West is an interesting film. A modern German film set in the 1970’s about a woman and her son emigrating from East Germany to West Germany, which examines the similarities between the two halves of the state, rather than merely considering the former as a site of cold bureaucratic menace and the latter as one of freedom and opportunity.
Three years after the death of her lover, Nelly Senff (Jӧrdis Triebel) smuggles herself and her young son Alexei (Tristan Gӧbel) into West Germany. Housed in a refugee camp, she goes through the process of collecting enough stamps to be legally allowed to make a life for herself in the West. One stamp involves getting the all clear from a tough intelligence agent, John Bird (Jacky Ido). The longer it takes Nelly to get the stamps she needs, the more she begins to realize how little the West is different from the East.
Our films, as well as our histories, are fond of showing a dark, unpleasant Orwellian East (Soviet bloc) in opposition to a free, colourful and open West. We have enough films like The Lives of Others about East Germany and the Stasi, but few enough about the equally cold and bureaucratic West. West revolves around the same Kafkaesque set-up as these other films, but its main difference is in showing that this kind of dehumanising processing was not unique to the Soviet bloc. Indeed, in one scene, it is an arch picture of Carter hanging on the wall, rather than a tough, uncompromising picture of Stalin. Later, we see Alexei playing with a friend, both of them sitting by a tall chain-link fence with West Germany and normality beyond. The parallels with the current plight of refugees in Calais is obviously unintentional (the film was made in 2013), but nonetheless telling.
However, where the film works best is in the quality of its cast. Triebel gives a fantastic performance as a woman trying to comply whilst also keeping some sense of personal liberty and dignity. Her strong performance ensures that the film is as much if not more about her character’s struggles than any overarching political message. The film’s examination of her attempts to make a life for herself and her son indeed recalls the feminist but fairly non-political Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Anchored by a strong central performance and intriguing for its rare view of Soviet-US bloc parallels, the film makes a slight misstep with the shady past and indeed possible present by Nelly’s former lover, who may just be a Stasi informer and who may be attempting to contact her. Where the film had previously worked as the story of one woman’s struggles, this development moves the film into spy movie territory, a convoluted storyline that distracts from the real drama of the film.
West then is a moving drama that has the ring of lived-in authenticity and strong performances. Questioning what it is that we call freedom, it feels as much a film about today as one about the 1970’s, which is really what all films set in the past should feel like. Worth seeking out.