of sensitivity that Grisebach practises.
Grisebach has said of her interest in the western: "One fantasy is the desire to be apart from society, while there's also something that's calling you back, and at some point you have to ask yourself about this kind of responsibility. If you want to take over, or look after others, is that a question of empathy or of who's the fittest?" (BFI) Though the film hints at and activates various showdowns, the film's sensibility is on the side of vulnerability over aggression, of trying to understand feelings rather than asserting authority. Thus in various ways, Meinhard is presented ambivalently but this reflects what we can assume is an ambivalence towards himself, one complicated still further by how the locals start to perceive him. He tells them that he was a legionnaire and they thereafter see him as a killing machine, even if he later insists that it isn't easy to kill. Meinhard seems wary of the reputation he is building up but reluctant to counter it too, and when he pulls out a rifle against a couple of local gangsters who threaten Adrian, he illustrates he is willing to show his mettle with metal, both with a gun and, in a later scene when he is attacked, with a knife. it is only near the end when he is once again threatened by one rather than a group of locals that the villagers will become disenchanted. "Fraud", the man says after putting him down, seeing in Meinhard's body language a fear that suggests he is far from unequivocally brave.
Yet just because he might be weaker than we originally thought doesn't quite indicate he is the fraud his assailant claims. However, what Grisebach shows is an initially sympathetic man who wishes to get to know the community in which he finds himself, becoming a man losing some of that humanity as he becomes perceived heroically within it. Here we have the western trope played on and rejected as though the binary elements so admired by Andre Bazin have become muddied. We are no longer in the "Manichean world of the western" (What is Cinema? Vol II), the sort of opposition that led many structuralists to see it as such a useful genre for their investigations. Looking at the westerns of John Ford, Peter Wollen noted that: "the protagonists of fairy-tales or myths, as Levi-Strauss has pointed out, can be dissolved into bundles of differential elements, pairs of opposites." (Signs and Meanings in The Cinema) We can take George Stevens' Shane as a classic example, a film where a stranger comes into the community and is admired by the boy, adored by the wife and acknowledged as necessary by the husband: Shane will take out the ranchers and the hired hand persecuting the homesteader. Any admiration Shane receives needn't impact on his ego, but in Western the ego is modern and fragile rather than mythic and impregnable. The moment before the beating, after the local man harasses him, Meinhard pushes him dismissively and starts walking away only for the local to punch him in the stomach, and floor him with a punch to the jaw. The fight is over and Meinhard humiliated, but we might wonder if the local would have got quite so angry if Meinhard hadn't pushed him in so disdainful a manner. Earlier, another local whose money Meinhard won at a game of cards, asks the German if he will return the money; the local has problems at home he says. No doubt he needs the money a lot more than Meinhard, who of course appears to have no family ties at all, and yet it is also money that he won. But since he is the German character in the film most sensitive to the needs of the people in the community, what are we to make of his rejection of this man's pleas? In fairness, he doesn't quite reject them, though what he offers may be worse. He brusquely hands over a portion of the winnings and tells the young man to go, offering a body language as arrogant as he will offer just before he gets floored later.
In these two moments, one sees how well Grisebach plays on the twin term of the word western: one witnesses a man who has gained a reputation in the community as a gunslinger might in a horse opera, but one also sees someone who shows that he is Westerner who feels superior to the people he is trying to ingratiate himself amongst. He will prove in almost every way a disappointment to the community while Vincent, for all his chauvinism sexual and national needn't disappoint at all. From the beginning of the film to near the end he appears obnoxious, vain, underhand and bullying. He is the villain to Meinhard's hero: Jack Palance's Wilson to Alan Ladd's Shane. He calls Meinhard a dumbass early on, refuses to give a woman her hat back after he saves it as it floats down the river, messes with the town's water supply and injures the horse he steals in the process of doing it. He even tries to factor in a date with the woman (who will sleep with Meinhard) whose hat he wouldn't give back, a woman who speaks German and is willing to translate a conversation taking place between the villagers and the German workers. He asks her in German aware that the other villagers, including her father, won't understand. He says that he could start work the next day but only if in return Viara (Viara Borisova) lets him buy her dinner. Yet we might see in this moment not only a jerk trying it on but also a vulnerable person trying to feel attractive to women especially after it seems his girlfriend has left him. And what are we to make of his gesture toward the end when he is the one who goes over to Meinhard and asks if he is ok after the fight? Earlier in the film, after the horse has been put down, Meinhard says Vincent could go the same way as the horse. There is no love lost between them but there is something like affection in Vincent asking Meinhard if he is alright. Vincent may appear the bigger ass but he might also be the bigger man, someone who can give and take an insult but also show a bit of decency.
