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