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Westerns with a Twist

The spaghetti western is not likely to be displaced by its northern counterpart, the Wiener schnitzel westerns produced in Germany from the silent days to the 1970s. The Germans, of course, had their own take on the American West, inherited from the popular novelist Karl May, whose portraits of the “noble savage” Winnetou, written in the late 19th century, owed a great deal to James Fenimore Cooper. Blending in the more exalted and mystical strains of German Romanticism, Mr. May created a “natural man” of such extraordinary purity that the figure continued to hold a profound and sometimes dangerous fascination for generations of Germans to come.

“Westerns With a Twist” is a collection of three films produced by DEFA, the state studio of Communist East Germany. If the Nazis’ use of Mr. May’s exotic übermensch had led to disaster, there was still something for the Communists to pluck from his creed: the idea of American Indians as an oppressed underclass, viciously exploited by the forces of capitalism.

At least that seems to be the political justification behind “The Sons of Great Bear” (Josef Mach, 1965); “Chingachook: The Great Snake” (Richard Groschopp, 1967); and “Apaches” (Gottfried Kolditz, 1973). These three DEFA westerns (or Indianerfilme, to use the more pointed German term) all star Gojko Mitic, an imposing Serb whose bare-chested appearances in 12 DEFA westerns made him a major star in Eastern Europe. Standing in for the landscape of the American West were Bosnia, Bulgaria, Romania and Uzbekistan.

Dutifully enough, the films are full of harsh portraits of greedy land speculators and genocidal Army officers, all dedicated to chasing the Native Americans off their suddenly valuable land. But the criticism is certainly no harsher than that offered by most of the American “anti-westerns” of roughly the same period, while the portraits of the Indians seem, if anything, more idealized and naïve. With their immaculate buckskins, flowing headdresses and handy tomahawks, they look like children dressed for a 1950s birthday party.

Given the time frame, it’s possible that Mr. Mitic (who appears in video supplements on each disc, looking hale and hearty at 66) was unconsciously projecting a completely different message. With his long hair, beads and reverence for all things natural, he bears a powerful resemblance to an American hippie. As the only antiestablishment hero endorsed by the Politburo, Mr. Mitic might have been giving focus to feelings that were otherwise strictly forbidden — an Abbie Hoffman generated by Erich Honecker. First Run Features, $39.95, not rated.

Review reprinted from the New York Times. October 31, 2006

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