A man trying to escape from modern life finds himself caught between band of renegade Indians and an opium-smoking geologist who wants to start a copper mine where the Indians have settled.
There is an interesting subset of the Western genre consisting of stories that take place at the start of the 20th century. It was a remarkably transitional time in American history. The Wild West days of the nineteenth century were over, but not everyone got the memo. The railroads crossed the country, and people started to migrate west in large numbers. Oil was a hot commodity and the landscapes of Pennsylvania, Texas, and Southern California were dotted with with oil pumps. Taking advantage of this new source of energy, automobiles began showing up as well. Soon, they’d be everywhere.
A few westerns explore this period in American history, most notably McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and, more recently, The Power of the Dog. Of those films, Atkins comes closest to the world of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller with its dirt-road town and the ruthless intrusion of a mining company, corrupting the people and the environment, but there are no Indians in Altman’s film. The tension in that film is between two rival business ventures, one of which happens to be a whorehouse. The focus in Atkins—as with other East German westerns—isn’t on rival business ventures, but on the effects of capitalism on people and, in particular, the indigenous population of the American West.
The film starts with Atkins (Oleg Borisov) returning to his cabin. He’s the type of western loner we’ve seen in many other movies. He’s world-weary, but not misanthropic. While hunting near his place, he stumbles across a band of Indians who have fled from their reservation. He becomes friendly with them, and the oldest of the Indians, called Der Alte (Colea Rautu), cautiously befriends him. Atkins trades one of the Indians a silver dollar Atkins squashed on a railroad track for an amulet containing a piece of copper ore. He agrees to sell furs for the Indians and buy them some guns. While in town, Atkins gets into a tangle with local thieves and is rescued by a named Morris (Peter Zimmermann). Morris seems like a nice guy, but he has an ulterior motive. He obtained Atkins’ amulet from Rose (Barbara Dittus), a town whore who stole the amulet from Atkins while he was drunk. Morris recognizes the copper ore and follows Atkins back to his cabin to learn where it came from. Atkins eventually realizes that Morris isn’t a friend after all, but not before Morris has killed one of the Indians and fled to alert the U.S. cavalry as to the whereabouts of the Indians.
Often, the DEFA Indianerfilme were shot in Yugoslavia or Georgia, but this one uses Romania for its location shooting. While no exact location is ever given, the Indians are dressed like Apaches and the presence of copper suggests it’s supposedly taking place in the southwest. The forest here, however, looks more like the ones in Washington State (the location of McCabe and Mrs. Miller), than the rugged landscapes of the Dragoon and the Chiricahua mountains.
Director Helge Trimpert initially trained as a director at DFF (Deutsches Fernsehen), and later at the Academy for Film and Television (now, Filmuniversität Babelsberg Konrad Wolf) in Potsdam-Babelsberg. He worked as an assistant director on several films, but only made two feature films for DEFA, Wie wär’s mit uns beiden? (How About the Two of Us?) and Atkins. Neither film did much in the way of box office, and Trimpert returned to working as an assistant director. Since the Wende, he’s worked primarily on documentaries.
The screenplay marked the first screen credit for Stefan Kolditz, the son of the famous East German director Gottfried Kolditz. He studied theater at Humboldt University in Berlin and received a doctorate in the film studies. He worked as a theater dramaturge and a university lecturer for a few years before he started writing screenplays. Atkins was his first. His next screenplay, The Distance Between You and Me and Her (Die Entfernung zwischen dir und mir und ihr), would be his last for DEFA. Since the Wende, he has continued to wrote screenplays, including the popular Generation War (on Netflix) and Dark Woods (on Amazon Prime).
Oleg Borisov, was already a popular Russian actor when he played Atkins for DEFA. Born in 1929, in Yakovlevskoye (now Privolzhsk), Borisov spent much of his childhood in Karabikha, a village in the village in Yaroslavl Oblast, Russia north of Moscow. He was a poor student, only showing aptitude for soccer. He had planned to major in “oriental studies,” but a chance reading of Concordia Antarova’s Conversations with K. S. Stanislavski led him to study acting at the Moscow Art Theatre School (Школа-студия МХАТ). Graduating in 1951, he began acting on stage in Kiev and later in Moscow. He began working in films in 1956, and appeared in Andrei Tarkovsky’s made-for-TV film There Will Be No Leave Today (Сегодня увольнения не будет…). His big breakthrough came with Chasing Two Hares (За двумя́ за́йцами), a 1961 comedy about love and avarice. Other films staring Borisov include The Train Has Stopped (Oстановился пoeзд), Planet Parade (Парад планет), and The Servant (Слуга). Borisov’s voice was dubbed by Horst Hiemer, a popular character actor in East Germany. Borisov died in 1994, which is too bad. He had strong ties with Ukraine and it would have been interesting to get his take on the current situation there.
As was often the case with European productions, members of the cast came from different countries. Barbara Dittus (who was always good) and Peter Zimmermann were East Germans, but the old Indian is played by the Romanian actor Colea Rautu, as were Vasile Nitulescu who played a character listed as Irrer (Madman) and Papil Panduru who played the Indian chief.
The score for the film was written by Jürgen Kerth and it’s a good one. It’s also Kerth’s only movie work. The musician’s usual style is a kind of jazzy blues, à la John Mayall. Here, however, he’s taking his cues from Ennio Morricone with more of a lonely surf guitar sound that fits nicely in the western milieu. It’s a little redundant at times, but it’s a nice change of pace for an East German Indianerfilm.
Atkins is a film that appears to be mostly disliked by East German critics, accusing the film of being too impersonal and lacking tension, but I think that’s missing the point. Trimpert was taking his cues from Altman, right down to the opium smoking. He was intentionally making an “anti-western” (although one could argue that all the DEFA Indianerfilme are anti-westerns). It doesn’t follow the rules of an Indianerfilm, but it doesn’t follow the rules of an American western either. For that alone, it’s worth a look.
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