The film's purpose however isn't just to set up generic expectation and then counter it, but to wonder what happens if aspects of the western are played out against the complexity of a life that cannot rely on a mythic binary system, even if our generic instinct might wish for this simplification, a sort of cinematic version of the limbic system where we are, in Joseph Troncale's words, ripe for "fight, flight, feeding, fear, freezing up, and fornication". (Psychology Today) And why wouldn't this instinct be there if, as the filmmaker Raul Ruiz says: "America is the only place in the world where, very early, cinema developed an all-encompassing narrative and dramatic theory known as central conflict theory. Thirty or forty years ago, this theory was used by the mainstream American industry as a guideline. Now it is the law in the most important centers of film industry in the world." (Poetics of Cinema)
One can see its attraction for dramaturgy, creating clear throughlines where people want something and other people are stopping them from getting it. But we never really find out what Meinhard wants, evident in Adrian's remark when he asks Meinhard what "he is searching for." It remains a question which hasn't quite found its answer in action. Shane may remain a slightly enigmatic figure too but his purpose in defending the homesteader family is so resolute and so successful that the action becomes its own motivation. But imagine if Shane lost, or if the action became unnecessary, then we might return to Shane's psychology, and to his aimlessness. When Meinhard is beaten not only is his strength called into question but perhaps also his honesty. Is he a fraud, making up stories to impress locals in places where he works? Or when he is floored does this remind him of moments of fear that he may have encountered before? As he flinches away from potentially another blow from the local, it could be the gesture of a man who has been in a similar position at the butt of a rifle in a war zone.
However, such thoughts are our own, a speculative rather than a categorical sub-textual reading that can be fished out, one that insists we make sense of a character's attitude and behaviour without the wherewithal to come to any satisfactory conclusion. Yet it gives birth to other speculations, some of them retrospective as we might find ourselves wondering about the shirts he wears in the second half of the film. While the other Germans wear T-shirts, short sleeve shirts and other attire that would be consistent with working abroad, concentrating on the job to hand, Meinhard has an array of shirts: a check one, and dark grey one, but most especially a crisp white one and a crisp black one. These are not shirts thrown into a travel bag but carefully laid out for special occasions and he is indeed wearing one of them when he sleeps with Viara. "Check out his shirt", the others say when he joins them as they ask if he has been at a wedding. In a round about way he has: he has just come from sleeping with what many would regard as the most attractive and ostensibly sophisticated of the villagers.
Yet rather than this event catalysing the last twenty minutes of the story, it becomes another incident in which to try and understand Meinhard and the dynamics of village life and the German workers. It could have become the central conflict exacerbated, where locals aren't only angry about these newcomers who are richer than they are and who are telling them how to run their water supply, but also go off with their women as well. But when the man who beats Meinhard does so we don't know exactly what he knows. He says, "you've been showing off lately" but isn't specific, while the one person who suspects an affair is taking place between Meinhard and Viara is of course Vincent, who sees another man more successful than he has been in seducing this local woman. We see him looking dejectedly on while Meinhard and Viara speak by the riverside. Meinhard turns round and sees in the distance Vincent watching.
