West opens with a woman (Jördis Triebel) and her young son attempting to escape East Germany into the West. They wait at the border gate, posing with a paid stranger in order to appear like an ‘acceptable’ family. The guards check them out, the questions begin, and they’re followed by humiliating strip searches. If they make it over the border they have nowhere to go, no friends to shelter them and the constant questioning and state observation will follow them wherever they go. In this thriller paranoia works against our hero, turning friends into enemies, removing faith in the future and destabilising the bond between mother and son.
The first thing which hits you about West is Jördis Triebel’s excellent performance. She carries pretty much the entire film on her back, speaking volumes with her eyes and body as she increasingly struggles within a system of paranoia and fear. We can see the inner battle playing out as she walks down a street, as she faces yet another round of questioning just in order to get one of many stamps on an official form. We watch as her actions begin heavily impacting upon those around her, in particular her young son (Tristan Göbel) who she desperately tries to shelter but through her paranoia risks alienating him more than she does exposing him to the world.
What the film could have done better was develop its portrait of Germany a little. The groundwork is there as this film has plenty of atmosphere and many moments of tension and intrigue, however the secondary characters aren’t really developed enough most of the time in order for them to have real impact. Save for one secondary character they are all a little faceless and soulless which, not only means the film isn’t as rich, but also means a drop in tension. We want to be eyeing up each of these people and wondering if they are to be feared or trusted, but the film doesn’t really give us that opportunity when most of them are such cut-outs.
West isn’t as strong as it could be on characterisation, and it also leaves one too many narrative threads unfulfilled, however it is regardless an affecting piece of work. The script is intelligently written; knowing how and when to hold back and linger in moments, when to let its characters speak their mind and when they are better off communicating silently. It’s a shame that it doesn’t reach its full potential because there was the real possibility of this being a great film. Instead it is a good one. One with an excellent lead performance to balance out its faults and enough power and atmosphere in order to carry us through comfortably to its close. See this for Triebel because if the gods are kind we will see much more from her in the future.
What is the film’s greatest strength? Triebel’s excellent performance.
Its greatest weakness? It needs its secondary characters to be developed further.
Would I see it again? Yes I would, it’s strengths considerably outweigh its flaws.
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