Here’s the big problem with West, an otherwise solid adaptation of Julia Franck’s novel: the last scene belongs to a minor character and not the heroine, a single mother looking to make a life for herself and her son in 1970s West Berlin. There’s a hint of a wobble in the middle of the second act, where it looks like director Christian Schwochow has forgotten whose story this is for a stretch before getting things back on track, but that wobble returns and unsteadies everything as West reaches its climax.
Nelly (Triebel) is a chemist making her way through the Berlin wall into West Berlin with son Alexis (Gobel) in the late seventies. She has paid off a man to pose as her husband, her boyfriend and Alexis’ father having died three years before, and they successfully negotiate the crossing. Living in a refugee centre with other escapees, Nelly has to jump through some bureaucratic hoops to acquire the necessary stamps to start a new life. However, standing in her way is CIA agent Bird (Ido), looking for any information Nelly might have about living in the Soviet section and who hints that her boyfriend may be alive and working for the Stasi...
Schwochow works hard to bring the era to life. The emphasis on details allows him to get under the fingernails of what life must have been like in a West Berlin refugee centre in the late seventies. He also goes to lengths to draw parallels between the CIA’s intrusive questioning of private affairs and the Stasi’s humiliating tactics; there’s nothing between her being forced to strip at the border and Bird’s very personal interrogation - both leave her naked and exposed. Fellow refugee Hans (Scheer) points out, "We have the same bedclothes here as the ones in East German jails." With overcrowding and sharing of toilets, this isn’t the paradise Nelly envisaged for her and her son and it looks like West’s daring proposition is that there’s not much difference between East and West.
But then comes that mid-act wobble. When Nelly begins to flirt with Bird her motivation gets a little muddied, and the story branches out to explore Hans, the creepy guy suspected of being a Stasi informer and who becomes a reluctant father figure to Alexis. While these developments work in their own right, they feel part of a broader story - as if West was a much longer film that was hacked down, leaving these subplots unfinished and underdeveloped. This is why allowing Hans and not Nelly occupy our attention and dominate screentime in the run in is such a puzzling decision - he is just the subplot after all.