October 22, 2009

East Germany's Indian films

Like the West Germans, the East Germans also made films about the Indians they loved:

The Sons of Great BearThe imperative to put butts into theater seats is apparently one that has been shared by film industries throughout the world, regardless of what political system they operated under. And whether those butts were capitalist or communist seems to have made little difference. Thus it was, in 1966, that East Germany’s state run DEFA studio decided to try their hand at what had been widely considered an exclusively American genre, the Western, in an attempt to entice those audiences who had been staying away from their usual, more dryly ideological fare in droves with more thrilling, action-oriented entertainments

Of course, DEFA had no intention of aping Hollywood’s approach to that genre, and would ultimately put their own, distinctive spin on it. Going a long way toward achieving that was their decision to tell their film’s story from the point of view of its Native American characters, with whites settlers serving as the villains, a conceit that would also provide a convenient platform for critiques of American imperialism and greed.
And:DEFA saw their own first venture into the Western genre—or Indianerfilm—as a response to, rather than an emulation of, the Winnetou films, and were determined to outshine their West German counterparts in terms of the historical accuracy and authenticity of their product. To this end, they chose as their source material The Sons of Great Bear, a young person’s novel written by East German author and historian Liselotte Welskopf Henrich that was at the time considered to be scrupulous in its depiction of Native American life and customs. Veteran Czech director Josef Mach was invited to take the reins of the picture and, to star as its hero, the fearless and incorruptible Sioux warrior Tokei-Ihto, a chance was taken on an unknown young Yugoslavian actor named Gojko Mitic.DEFA Film Library CatalogApaches
Original Title: Apachen
East Germany, 1973, 94 min., color
Director: Gottfried Kolditz

Based on original documents from the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), this film tells the story of a young warrior Ulzana who is out to avenge the extermination of his tribe, which was led by American geologist Johnson. Apaches is one of the classic Indianerfilme produced by DEFA between 1966 and 1985.

Chingachgook, the Great Snake
Original Title: Chingachgook, die grosse Schlange
East Germany, 1967, 86 min., color
Director: Richard Groschopp

An adaptation of The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper. French colonists and Hurons are fighting against English troops and their allies, the Delaware. Only Chingachgook, a young Delaware, and his fair-skinned friend Deerslayer realize that the colonizers intend to exterminate the Native Americans altogether.

Sons of Great Bear, The
Original Title: Die Soehne der grossen Baerin
East Germany, 1966, 93 min., color
Director: Josef Mach

Gojko Mitic stars in this, his very first Indianerfilm, as the fearless chief Tokei-ihto, whose Dakota tribe is being driven from the land of their ancestors. Based on the carefully researched Western fiction of Liselotte Welskopt-Henrich, East Germany's answer to Karl May.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.

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