However, this is in central conflict terms, weak storytelling, though it would be easy enough to turn into a strong narrative instead. Imagine if it wasn't Vincent looking on but Viara's father, and that Viara was expected to marry someone else in the village, and Viara's brothers or cousins looked on too, and in consultation with the father, arranged to beat up Meinhard. Meinhard wouldn't only show his prowess in taking on the strongest of the brothers or cousins, Viara would insistently show her love and the locals would realise that Meinhard is worthy of the woman's hand or perhaps they would leave together, escaping prejudice. Instead, Grisebach doesn't tell us how intense the affair is between the two of them (perhaps no more than a one-night stand), and the father and other locals don't seem to know exactly what has happened even if, before the assignation, the man who has earlier asked for his money back, wonders when he sees Meinhard and Viara together if things are ok as though willing to wrest Viara away if she shows the slightest reluctance in being in Meinhard's company. But if he has said that Viara is sleeping with Meinhard, if he has reported back to the father and then to the other locals, this remains in the background and thus contributes to 'weak' storytelling, made all the weaker by the father's happiness and conviviality towards the Germans at the party where Meinhard will soon be beaten. It would require quite an insistent reading to say his happiness rests on the beating Meinhard will soon get for sleeping with his daughter.
Central to the weakness of Grisebach's storytelling rests on the strength of its observation. That she wants us to view the film both as iconic western and naturalist drama; a film of expectation that then demands of us, even more, the observational. "When I saw him [actor Meinhard Neumann] for the first time, he looked so iconic, I felt like he had jumped out of an old western from the fifties. It helped me in creating something that looks natural but has an iconic feeling. He brings subtext immediately into the filmhis face creates this fantasy of what might have happened to him. You think he could be a leader of a group, and at the same time it's like he's Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, full of his own fears and narcissism and maybe a bit of opportunism." (Criterion) Grisebach can see her childhood fascination with the western meeting a contemporaneous and adult sense of perception. Who is this man and where he is from? She may have first seen Neumann at "a horse market near Berlin. He was sitting there in a cowboy hat, but I was more impressed by his face" (Film Comment), Grisebach said. But it is one thing to see such a figure in the late 19th-century and another in the early 21st. What would have been an image of predictability becomes an image of surprise. What is a face like that doing in the modern age?
Grisebach never quite tells us what it is doing, but we might see in his behaviour a 21st-century approach to pride allied to a 19th-century perspective on dignity. This may sound about as broad a generalisation as one can manage, but to ground it let us propose that if he were a 19th- century westerner (at least cinematically) his pride and dignity would be expected to go together: that his pride would rest on using a gun and his dignity on doing it with respect. He wouldn't shoot a man in the back, he would protect the weak and vulnerable and would retreat from the community if he was more broadly seen as a liability within it. The cowboy's sense of drift would be contained by a sense of necessity: by what his gunslinging has forced upon him. But though of course Meinhard pulls out a rifle when Adrian looks like he is in trouble, any heroism in the deed is met by a trigger-happy feeling that we reckon Meinhard has over-reacted. Usually, in the classic western, the hero's trigger-friendliness is a necessary evil. When he has finished killing the villains he can retreat from the community if so required, evident in anything from Shane to The Searchers. But Meinhard's looks like an unnecessary evil, an escalation of a minor crisis that could become a significant one if the gangsters were to choose to take it further.
But instead, it becomes part of the weak story Grisebach tells, perhaps contributing to the beating he receives but not quite the cause of it. When the westerner pulls a gun it is usually a source of pride as the gunman is put in a position where he is forced to show how efficient he is. But when Meinhard pulls a gun on the gangsters it seems too impetuous, as though he doesn't quite know how to read the situation. The sort of pride one displays in a western when pulling out a gun, and the dignity they will feel after pulling the trigger knowing it was out of necessity and for a greater good, is completely missing from Grisebach's account. The action doesn't reveal his pride and register his dignity but shows his pride calling into question his dignity. It is the same later when one of the German workers chats up a young local woman in the street. The young man is being obnoxious and patronising but again we might think Meinhard overreacts, throwing water on his fellow worker when a comment might have been enough. As a sequence, it potentially has all the elements of a western showdown. It takes place around noon, and Grisebach cuts back to onlookers, but instead the scene abruptly cuts to more pressing matters: not the water Meinhard has just thrown at his fellow worker, but more generally the water supply that has been cut off as the Germans and locals discuss what can be done.
