Directed by Christian Schwochow, West is a powerful film about human trauma, paranoia and the inevitable difficulties of starting a new life. It’s the 1970s in East Germany and Nelly, her son Alexei (Tristan Göbel) and a man – who we only find out is called Vasily as he departs – frolic in the snow outside of their Berlin home. Vasily leaves and we cut to the front of the same home; Alexei is older now, the snow is still falling, Nelly is looking panicked and a car waits out front for them. It quickly becomes apparent they’re leaving for West Germany.
Lead actress Jördis Triebel won Best Actress at both the Montreal World Film Festival and the German Film Prize for her portrayal of Nelly Senff – the ruthlessly protective mother who’s desperate to escape endless questions from her son about his mysterious father. Jördis fully deserves the awards and acclaim for her acting in West; she has an ageless beauty compounded by dramatic expressions showing her every mood. Jördis and Tristan’s relationship is infectious – it makes you miss your own mother with every scene. Nelly is clearly changing the lives of both of them, in ways that are not always easy for a child to understand.
Once in West Germany, Nelly and her son take roots in a refugee camp. Here they meet Hans, who Alexei takes an immediate liking to, while Nelly is a little more cautious – understandably so in a land filled with fellow Germans, but that’s essentially foreign. While Nelly must jump through hoops to earn citizenship to West Germany, Hans becomes a new father figure for Alexei. West throws up some interesting ideas around immigration, and what it is to live as a refugee. Nelly and her son are German by nationality, but because they found themselves on the wrong side of the wall, they need to move West to escape oppression. When Alexei moves to his new school, he is greeted by calls of “Eastern scum!” It certainly makes you think about how it must feel for a complete stranger in another country, when one who is native is bullied in their own.
It’s the relationships of the characters that pulls together a plot that, although slow, is filled with tension and drama. It may have taken two years to hit the UK cinemas, but that’s no reflection on the quality of West. A cinematic style that echoes Ken Loach makes this subtitled German language film feel unmistakably familiar – and a joy to watch.
West is released nationwide on 12th June 2015.
Watch the trailer for West here: