In 1990, actor/director Kevin Costner made a film called Dances With Wolves. The film told the story of a U.S. Army soldier stationed out west who learns the ways of the local Indian tribe and eventually finds himself at odds with the white people invading the west. The film was hailed as revolutionary for its pro-Native American stance, and went on to win seven Academy Awards. One tiny little fact got lost in the shuffle: the film had already been made in East Germany fifteen years earlier.
That film was Blood Brothers (Blutsbrüder), and, as with most other East German Indianerfilme, it starred Gojko Mitic, the Yugoslavian actor who specialized in playing Native Americans for DEFA. This was Mitic’s tenth exploration of the American West for DEFA. It is interesting to compare his performance in this film with some of his previous films, such as Chingachgook, the Great Snake, or Apaches. In those, he is presented as a nearly super-human force, capable of feats that strain credulity. In Blood Brothers, he puts on a more human face. He is vulnerable, occasionally bested, and more relaxed. It is one of his most engaging performances and shows an actor who has grown comfortable with his persona.
This may have been, in part, because he was working opposite Dean Reed who brought a goofy affability to most of the roles he played. Dean Reed was an American pop singer who had been one of the dozens of handsome young men groomed for stardom by the major record companies in the wake of Elvis. He had a few modest hits in the states, but in South America, his song, “Our Summer Romance” was a bona fide blockbuster. Taking advantage of the situation, Reed travelled to South America, where he played to packed venues all over the continent, and eventually moved to Argentina. While there, he became outraged by the disparity between the rich and the poor. He visited Chile, where he met the political folksinger Victor Jara and learned that music can make a difference. His politics shifted to the left and he began singing protest songs; he appeared at free concerts for the poor and protested U.S. politics. After the Argentine Revolution, the new fascist government there decided that Reed was persona non grata, and sent him packing.
At first, he went to Rome, where he began acting in spaghetti westerns, most notably, Adios Sabata, where he played second bill to Yul Brynner. In 1973, Reed, who by now considered himself a Marxist, decided to move to East Germany where he continued to appear in films.. While there, he recorded several albums for the state-owned record label, Amiga. He became wildly popular in all the Soviet bloc countries and was known as der Rote Elvis (the Red Elvis).
In spite of his politics, Reed never joined the SED and continued to file his income with the IRS until the end of his life. In 1986, Reed appeared on the popular American TV news program, 60 Minutes, where he defended the building of the Berlin Wall, and compared Reagan to Stalin. Reportedly, Reed was interested in returning to the United States, but years abroad had left him without a clue as to how far to the right the average American was politically. Reactions to the interview were vitriolic and left Reed despondent and confused. Six weeks after that show, he committed suicide. The authorities covered up the suicide, fearing that it would reflect badly on the state. This led to years of speculation as to whether he was murdered or committed suicide. The question was finally answered after the Wende, when his Stasi files were opened by author Chuck Laszewski while he was researching his book, Rock ‘n’ Roll Radical: The Life & Mysterious Death of Dean Reed. There, Laszewski found a suicide note and an apology to SED General Secretary Erich Honecker.
While it is tempting to make a full-on comparison between Blood Brothers and Dances with Wolves, there are some important differences. The biggest one is that of perspective. The Hollywood film follows the age-old formula of the righteous white man learning the ways of the oppressed minority and coming to their aid as the heroic savior. We’ve seen it many times before, from Lawrence of Arabia to Avatar. Blood Brothers inverts the formula. By himself, Reed’s character (known as Harmonika for his musical instrument of choice) is incapable of salvation. If anything, it is the Indians who save him; first from the wilderness and then from his own dissipation. The hero here is, as is often the case in the Indianerfilme, Gojko Mitic’s character (given the improbable name of “Harter Felsen,” which translates into something roughly along the lines of “hard ground,” or the rather redundant, “hard rock”). Unlike Dean Reed’s well-meaning, but confused renegade, Mitic’s character never loses his center, and eventually helps Harmonika get back on track. Of course, this being an East German film, getting back on the right track means killing American soldiers.
Blood Brothers was directed by Werner W. Wallroth. Wallroth normally specialized in lighter fare. He was part of the generation that was still in its teenage years when the war ended. His most successful film was Hauptmann Florian von der Mühle (Captain Florian of the Mill), a lowbrow farce starring Manfred Krug. His last feature film for DEFA was Der Doppelgänger a romantic comedy starring Klaus-Dieter Klebsch. After the Wende, he retired from filmmaking, but continued to work in theater. Wallroth is also a talented lyricist, writing songs for various East German artists, including Chris Doerk (of Hot Summer fame), and Nina Hagen (he penned her popular song, “Wir tanzen Tango”). He died on August 9th of this in Potsdam at the age of 81.
The cinematographer was by Hans Heinrich. Although IMDB lists him as the same man who directed the first DEFA musical, Meine Frau Macht Musik (My Wife Makes Music), he is not. That director was a West Berliner (born November 2, 1911), whose career in the east was capped by that musical in 1957. That same year, the cinematographer Heinrich (born March 19, 1929) was still working in the “Das Stacheltier” group at DEFA. Das Stacheltier made short films that played before the feature films at East German cinemas. Sometimes these were documentaries, and sometimes they were short films, usually comedies. In 1961, he started working on feature films regularly. His work includes the Manfred Krug comedies, Auf der Sonnenseite (On the Sunny Side), and Frau Venus und ihr Teufel (Lady Venus and Her Devil). During the seventies, he was one of the most popular cinematographers of Indianerfilme, and he filmed many of Dean Reed’s GDR films, including the two that Reed directed (El Cantor and Sing, Cowboy, Sing).
In spite of Wallroth’s rather lackadaisical approach to mise-en-scène, Heinrich’s work in Blood Brothers is spectacular. In one of the most memorable scenes, after an attack on the Indian camp by the whites, the camera rapidly tracks through the wreckage of the camp, gliding over hills and through the still-standing tentpoles of a destroyed tepee. It looks like it was shot with a Steadicam, but the Steadicam wouldn’t turn up in films for another year, starting with Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory (for which cinematographer Haskell Wexler won an Academy Award). How an East German film came up with a Steadicam-style shot a full year before the process was introduced deserves further investigation.
The music is by Karl-Ernst Sasse, and is one of his odder scores. In places, it is remarkably imaginative, using jaw harps for percussive effects, but a minute later, it suddenly devolves into the kind of cliches that one could find on any U.S. TV western in the fifties. [For more on Sasse, see Her Third and Signals.] As an musical lagniappe, Dean Reed appears at the beginning of the film and sings his song, “Love Your Brother.”
Blood Brothers was one of the last Indianerfilme made by DEFA. The public was beginning to lose its enthusiasm for the genre. Nonetheless, the film did very well at the box office and helped enhance Reed’s reputation behind the Iron Curtain.