With the protests at Standing Rock, and recent plans to privatize Indian lands for their oil deposits, this is an excellent time to take a look at Fatal Error (Tödlicher Irrtum), a 1970 western from DEFA. It’s a shame this film isn’t available with English subtitles, because this is a movie for the times if ever there was one.
Like many of the DEFA westerns, Fatal Error is based on historical events. The story takes place in 1898. At the time the American West was still the Wild West of myth, but things were changing rapidly. The promises of riches that had started the westward expansion a few decades earlier was being replaced with a new kind of gold—black gold. As it turned out, many of the best oil deposits were on Indian land. So what did the oil companies do? They did what they’ve always done: lie, cheat, steal, and kill to get at that oil.
The story starts with an Indian named Shave Head riding into the newly formed town of Wind River City, Wyoming and announcing excitedly that they’ve found oil on the local reservation. This would be the last time Shave Head would be happy about the discovery. After this intro, the story advances a few years when we see Wind River City overrun with white men bent on taking advantage of the local Indians in every way possible. For some, this means grossly overcharging them for goods. For others, it means murdering them and stealing the money and land deeds which the Indians insisted on carrying around on their persons because they didn’t trust the banks.
The chief villain of the piece is Mike Allison, a local robber baron who’s behind many of the murders. Allison is busy trying to consolidate all the oil land under his name. If this means an occasional murder, then so be it. Things come to a head after Shave Head’s half-brother Clint Howard takes the job of assistant sheriff and starts investigating the deaths.
Fatal Error is the fifth Indianerfilm to come out of the DEFA studios.1 It is also the fifth one to star Yugoslavian stuntman-turned-actor Gojko Mitić. As discussed here previously, Mitić was DEFA’s go-to guy when they needed someone to play a Native American. As Shave Head, Mitić bring his usual dignity and strength to the role.
Playing Shave Head’s half-brother Chris Howard is Armin Mueller-Stahl, who needs no introduction here. Mueller-Stahl is one of the few East German film stars who also managed to become an international film star. To a lesser extent, the same can be said for Rolf Hoppe, who plays the villainous Mike Allison. Just as Gojko Mitić was DEFA’s Indian, Hoppe often showed up as the villain in these films. Hoppe made himself known internationally for his powerful portrayal of Tábornagy in István Szabó’s Mephisto. Since then, he has gone on the appear in films of every type, demonstrating that he’s not simply a good villain, but also capable of comedy. Also appearing is Annekathrin Bürger in a minor role.
The film is directed by Konrad Petzold, a talented director who was mainly consigned to making children’s films and westerns. Born in 1930, Petzold was still a kid when the Nazis took over. After the war, he first studied to be a mechanic. Like his older brothers and sisters, he became involved in a local political theater group in his hometown of Radebeul. In 1949, he went to Berlin to study at the DEFA film school for young directors. He, along with co-director Egon Günther, got into trouble with the powers-that-be for their 1961 film The Dress (Das Kleid), a film version of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Since the story takes place in a city with a wall around it, the authorities thought they were talking about Berlin, even though Perzold and Günther had started shooting the film before the Wall was built.
In 1969, Petzold directed White Wolves, a sequel to the previous year’s The Falcon’s Trail. It was his first foray into the field of Indian films, and it was a hit. After that film, Petzold became DEFA’s number one choice for filming their westerns, including Osceola, Kit & Co, and The Scout. Petzold is one of the many directors who found himself cast adrift after the Wall came down. His last film, The Story of the Goose Princess and Her Faithful Horse Falada (Die Geschichte von der Gänseprinzessin und ihrem treuen Pferd Falada), was released in January of 1989. In later years, Petzold suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and died in 1999.
The Wind River Indian Reservation is real, but the Wyoming Oil Company is not. Nor are any of the characters. Although it isn’t specifically cited, the most-likely basis for the film’s story were the Osage Indian murders of the 1920s, which occurred in Oklahoma. Oil was discovered on Osage land in 1897, leading to a boom in the Osage economy that saw many Indians suddenly becoming wealthy. This led to an influx of fortune seeking interlopers.
One of these interlopers was a man named William Hale—as nasty a piece of work as this country has ever produced. Hale concocted a plan whereby his nephews would marry local Indian women and then have them killed, thus obtaining the rights to the oil profits. This plan came about thanks to an incredibly racist law that was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1921, whereby the Osage Indians were required to have white guardians take care of their affairs until they demonstrated “competency.” Since this evaluation of competency was left in the hands of the very people who stood to benefit from taking over guardianships, very few people passed the test.
Hale murdered his way into wealth, and when the authorities started to investigate, he resorted to killing potential witnesses against him and even threatening the local law enforcement. It finally took the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation to step in and put an end to his reign of terror. Hale was eventually convicted in 1929, but for only one of the murders. He spent eighteen years in jail before being paroled—less time than some people have spent in jail in Oklahoma for marijuana possession. After the events in Osage County, the law regarding guardianship for the Osage Indians was revised, allowing only full-blood Osage Indians to inherit the mineral rights.
As for the real Wind River Reservation, in 2014, a writer for the New York Times called it the most crime-ridden Indian reservation in America. The article provoked angry responses from the locals, including a well-written response from a local student that the NY Times published.
1. Indianerfilm (plural: Indianerfilme): Literally “Indian film.” DEFA preferred this term over “western” for obvious reasons. Most academics avoid the use of the term “western” when writing about these films. I have used both terms interchangeably here. As a genre definition, they are unquestionably westerns, whether DEFA liked to admit or not.