National Public Radio
Taos Talking Pictures
Ich Bin Ein Indianer
East German Westerns at the Speakeasy Cafe
"Livin' with Commanches ain't bein' alive."-John
Wayne in The Searchers, 1956
TWO YEARS AGO, Jens Wazel went home to East Germany for Christmas. While he was hanging out at a friend's place one evening channel surfing, they caught an old movie they'd seen about a hundred times as kids. The film scenario should be familiar to most of us: Prospectors discover gold in the Black Hills. White settlers swarm the area, building forts and fighting off Indians. There are lots of horseback chases, swinging saloon doors, and shoot-'em-ups. In the end, the true heroes prevail to carry on the way of the West.
There are some differences, though. These Black Hills are in Yugoslavia, the horses are Russian, the riders are German. And in this case, it's not the lone figure of a stalwart John Wayne backlit by a golden sunset which closes the picture. In East Germany, the lone figure is Gojko Mitic, and the hero is not a cowboy, but an Indian.
From 1965 to 1983, East Germany's state-sponsored movie company DEFA produced 12 "Indianerfilme" ("Indian Movies"). These variations on the cowboy-and-Indian theme were extensively researched and largely based on the works of the 19th century German novelist Karl May, who, in turn, based his tales of the American Wild West on Apache lore, the works of such writers as James Fenimore Cooper, popular "penny dreadfuls," and his own much-vaunted experiences traveling in America. (These last turned out to be completely fabricated. May wrote the majority of his famous "Winnetou" Indian series while serving time for insurance fraud and impersonating an officer.) Whereas traditional narratives of the Western film genre paint Native Americans as savage hurdles to Manifest Destiny, the East German films, while retaining the look and the good vs. evil conflicts of the American films, recast Manifest Destiny as Manifest Tyranny.
The series-which included such titles as Die Söhne der großen Bärin (The Sons of the Great Bear) and Chingachgook, die grosse Schlange (Chingachgook, The Great and Snake, an adaptation of Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans)-grew immensely popular, as did its Yugoslavian-born star, Gojko Mitic. (As a result of the fan frenzy around the Indian heroes Mitic played, there are now a number of Gojkos growing up in the former Eastern bloc.)
Ironically, as frequently occurs in the U.S., the East German series also proved a capitalist boon, spawning a commercial market for Indianer comic books, toy tomahawks, and other paraphernalia. Wazel points out that when East German kids played "cowboys and Indians," nobody wanted to be the cowboy, they all wanted to be the Indians. When these kids grew up, some would join one of the Indianerklubs (groups of hobby "Native Americans"), camping in teepees and celebrating Native American culture at frequent conventions.
Having lived in the States for some years now, Wazel drew some quick contrasts between the films on which he shaped his views of Native Americans and the Western frontier, and their Ameican counterparts. Wazel came home from his Christmas trip determined to screen some East German westerns-which had never been shown outside of Eastern Europe-for his friends in the U.S.
At the Speakeasy Cafe on October 11-14, the Wild East comes West. After months of negotiations for funding, formatting, subtitling, and publicity, Wazel and pals Sven Hecker (a freelance radio journalist in Berlin) and Peter Feist (a film critic in Luxembourg) made it happen. For the first time, a U. S. audience will see Die Söhne der großen Bärin (1965) and Apachen (1973). Hecker and Wazel both created web sites, one in German and the other in English (http://www.speakeasy.org/wildeast/). A UW professor of Native American Studies wants her students to attend. A German TV production company, which provided help with the subtitling, will fly out to film a documentary on the festival.
And Gojko Mitic himself, still a prominent cultural icon in the former Eastern bloc, has agreed to come and participate in a post-screening discussion on opening night, which will also include Northern Exposure's Richard Restoule, a Native American artist and historian with whom Wazel has frequently consulted about the project. Saturday night the festival will feature live music by Kultur Shock, whose members come from Bosnia and Bulgaria, and an on-site exhibition will include some of the Indianerfilm memorabilia and background material.