Clearly, by the dramatic standards expected of generic filmmakers, Grisebach hasn't made much of a western, but that is partly because there are questions here she is pursuing that a typical western answers in the symmetry of its focus: the hero is good, has a cause and if he is slightly out of his time (as the country moves towards civilisation, and the cowboy is still reliant on gunslinging) that usually reflects the hypocrisy of the culture rather than the displacement of the hero. He is still useful in moving society towards civilisation, evident in very different ways in The Magnificent Seven and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In the former, the seven gunslingers of the title are reduced to three after helping out the local farmers defeat bandits and then retreat. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the gunslinger kills the villain but it is the lawyer who gets credit for it as society moves on and the cowboy remains in the shadows.
Yet Meinhard is very much more out of his time and place. However, rather than explaining where Meinhard has come from and what motivates his actions, Grisebach instead observes his behaviour without claiming to know anything about his past. He tells us that he has been in the foreign legion, that he has no family after his brother's death, and that he isn't married, nor does he have children. That is potentially a lot of back-story; more than we have on Vincent for example: who we know is splitting up with his girlfriend. However, Vincent is transparent while Meinhard remains opaque, with Vincent someone who looks like a guy who wants a girlfriend back home but also feels entitled to play away if he gets the chance. His gesture at the end of the film as he asks if Meinhard is okay isn't inexplicable: it shows a kindness and softness to him that we might have suspected all along: he is the project manager and acts big but he isn't cold or cruel. Yet we cannot say what Meinhard is even if he appears to reveal himself far more than Vincent. He tells people about his life and values but sometimes in cinema we have characters who may talk about themselves but the filmmaker creates a quizzicality around them, making us wonder whether they speak in guarded half-truths, while the filmmaker observes their behaviour with a scrutiny that suggests evidence of a half-lie.
In Taxi Driver, for example, Travis Bickle at a cabbie-job interview says that he was in the marines and later sends a card to his parents saying that he is working for the secret services. We know the latter is a lie but does that make the former remark a lie as well? We cannot say, though his ability with a gun and the terrible scar on his back suggests combat duty. Equally in Nic Roeg's Bad Timing, what are to make of Milena, the central character's lover, who offers contrary takes on events? Unlike Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown, we can't understand her character through the revelation of plot, but must try to comprehend her by observing her behaviour for ourselves. As she says her mother died when Milena was young, and then her brother died too, leaving only herself and her father, she may well be lying since she has lied about other things also (like not being married) and there is nothing that makes certain that she is telling the truth. We might wonder in Western if Meinhard is telling the truth about his Legionnaire past. When at the beginning of the film, Vincent asks Meinhard if he has worked abroad before, he says this is his first time working away, but someone in the Foreign Legion hardly works at home. Shortly after this, the project workers are eating together and someone mentions the Legion but there is nothing to indicate as they discuss how difficult it would be to get in, that Meinhard is a former member. Does this scene give him the idea, that when he tells the Bulgarians he was a Legionnaire he plucked it out from this earlier conversation? Like Scorsese and Roeg, and unlike Polanski in Chinatown, Grisebach prefers the mystery of weak links rather than the drama of strong ones, and so it makes sense that Grisebach would say: "One of the things that I didn't want or know how to handle was the idea of a showdown at the end. The genre was asking me: how will you do the showdown? And I kept thinking about it and I felt so bored." (Criterion)
There is of course a showdown (when Meinhard is put on the ground) but there are others too along the way, which might more appropriately be called confrontations, as if a showdown is a melodramatic version of conflict. Whether it is Meinhard getting balled out by Vincent early on, Meinhard later threatening Vincent after the death of the horse, the gambler who lost his money to Meinhard wondering what is happening between Viara and the German, or more obviously the moment when Meinhard pulls out the rifle, the film is full of confrontations. Yet they don't build towards a categorical narrative; instead, they dissipate into symptomatic concerns. We might have expected the gangsters to come back later to get revenge on Meinhard for taking out the gun; we may have assumed a stronger link between one of the villagers and Viara so that the film could emphasise clear jealousy towards Meinhard - or it could have made far more over the rivalry between Meinhard and Vincent for Viara's affections.
