The title of Valeska Grisebach’s beautifully complicated, rigorously straightforward third feature, “Western,” has at least two meanings. The German workers who come to a remote rural valley in Bulgaria to build a hydroelectric plant are emissaries of the West, bringing the ambiguous benefits of capitalist development to a former Eastern Bloc nation. It’s not the first time Germans have been here, as several people point out, even if the crew hardly resembles an occupying army.
But they do call to mind the cavalrymen in a movie like “Fort Apache”: interlopers in someone else’s territory, surrounded by a local population that is wary of their presence and sometimes hostile to it. The Germans live in a camp some distance from the nearest village, whose residents most of them regard with contempt. The exception is Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), who is older than most of his colleagues and has a different work history. A haggard loner with a thousand-yard stare and a melancholy air, he claims to be a former soldier who has been in inhospitable places before. He befriends some of the Bulgarians, which spreads tension in every direction.
To stick with the “Fort Apache” analogy, Meinhard is like the John Wayne character, interested in the “natives” and respectful of their customs. His boss, Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), is a bit more like Henry Fonda: arrogant, incurious, convinced of his own superiority. When he harasses Vyara (Vyara Borisova), a local woman who is swimming near the German camp, he threatens to put the whole enterprise at risk. The possibility of violence buzzes in the air like insects in the summer heat.
But rather than force a situation drawn from contemporary reality into a ready-made genre box, Ms. Grisebach plays with the implications of the western and the expectations of the audience. At various points, we may think we know where the story is heading — sometimes dreading an inevitable tragedy, sometimes embracing a promise of reconciliation or redemption — but the film is as full of detours and switchbacks as the mountain roads its characters must negotiate.
And those characters are not always who they seem to be, even to themselves. Meinhard comes across as more sensitive, more stoical and tougher than his colleagues — more of a man, in the old gunslinger ethos — but it’s possible that he overestimates his own mastery of a complex situation. It’s also possible that his displays of decency toward the villagers are motivated by selfishness as much as altruism and that he may not be the righteous nice guy they take him for.
Everything about “Western” may be knottier and more contradictory than it initially appears, but it also might be simpler. The friendship between Meinhard and Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Lefitov), a local landowner and businessman, is direct and affectionate, and the actors show how intimacy can develop without a common language. Meinhard, nicknamed the “legionnaire,” is jokingly described as Adrian’s bodyguard, and events will test the extent and intensity of his loyalty.