Valeska Grisebach’s Western was the true German revelation of last year’s festival circuit. We met the Berlin director for a chat about women, the art of “slow cinema” and her fascination with aloof men working on building sites.
When Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann enraptured Cannes audiences two years ago, it bolstered new hope: finally, something unexpected instilling new blood into an otherwise complacent German film industry. Last year, Germany produced a similar sensation – not Golden Globe winner and Germany’s foreign-language Oscar entry In The Fade, but Valeska Grisebach’s Western. Like Fatih Akin’s drama, Western addresses Germany’s political zeitgeist, but where Akin uses a jackhammer, Grisebach paints with a feather brush. A slow-burning “Western” populated by horse-riding German construction workers on their own existential conquest of the Bulgarian frontier, the film landed in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard to critical kudos. Together with Ade, this Berlinerin shows that the future of German cinema might well be female.
We loved Sehnsucht (Longing), which premiered here in Berlin exactly 12 years ago. It took over a decade to have you back – why so long?
I was also surprised it was so long when people started to ask me that question! I guess I’m the kind of person who loves the time between films, the life between. Researching periods are my favourite. So I researched, I taught at DFFB; I also had a daughter and it was a choice: I didn’t want to disappear for two years shooting a film. Then we had a financing gap in the middle, and we had to postpone the whole project for a whole year. So, it was a mix of things.
What’s your fascination with westerns? It’s a highly masculine genre, rather unexpected coming from a woman…
Since I was a little girl, I was fascinated by this kind of masculinity, the lonely hero looking for freedom – or just a home. We had tons of westerns on West German TV, and I watched them with my father. Actually, I recently found an old photograph of me at 10 years old with thick, nerdy glasses, wearing a t-shirt with “Pierre Brice” [the actor who played Apache chief Winnetou in the German film adaptations of Karl May’s novels] handpainted in big letters. I think Westerns say a lot about society: what is our law, the law of empathy or the law of the fittest and the strongest, that strong idea of personal destiny? This came together with my idea to deal with the current wave of diffused xenophobia – but I didn’t want to fall into that neo-Nazi genre we have here… When I had the idea of German construction workers displaced in a foreign country, strangers confronted with their desire but also their prejudices and mistrust, it kind of all came together. But it was a long process. I met my main protagonist five or six years ago. Researching, casting and writing all goes hand in hand in my work.
Your actors are all non-professionals, and you found your main “cowboy” at a horse market in Havelberg. He looks amazing!
Well, I was looking for a man I could imagine on a horse [laughs] so I headed to that horse market an hour and a half from Berlin. I spotted him right away – he looked so iconic, so cinematic. In reality, he was a salesman there and had no experience with horses. He had to learn riding for the film! But I knew right away I wanted him, even if it took years before it materialised. Most of the other actors are real-life construction workers.
Why choose construction workers to populate your Western?
Pretty quickly, I ended up with the construction workers: their deliberate body language, their tools, their belts… I got fascinated by that old-fashioned masculine cosmos, a microcosm in which women are absent but at the same time very present, because they talk about women a lot.”
I was looking for the iconography, the pin-up nature of western heroes in the everyday world. Pretty quickly, I ended up with the construction workers: their deliberate body language, their clothing, tools, their belts. And when I started engaging with them I got fascinated by that old-fashioned masculine cosmos, a microcosm in which women are absent but at the same time very present, because they talk about women a lot! I loved their quick humour and their intimacy – how they can be rough and coarse, but also very tender with each other.
Another male microcosm filmed by a woman is Claire Denis’ Beau travail. Was that something you had in mind? The motif of the legionnaire brings the reference closer to home.
I was totally aware of it. I love her film, it’s such an iconic piece for me. The motif of the legionnaire is very much linked to the kind of fantasies you have in a foreign land – how you can create a new identity, imagine yourself as someone else, and the legionnaire is typically that military fantasy which gives you clout… These men are in their mid-40s and you can tell they share those kinds of expectations about life – that yearning for more experiences, how there must, there should be, something else, something more.
In some ways these men are also macho show-offs, with their testosterone-powered jokes and rivalry over the village’s best female. Yet your film treats them with empathy. Do you identify with any one of them?
I feel real tenderness for them. I didn’t want to do a film like “look at these idiots” – no, I had to come close to them. So in a way, I identify with all of them.
How was it for them to work under the direction of a woman?
I was a little nervous about that at first. But from the beginning, the cards were on the table: I, as a woman, would like to make a western, I’ll look at you as these men. On set it was also clear: they had their construction expertise, while my team and I had the film expertise, so there was this mutual curiosity and respect. We were partners, cooperating on making this film work. It was no problem at all.
It’s really a male film – the female figures in Western are just projections of these men’s fantasies and desires…
While writing, I realised how strong the genre was. If I gave women more space, it would have to be a different film. So I decided to stay on my western ground, giving women conventional parts in a way. I was also interested in that fantasy that you’re “really” in a country when you’ve slept with a woman from that country.
Both Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann and your film deal with German transplants in the “new Europe”: Romania and Bulgaria, respectively. Was it a coincidence?
We of course knew about each other’s films. I guess it’s fascinating to realise that despite the idea of a “borderless Europe”, borders between a country like Bulgaria and Germany do exist. They’re very practical borders – people in Bulgaria can’t easily afford to come to Germany, while we, on the other hand, can go anywhere. Another aspect I was a little shocked by was how much people look up to Germans there – “We were together in the war, you’re so great.” At first I wasn’t sure how to deal with it, but then I realised that strange respect was quite ambivalent. There’s also a lot of aggression behind it. It was also interesting for my main two protagonists: in some ways, they are these two Germans fighting over who’s the most “important” German of the village.
You were credited as script consultant on Toni Erdmann; now Ade has produced your film. What is it between the two of you?
My work relationship with Maren is very simple and beautiful. Maren and I are friends, and after Sehnsucht we decided we wanted to do something together.
Was it also a deliberate choice to work with another female filmmaker?
I love to work with women. I feel very close to women – things you can understand without words. I’m not such a competitive person, and it’s important to be able to have such trust in and focus on each other’s work. And working with [Ade’s production company] Komplizen Film was a gift. I’m looking forward to doing it again.
We mentioned Claire Denis – is there another female director who’s particularly influenced or inspired you?
I was 30 when I first saw the early works of Catherine Breillat, like Une vraie jeune fille (A Real Young Girl). It was shocking to me to think I had to wait so long to see films that told me so much about what it means to be a young woman. This really made me reflect on my work. I saw it as a new challenge for me, a responsibility to go really deep with my female characters.
German cinema has been decried for years… until Toni Erdmann and now Western. Do you see new hope?
I’m surrounded by good filmmakers who’ve been working the whole time. The main weakness of German cinema, in my eyes, is that separation between the mainstream and the arthouse scene. I hope it’s changing. I remember when I was selling coffee at Akademie der Künste as a student, people were already organising symposiums about the crisis of German film… Maybe we have a complex about it, and a desire to be something else.
Is the future of German cinema female?
It’s important for us to be there. There have been too few women in film history. But today, about half of my students are women, and they’re really strong young women. I’m for the quotas. But I also think that our films speak for themselves. So no point in worrying!