However, what passes for poor drama could more generously be called good psychology and good sociology, with Grisebach determined to see the Bulgarian border as an opportunity for subtle geopolitical exploration, as she tries to understand the mindset of both Germans and Bulgarians when they come into contact over a land issue. What the Germans cannot comprehend is why the Bulgarians aren't more welcoming; they are there to help build infrastructure; it isn't a land-grab issue we often find in the western, where bigger interests want to take over the farms and homesteads of the little men, evident in films like Shane and Once Upon a Time in the West. It is about improving the socio-economic conditions of another country much poorer than the ones the workers are coming from. German GDP in 2020 was 3.8 trillion; Bulgaria's 69 billion. Yet that the Germans think they are there doing a poorer country a favour adds surely to the low key animosity. In that potentially explosive moment, when Meinhard pulls out the rifle, Adrian is in forceful discussion with a fellow local, Meinhard comes over to support his friend. The man asks who is this; Adrian says a bodyguard and the man says: "a German bodyguard falls from the sky." Meinhard might think he is helping his newfound mate; others would be more likely to see a wealthy outsider who thinks he can offer a bit of colonising muscle. With his collapsed face and his lean, gnarly physique, Meinhard doesn't look like he comes from money but he does come from a moneyed country, so whether he likes it or not he represents wealth and comfort. Whatever his back-story that the film withholds, it cannot withhold the reality the locals will immediately see: that he is from a wealthy country and they are not.
Grisebach hasn't consequently made a film about a colonial mindset; that would be another potential melodrama she could have fallen into creating. Instead, she wonders how cognizant someone might be of their relatively wealthier and superior position when involved in another country's economy. Vincent takes it for granted; Meinhard appears to deny it, but by the end of the film we could find ourselves believing that Meinhard's obliviousness is more troublesome than Vincent's superiority. As Grisebach says, "Vincent is more aggressive, life for him is a competition, and there's a certain colonial attitude in him. But even though Meinhard wanders into the village rather innocently he still remains a part of the work brigade - he is different and yet not entirely so." (Senses of Cinema) Or as Vincent says: "These villages are like time travel right. Going back in time." Vincent is perhaps what the locals would expect, and can position themselves in opposition to him, evident in Viara's rejection after he refuses to give her back the hat. Vincent doesn't wish to belong; Meinhard wants to at a price which might seem more costly to the community than Vincent's arrogance. We observe a man who doesn't quite know what he wants, why he is there, or how he should behave. Vincent knows his role as a superior outsider and that can be understood, and if necessary negated. Meinhard remains too mysterious for that.
Finally, Grisebach captures this mysteriousness in the form; in the absence of music that might have conveyed an element of the central character's feelings, in the eschewal of generic expectation, and in the photography that has frequent night scenes that are played in medium or long shot so that it gives to the events a murkiness. When Meinhard gets beaten we cannot see easily the assailant. He is viewed mainly from behind, in long shot and in semi-darkness. It is as though it doesn't quite matter; that Meinhard has annoyed enough people that it could be any one of a number. Indeed, a little earlier, of course, Meinhard had been attacked by several locals, again in darkness, and pulled a knife on them to persuade them to back off. If we cannot see who is attacking him we don't doubt they are attacking Meinhard; that they believe they have reason for anger and resentment and are taking it out on him and not the other project workers.
Both scenes are visually similar to one earlier where the teenage boy whose parents are working in Germany, mock attacks Meinhard. Meinhard is walking through the darkened street and the boy jumps on him. Meinhard elbows him away and the boy is knocked unconscious. It is a scene that seems to show Meinhard's strength but it also shows the weakness not only of the boy but also the poverty of the village: if the place had been properly lit, he couldn't have jumped out and surprised Meinhard.
Many of the scenes in the film seem too bright or too dark, and it is partly why we would be inclined to see realism in the visuals. Whether it is just the sharp sunlight of the daytime scenes or the minimum light in the evening ones (unless lit by fluorescent lighting). It gives to the film a clear contrast between night and day scenes, and it also gives to the ambiguity and mysteriousness that is found as a consequence of the lighting a realist rather than a formalist dimension. If we can be so crude as to note the lighting in noir as a formalist device (as a way of capturing people in the frame to generate a certain feeling about their methods and motives), Grisebach seeks something else. When someone comes out of the shadows in noir, when a villain is seen in a room with sunlight coming in through the blinds, the scene tells us something about character and situation through the expectations of the lighting. In Fritz Lang's wonderful early film noir You Only Live Twice, there is a scene with Henry Fonda's central character in conversation with the priest, and it is a foggy, shrouded moment that captures well Fonda's sweaty crisis as he needs to escape from prison but wonders if he will have to shoot a priest to do so. Nobody is going to confuse this with the natural (and why would they when Lang was such a key figure in German Expressionism?). The light is an act of immense deliberation.
