German filmmaker Valeska Grisebach discusses her latest feature, Western (2017), an exploration of the motifs of the western genre and masculinity through the contemporary trans-cultural situation of German construction workers employed in Bulgaria. The film had its North American premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, where we talked to Valeska about the making of her first film in eleven years.
The Seventh Art: I know you do a lot of research for your films – and a lot of shooting, too, with Longing (2006) – and there was a big gap between that film and Western (2017). What was the process of making this film in that time?
Valeska Grisebach: Everything goes hand-in-hand. In the beginning, I have some kind of question, idea, topic, subject, emotion that is interesting to me. In this case, it was the genre of the western that I grew up with. I was really fascinated by it and wanted to explore it now. It’s a normal process for writing, but I’m not so talented at writing that I can write alone – everyone does research, but for me it’s interesting to search for that story and confront it with a kind of reality. In the beginning, my fascination was with the western genre’s masculinity: the idea of a male hero, who’s searching for something like independence or freedom, but at the same time looking to arrive at home and find something. It’s a bittersweet moment. It’s the staging of a face that doesn’t show so much emotion, but behind that maybe a lot of emotion. It’s sometimes a burden to be a man like this [laughs], but at the same time it’s an interesting genre because it’s about the construction of society. What are the rules of society? The rule of empathy or the rule of the condemned, the weak?
For years I was thinking of making a film about xenophobia in Germany – not only Germany, you can find it everywhere – that I saw in moments between the lines of my daily life. But there was no step inside the door, because in Germany it would directly put it into a neo-Nazi genre that wasn’t interesting to me. I realized that maybe I can have the setting of the German construction workers on a job set in another country and there are these two different perspectives in Europe: the men themselves, they are strangers, but at the same time they have the desire to get in contact with a foreign country and also mistrust it. I had this main construction of the story before travelling, which was important to develop the texture of the film.
With the genre of westerns, there has always an element of capital in their stories. I found it interesting that the last line before the title card is Meinhard responding to the invitation to join the trip by saying he’s only interested in money. Money and how it moves between nations was part of Toni Erdmann (2016), as well. How much were you thinking about this context in making this film?
It wasn’t my main or first approach, but these men come with these machines, their knowledge, this attitude of “We are the Germans and we will make and show you something, so we’re the good ones.” At the same time, most of the group come from East Germany, so they share a lot of experience with the people in Bulgaria. It’s a different milieu than Toni Erdmann, so these are smaller men searching for something – it’s maybe an illusion that they’re so different than who they meet. It’s two different perspectives.
It’s interesting how the western has to change to exist today, it can’t be about the exact same things. One way is how the classic western has the law protecting a society or the creation of a new community, but here it’s the inverse: Meinhard is looking to join or find a community.
This is true. I was also interested in the duel as a principle of life, of relationships, adventure – your life means something based on the adventure or experiences that make it not boring. Interactions, duels, fighting all have a result, this is a motif for the two main German figures. They have the expectation that life owes them something. This is a strong motive of the western, the expectations that something is waiting for you – some independence and freedom. Am I part of the society or how much am I out of the society? This is also a topic for the men in this film. Meinhard, the main figure, is this good-looking man that looks like a hero, a leader in the fantasy, but at the same time he is a small man with fear and opportunism, who also sometimes just wants to hide in the crowd – to not take responsibility. I think this is an old motif of the western: how close to I want to be to the others?
What are your thoughts on the role of gender in westerns? Meinhard doesn’t want to intervene when there’s the early confrontation with Vyara in the water. He does seem to want to be this leader figure, but doesn’t choose to protect her there, despite recognizing what the other men are doing is wrong.
Gender’s interesting to me because it’s such a strong genre and when I was developing the story I had different ideas for the women in the story. I realized I would do it in a quite conventional, classical way. It’s another film, another reflection to do a western with a female main character. In this case, it was more interesting to have the two men use, in a way, the women to live out their conflict. It’s always something they deal with. Meinhard maybe feels more attractive to the women he has no sex with [laughs], so he’s hurting himself, as well. The scene in the river, this is where I think that he’s not so much always outside the group. He’s not the one who stands up and questions them. He makes his first little movement out of the group, but he’s also part of the group – he’s between.
Do you have a particular interest in small communities or towns? It’s present in Longing, too.
It’s not easy for me to talk about this because it’s not so planned or an intellectual reason, but it’s a staging, the film seems to be naturalistic, but it’s artificially made sometimes. For me, maybe I’m attracted to the old fashioned staging of simple surrounding.
When you draw together the non-actors you work with, how much are they bringing their own self to the project?
For me, it’s very important that it’s a fiction story and it’s clear for everyone that it’s a fiction story, but I’m very much attracted to the actors, so there’s something in the air. It’s important to not come too close to the actors, to not have too much friendship, because it’s interesting to have this distance and closeness working together. In a way, it’s a written story, I have an idea that we talk about in the story and the dialogue, and then there’s a response from the actors – a kind of transformation.
