Wednesday, November 5, 2014

REVIEW: West


The concept of "The West" has long been synonymous with the ideas of hope and freedom. On a macro-level, it relates to the treasured pursuit of the American Dream held dear by immigrants all over the world. On the micro-level, it can mean movement within a country due to its sharp sociopolitical divide. Such is the case in Christian Schwochow's "West", a film about a woman's quest for a better life on the other side of the Berlin Wall.

It's the late 1970s in East Germany and Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) is a woman in need of a change. A highly educated and ambitious woman, she desires more for herself and her son. So one day she makes the decision to escape past the Berlin Wall and away from communism, in the hope of finding prosperity in West Germany. Pretending to be married to a West German, she successfully crosses the border. However, she soon finds that things aren't so rosy in her newly adopted home. She struggles to find a suitable job to match her qualifications and her initial living conditions aren't too dissimilar from "the projects" you'd find in an urban ghetto.

These setbacks are manageable however, especially when compared to a sudden investigation into her past that brings back painful memories. Specifically, the Allied Secret Service begins questioning her about her mysteriously departed boyfriend Wassilij. Presumed dead, she is forced to consider the possibility that he may still be alive and even further, that he may have been a spy. Under intense emotional and psychological pressure, Nelly must decide if she really wants to know the truth.

As Christian Schwochow explores Nelly's dilemma, one can definitely sense his artistic vision for this film. The gritty cinematography and grounded performances imbue the film with strong atmosphere. On visuals alone it could easily be mistaken for a long-lost 70s film.

Yet for all its visual acumen, there's something lacking in how the screenplay balances its dual storylines. The script tries to foreground the Wassilij investigation but the narrative approach is too tentative. Like a far-fetched conspiracy theory, it always remains hypothetical. While the film places so much emphasis on this storyline, it sidelines the much more compelling immigration drama at its core. In fact, much of the reasoning for the investigation's stalemate pertains to Nelly's preoccupation with her own personal life. As such, there's a wealth of intriguing material to be developed there - adapting to a new environment, building new relationships, restarting your career.

Furthermore, the film's most interesting performances come from these scenarios. In addition to Triebel in the lead role, Anja Antonowicz (as Nelly's friendly neighbor), Tristan Göbel (as Nelly's son Alexej) and Alexander Scheer (as Alexej's new father figure) are all engaging presences that invigorate the film with depth and feeling. They represent the film's most trenchant thematic values - friendship, family and the pursuit of happiness.

In the end, Christian Schwochow's "West" is an admirable effort that suffers from its unrealized ambition. It looks and feels like a 70s thriller but it's much more effective as an intimate human drama. Come for the mystery, stay for the people.

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