Westerns in East Germany? At first glance, it seems like an absurd proposition, but, in fact, DEFA made twelve of these films during their forty years of existence. While it is easy to laugh at the idea of Germans and Yugoslavians pretending to be American Indians, is it any worse than what Hollywood had to offer with the likes of Sal Mineo, Ricardo Montalban, Jeff Chandler, and Victor Jory? In fact, Gojko Mitic, who starred in 12 of DEFA’s westerns, was so well liked by Native Americans that he was made an honorary chief by the Sioux—an honor not likely to be bestowed on any of the American actors who specialized in Westerns.
By the last half of the sixties, the appreciation of westerns was waning in the United States. During the 1950s, they had been all the rage. Between 1950 and 1965, a staggering number of movies and television shows were produced, feeding the American public a constant stream of stories about the derring-do of the men of the old west. But the winds of change were upon us. The young people who had been spoon-fed shows such as Gunsmoke, Wanted Dead or Alive, Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, The Rifleman, and Rawhide were starting to learn the truth about America’s past, and it wasn’t pretty. What had once been seen as a tale of brave men and women fighting the elements and cut-throat savages to secure their place on earth was now recognized as a land grab by greedy white people at the expense of the Native Americans. While there had been films that were sympathetic to the American Indians (most notably, Cheyenne Autumn), they usually took the noble savage attitude and never question the free-for-all that was the colonization of the American West.
Around the same time, the Italians had discovered that they could make westerns that could compete favorably with anything Hollywood had to offer. Very few of these films were playing in the States (although it was filmed in 1964, A Fistful of Dollars wouldn’t reach the American cinemas until 1967, when it was shown with its sequel, For a Few Dollars More), but they were extremely popular throughout the rest of the world.
East Germany’s fist attempt at a western was The Sons of the Great Bear (Die Söhne der großen Bärin), a co-production with Yugoslavia’s Bosna Films. To play the lead, the Yugoslavian actor, Gojko Mitic, was chosen. Mitic had already made a name for himself as an actor/stuntman in several West German/Yugoslavian/Italian co-productions of films based on the novels of Karl May. May had never actually been to the American West, but that didn’t stop him from becoming the most popular writer of western fiction in Germany.
The people at DEFA had no interest in filming the stories of Karl May. His work was seen as anti-socialistic and was closely associated with Adolf Hitler, who considered May one of Germany’s greatest writers. Instead, they chose the East German Author, Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich’s book The Sons of the Great Bear. Unlike the works of Karl May, which took most of their cues from James Fenimore Cooper, (an east coast American writer whose knowledge of the American frontier was almost as limited as May’s) the protagonists of Welskopf-Henrich’s works were sharply defined by the actual injustices faced by the Native Americans at the hands of the white settlers. Like May and Cooper, Welskopf-Henrich’s knowledge of the west was mostly garnered from books. But unlike May and Cooper, she did some serious research into the tribal customs of the Dakota Sioux.
The Sons of the Great Bear is the story of Tokei-Ihto, a Dakota tribesman who is trying to keep the white men from stealing his tribe’s land. His arch-rival is Red Fox (Jirí Vrstála), a white scout who has taken part in Indian initiation rituals and pretends to be part-Indian when it suits his needs (although this is not explained in the movie). When it is discovered that there is gold on the tribe’s land, the government decides that it is time to relocate the Dakotas to someplace more favorable. Tokei-Ihto tries to convince his chief that the white men can’t be trusted, but the chief doesn’t listen, with predictable results.
As is often the case with movie translations into books, Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich was not happy with the finished film and asked to have her name removed from the credits (it wasn’t). Nonetheless, the film was a huge hit. While Hollywood did eventually follow suit with films such as Soldier Blue and Little Big Man, it was too little too late. The American public had been thoroughly indoctrinated to see the Indians as the bad guys and the cowboys as the good guys. Films that did not follow this formula didn’t stand a chance with the American public and westerns slowly started to disappear from U.S. cinemas just as the East Germany westerns (sometimes referred to as Osterns) were picking up speed. The Sons of the Great Bear is not the best of these, but it was the first and helped create a new career for Gojko Mitic. Mitic continued working after the wall came down, returning to the stories of Karl May as “Winnetou,” May’s most popular character, in a series of TV movies.