It would be daft to suggest that Grisebach hasn't thought about the light in Western, silly to assume that she shot the scene where Meinhard gets beaten with no other thought in her mind than it would make sense that it takes place at night and left it at that. The lighting gives to the event a sense that we cannot quite understand what is going on just as we cannot quite see what is going on. Instead of an artificially well-lit night scene in shot/counter shot and close up, Grisebach gives us a scene that looks naturalistic but can still serve various connotative functions. It can tell us this isn't a typical western showdown but about a man a little lost and vulnerable, who nevertheless allowed his arrogance to get the better of him and now another man gets the better of him. The light gives his downfall a funereal quality and gives to it also an odd sense of respect. His humiliation is only half-exposed as the night light leaves him at least with the dignity of darkness. Usually, the western showdown is in broad daylight with the locals looking on, or hiding away but very concerned, until the hero wins out no film more so than the epitome of a classic, High Noon. But there is no heroism here and the light reflects well Meinhard's loss of dignity even if we might not go so far as to assume he is a fraud.
One can also think about the film's sound design, again naturalistic in its form but not necessarily without connotative intent. "When we listen rather than hear," Hannah Paveck says, "we pay attention to how sound and sense resonate in and through each other, and vibrate within internal and external space. We listen to how this movement and exteriority shapes the semantic sense or meaning of sounds, but also the material textures of such sounds and our bodies as we listen, as well as the way sounds orientate us as they resound." ('Taciturn Masculinities') She is using Jean-Luc Nancy's work to understand how hearing and listening aren't the same: as Nancy says silence can be perceived, "not as a privation but as an arrangement of resonance: a littleor even exactly...as when in a perfect condition of silence you hear your own body resonate, your heart and all its resounding cave." (Listening) Perhaps there are films we hear and others that we listen to and this is both a formal dimension and an aspect of sensibility. "During the actual shoot, it is very important for me to put this script aside and only remember it. And then I tell the actors what I remember and together we then rehearse the dialogue." (Senses of Cinema) It is as though Grisebach doesn't just want to hear the actors reciting the lines that tell the story, but that she too wants to listen to the actors delivering their lines on their terms: to accept that the dialogue is theirs and not just the director's.
But partly what allows this to be possible is to eschew non-diegetic music, to let the actors express their character through dialogue that needn't be accompanied by music which tells the story, music that potentially undermines their freedom to convey the feelings through their own voice. Clearly, many fine films rely on accompanying music to convey along with the dialogue what a character is feeling in some, like Pasolini's Accatone, even when a character is in the process of speaking. But numerous and especially contemporary filmmakers more or less resist a music track the Dardennes, Haneke, Kiarostami, Cristi Puiu determined to present the screen space as closely as possible to how the characters exist within it.
Grisebach shares this interest and it means that we can listen to their world without a non-diegetic one imposing itself. It also might make us more alert to nuance since we cannot expect the meaning to be conveyed with the additional help of external music, and also means that any music we do hear is music the character accepts, rejects or at least can listen to themselves. At the end of the film after Meinhard's humbling, we follow him from behind (another contemporary naturalistic device perfected perhaps by the Dardennes), as he returns to the outdoor party that has been taking place. He dances a little awkwardly, trying to feel the music while no doubt still absorbing the humiliation, and Grisebach concludes as if trying to comprehend Meinhard as he is trying to find himself within the song. It is a beautiful and tender moment that insists whether Meinhard is the hard man he has mainly managed to convey, or the weakling that the beating might propose, he is a figure of some vulnerability, one who really doesn't quite know what a man has to do in the inexplicable Bulgarian East, or what a man has to do in the rather unwild West either. And maybe this is why he is there and why Grisebach has made a film about it.
© Tony McKibbin