“When we talk about immigration, you have to take a step towards the other”

“When we talk about immigration, you have to take a step towards the other”

A scene from Western, a new film by the German director Valeska Grisebach, which tells a story of German workers in Bulgaria.


They came with their big machines to build a water pump for a Bulgarian village but became ensnared in local intrigue and mistrust. Gritty German labourers trying to live and work in Bulgaria is the basic synopsis of Western, a new film by the German director Valeska Grisebach about tables turned at a time of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment amongst many Europeans. Germans boldly flying their flag over their work camp, only to see it disappear. Bulgarians wary of their new neighbours, and worried they’ll steal their women. Set for an August release in Germany, it was in the Certain Regard selection at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Here Grisebach talks to Equal Times about immigration, integration and identity.

What inspired you to make this film?

As a little girl, watching Westerns with my father, I was really fascinated by the genre about these male characters. But it was always a little bit bittersweet, because as a girl I was identifying with these male heroes, because they were always more attractive in the film than the women. I was always a little bit excluded from this genre. Now as a woman, I wanted to become a little bit closer to this per se male genre, and closer to these lonely heroes.

Also, for a long time I was thinking about making a film about xenophobia, or the fear of strangers. This exists everywhere, but I live in Germany so I had this idea about German construction workers working in another country, where they’re themselves strangers but with all these desires to get in contact, but at the same time this mistrust and fear.

What does this film say about integration and the question of identity?

It was very interesting to see these German men the other way around, because normally Germany is this country of a longing and desire by other people, and I was interested in these kind of different perspectives in Europe. Germany is so much in the centre and in such a high status. And I think when people from different countries meet, you have a subtext: how does it feel as a German, how does it feel as a Bulgarian? Bulgaria is the poorest country in Europe, and I was interested in [what happens] when they meet; what is the energy? How do the Germans react to a strange setting? I was interested in this ambivalent moment when people want to get in touch with each other, but at the same time they’re scared, and they put themselves on a higher status. With these questions of integration, it’s important to have these moments to come close to each other.

How does this turn the table on Germans, as guest workers?

This was really very interesting to me, because normally it’s the other way around. But here the Germans have their big machines and their European project for a water plant, and they come with all their knowledge, but at the same time they have to react to this new experience. They find themselves as strangers. And the men in the story, they are men who have really travelled a lot in their life. So it’s a new experience for them, and I think to be a stranger is a very important experience in everyone’s life.

How much of a link is there to the migrant crisis in Western?

I started to think about the project years before, and when we started to shoot, the migration crisis began. So we were on the border between Bulgaria and Greece, and we were shooting and then in the newspapers we read a lot about it. And I was thinking about how to react to this, because a lot of people were fleeing through Bulgaria. But for my project I thought, maybe there’s something in the film without making it as a main topic. So I decided not to change my story, but just to deal with it in another way. So our main character, he is somebody who is really ambivalent. In a way, he wants to have contact, but in another way, he doesn’t want to have contact. And at some point he really is a hero for me because he tries. I really believe, when we talk about immigration, you have to take this step towards the other. And I think even if you’re strangers, it’s a gift to get in contact with each other.