When I met Meinhard, I had so many fantasies about him and he brings so much with him. Of course I know something about his private life, it was quite inspiring at some moments of the film. It was the first time I really took something private into the film during the scene about his brother that he has last. He really had lost a brother and while shooting this brother was very present, we talked a lot about him. He was really emotional and I asked him if we could use this in the interview. Sometimes he cried when thinking about his brother, so I talked with Jonas [Dornbach], one of our producers, about using this. I had the motive [in the story] between him and the Bulgarian man from the village, which was a kind of brotherhood, a projection, a romantic idea. I thought it was important to bring something personal of Meinhard into the film, I asked him what he thought if we had a little sign, a little hello to your brother in the film. He told me, “I would really like to do this,” so I thought about it and wrote the scene. It was like an offer and we shot it really quickly one evening where we had thirty minutes. We sat at the table, I told them the situation, we shot it maybe three or four times, then had to re-shoot three days later to add the last sentence of the scene.
Sometimes there’s something happening and react to this. I knew from the beginning when we were shooting in Bulgaria, I’m a stranger, so there’s always something I hear or see or someone tells me that is interesting for the subtext of the film. It’s always important to stay in contact with the surroundings, the people we did the film with.
Did your own experience with the Bulgarians mirror the Germans in the film? Did you find you were more attuned to the actors movements or gestures?
Yeah, for sure. There was some synchronicity between the story of the construction workers and me and the actors. Every day we experienced something that came into the film. I knew from the beginning we would need to create a third language, the language between the Germans and the Bulgarians. I thought of this together with the actors, how can we make a language that works for the audience, an understanding. I always had a translator with me, so looking to the Bulgarian actors I had to activate a different perspective: I had to look, to hear…
What was your process working with DP Bernhard Keller? How much were you playing with the iconography and look of the genre, while also depicting the specific space that you’re in?
Bernhard and I talked, we thought that the western aesthetic is too strong. That motif comes from a different perspective, the subject, and not the aesthetic of CinemaScope and wide lenses. For me it was more interesting to have a simple image language without the pressure of meaning, a daily language to open the western staging. When we speak about the images, we think of how to combine the aesthetic with the movement. We talk more about lenses, but no storyboard. Sometimes in the morning I think, “Let’s do it like this,” and I show Bernhard, then we see the place and try. Sometimes it’s not working and we have to change.
A lot of the shots are at night, too.
For me he’s a master of working with light, because he’s very brave to work with not a lot of it [laughs].
I read something you said about your editing process, that your decisions have to do with arranging things based on subtext, though there is also a larger structure. Is there a lot of room to move material around or is the structure for the film rigid?
Pretty rigid, in the end it’s pretty rigid. The writing this time was not so easy, I really tried for a combination of atmosphere and action, so it’s not always action that pressures you to move forward. But to have it a bit, to have these plot points that keep the suspense, but to also deal with subtext. When I write, I have subtext and then try to find a situation for my under-structure of a story. [Editing] was interesting for me this time because it’s about the possibility of losing control, but winning something else. Normally, I am a control-freak while editing, but this time I only did the rough edit and then Bettina Böhler – I really admire her – came and we talked a lot about the subtext of the scenes. I told her what is important for it, what associations should be pressed. She did a first draft, I looked at it and we start talking about it again, working together. It was interesting for me to tell someone the story or content, then she gave her voice to it – and she’s very sensitive to what the material is telling her and what I wanted. She gave a lot of rhythm to it in the end, it came from her.
Was the ending always in place, the last shot in particular?
The ending was always in place, but not so easy this time. I was really insecure and then we had a re-shoot for part of the ending to get the whole sequence together.
Did you shoot more on this than Longing?
There was more because it was the first time I wasn’t shooting on film. In a way it was great, because on Longing and Be My Star (2001) it was “Oh! Ok, ok. Fast! Fast!” Sometimes you get it and you have this thrill – a constructive thrill – but sometimes it’s just sad because you don’t have something you needed. This was great because I could try something without the stress. Sometimes it was funny, because when I was tired – very tired – I let a scene go, a little rest for twenty seconds [laughs]. We could shoot for a long time and I could talk to the actors while we were shooting. In a way, I never improvised so much as this film, even if it’s not “improvised” – there was more space to try something.
Were there surprises that came out of this approach? Things that weren’t planned, but that you ended up liking more?
In the end, not so much, no.
Did the digital medium have any affect on your feeling of how long a scene should be or the tempo of the film?
It’s an interesting question because there was more space to keep a scene going, but in the end you always come to the same questions: how do you create material for the film that is strong and you can edit? In the end, it’s always this type of concentration. Interesting, I should ask myself this [laughs].
Perhaps it was because many of the scenes take place in the dark, but I found the sound very affecting in those moments, especially in creating a kind of dread at moments where you don’t know what’s about to happen. How did you approach sound for this project?
We talked a lot about cicadas, they were in the original sound, but we talked about how to control whether it’s too much or not enough. It was important to find the right doses, because in the beginning everyone was so seduced by this nature and wanted more and more and more. Then it was too much, so we took it away, then it was too thin. How can we create something simple, but strong.
What is the next project that you’re working on? Are you looking to start something quickly after the gap after Longing?
Everyone is asking about “Why did it take so long?” and it’s a mixture of having a daughter and I knew for myself that I didn’t have a child for twenty years, so I didn’t want to disappear immediately for two years. Then I was teaching and advising on other projects, I thought a long time about this project. With every film there is something new and I don’t think it would take so long.
Is it digital again? Was there something you learned working with it on Western?
For the most beautiful time for me when I’m making a film is this research, writing, rehearsing and then when we really start to shoot, there’s a big break, everything is different. It’s interesting to me how to combine these, how to integrate shooting more into research or research more into shooting. Right now it’s very separated, but with digital it’s maybe more easy.