Wazel's original fascination with this project involved two particular aspects of these films: the contrasts between Western westerns and Eastern westerns; and Wazel's initial (now somewhat amended) claims that, judging from the evidence of these films, East Germany was far ahead of the U.S. in presenting positive, accurate images of Native Americans.
One can easily agree that contrasts abound between Eastern and Western westerns, and that these contrasts are richer for challenging traditional historical perspectives of how the West was won-or lost. But even more fascinating to me are the parallels between these westerns, which-rather than seeming wholly opposite-are often mirror images of the very same, very familiar sets of oppositions: technology vs. nature, expansionism vs. environmentalism, individualism vs. tribalism, and even capitalism vs. socialism. The German western contains as many agendas as the U.S. western.Witness this plot synopsis of Tödlicher Irrtum (Fatal Error, 1970): "The Wyoming Oil Company struck it lucky on the land of the Indian reservation. The poor Indians, facing a limited existence, are filled with hope by the reflection of wealth from their land. Their naïve belief that the white men will be honest business partners proves to be a fatal error."
As for the degree of p.c. in these East German westerns, such claims are richer for remaining debatable. Like the U.S. western, the Indianerfilme has a checkered and changeable history. Although we associate most popularized images of the Native American with the racist spittle of Wayne's line quoted above, the western form never solidified, but rather wavered between pro-progress and anti-progress settlers, between excoriating and exoticizing (as with the pulp romance in the second quote) the Indian. In the '50s, for example, films antagonistic (The Searchers) and sympathetic (Broken Arrow) to Native Americans were released in quick succession. (The Native character Tonto of the popular '50s TV series The Lone Ranger, found himself somewhere in a two-dimensional in-between.)
In the '90s, a spate of new westerns treading fast on the Iron Curtain's curtain have sparked renewed debates about the images presented in such films as Dances With Wolves, the latest Last of the Mohicans, and Disney's Pocahontas. On one hand, all three films portray Native heroism and celebrate aspects of native culture. On the other, all three films were conceptualized by whites, and all three demonstrate a continued resistance to races mixing. In Dances, Costner's character chooses the one woman in the Sioux tribe who is a white adoptee. In Cooper's original novel The Last of the Mohicans, half-breed Cora's romantic interest is the Native Mohican, Uncas; in the most recent Hollywood version, not a drop of native blood is suggested in Madeline Stowe's Cora, who falls instead for the white Hawkeye, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. In Pocahontas, Pocahontas does not return to England with a white husband, but rather stays behind among "her own people."
While the Indianerfilme ostensibly celebrate Native traditions and culture, they also sprang from a questionable, intriguing past. Karl May's stories hinged on the noble savage stereotype, reinforcing age-old primitivist fantasies and pitting "base" savages against those savages responsive to the literature, formal education and trappings of white (specifically German) high culture. (Interestingly, Adolph Hitler was an avid reader of May's "Winnetou" stories.) In the context of East German Socialism, the films can not only be viewed as pro-Indian, but also as anti-American.
As historian John Bornemann remarks in After the Wall (Basic Books, 1991), "Life with the [Berlin]Wall, life under socialism, had not been all of one hue." He goes on to suggest that the very history of (East and West) Berlin since the War has been a history practiced upon, and not by, the Berliners. "It is a history of names and structures imposed, of oppositions articulated, by occupation forces. It is a history in which the Berliners have continually suffered the indignity of being spoken for." Under these perceived circumstances, East German identification with the Native American is even more likely than it may at first have appeared.
I've seen shots from many of these films and they are campy fun to the extreme. But the Wild East Goes West project also highlights a number of questions about the politics of borrowing the Indian, whether for positive or negative ends, in the service of symbolism. In the end, audiences may ask themselves if a poster of Goiko's Teutonic Tecumseh is not merely an icon of East German fantasy, but another side of the Buffalo nickel, too.