When Nelly (Jördis Triebel) is repeatedly asked by an American intelligence agent, John Bird (Jacky Ido), why she and her young son, Alexej (Tristan Göbel), fled East Germany for West Germany, she furiously proclaims, “Because of questions like these.” It’s this similarity between ideologically opposed nations that drives Christian Schwochow’s tense film, one in which the infamous wall that splits up 1975 Berlin functions less as a concrete and barbed-wired divide than a tool to keep citizens on each side in a perpetual state of paranoia.
Mired within a seemingly endless loop of bureaucracy that necessitates acquiring stamps to earn an official residence permit, Nelly is viewed with great suspicion, told that Wassilij (Carlo Ljubek), Alexej’s father, who supposedly died in a car crash three years ago, may be alive, and is perhaps an ex-agent of the Stasi and a defector. And in spite of the occasional dreamlike shots of Wassilij stalking mother and son that come across like misplaced detours into a bad horror movie, his character nonetheless functions as an efficient representation of the past crushing Nelly’s hope for a new start.
The past also haunts her fellow GDR fugitive, Hans (Alexander Scheer), with whom she and her son forge a sympathetic friendship, even if the parental surrogacy that forms between him and Alexej is a bit too blatant. Together they’re confined to a claustrophobic refugee center, its shared bunk beds and basins evoking a prison where would-be immigrants eke out existence. Within its drab walls, rumors abound that Hans is a spy, though these are pointedly unsubstantiated, as the film, mirroring the clandestine setting, craftily generates suspense by refusing to unequivocally disclose his true background. In a conventional thriller, the truth about Wassilij would function as a preeminent plot device, navigating the film toward a thundering revelation. West, on the other hand, is a psychological slow burn, putting us in the muddled headspace of its protagonist as she gradually comes unglued.
Though Schwochow’s use of handheld jostling is too frequent in non-essential situations for it to afford any deeper meaning, he successfully conveys the constant surrounding atmosphere of dread with long shots eliciting the impression of being watched, never more compellingly than the concluding shot outside Nelly and Alexej’s tenement building. The warm glow of its windows is explicitly offset by the voyeuristic sense of the camera placement on the opposite side of the street, looking up, as if it’s the vantage point of a spy lingering in the shadows, a haunting coda suggesting our characters will never be free from the invisibility of oppression.