Archive for the ‘Indianerfilme’ Category

Fatal Error
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.

Fatal Error

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.

Annekathrin Bürger

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.

Gojko Mitic

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.

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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.

Whtie Wolves
As discussed in previous articles here, the Western genre, so popular in America, afforded an excellent opportunity for the folks at DEFA to explore the dangers of capitalism without having to shoehorn its politics into an ill-fitting boot. If you ever wanted to see the evils of capitalism at work, you need look no further than the American West, where thousands of people were slaughtered and treated as second-class citizens in the name of “manifest destiny.” Maybe East Germany didn’t have access to many actual Indians, but Hollywood did and that didn’t stop them from hiring the likes of Sal Mineo and Jeff Chandler to play Native Americans. East Germany’s favorite Indian, Gojko Mitić, might have been Serbian, but Hollywood’s favorite, Iron Eyes Cody, was born in Louisiana to Sicilian parents.

White Wolves (Weiße Wölfe) was the fourth DEFA Indianerfilm. It was a sequel to The Falcon’s Trail, and featured many of the same cast members including Holger Mahlich playing the upstanding Pat Patterson, Barbara Brylska as Catherine Emerson, Pat’s love interest, Helmut Schreiber as the Indian-friendly merchant Sam Blake, Fred Delmare as Sam’s pal, Rolf Hoppe as the evil James Bashan, and, of course, Gojko Mitić as the Indian leader Farsighted Falcon.

The story picks up a three years after The Falcon’s Trail, and chronicles an actual event: The massacre of Indians at Fort Robinson on January 22, 1879. The Indians have been driven from their land, and shipped off to a reservation in Oklahoma in 1877. Then in 1878, Little Wolf and 200 other Indians escaped the reservation in a bid to return to Montana. Some of them were captured, and the results were catastrophic. When they attempted to escape, the soldiers opened fire, killing men, women, and children indiscriminately.

Weisse Wölfe

The event was also featured in John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn. It is interesting to look at these films and compare how differently they approach the event. In White Wolves the Indians are simply victims, trying to escape the fort rather than get shipped back to Oklahoma. In Cheyenne Autumn, Ford, who had a long history of slandering the Indians, chooses to focus more on the things the Indians did to spark the event. He doesn’t exactly condone what happened, but he tries to understand it, in much the same way conservatives tried to understand why American police officers so often shoot unarmed black men.

When reports reached the East Coast that the Indians had been denied food while imprisoned at Fort Robinson and placed in buildings without heat in fifteen below temperatures, the public attitude toward the treatment of the Indians began to change. Editorials questioned the actions of the troops, and a congressional committee was created to investigate the matter. Eventually the escaping Indians were allowed to stay on their home turf—as close to a happy ending as the Indians could hope for during this era.

White Wolves starts with Farsighted Falcon and a few friends trying to find a place to live, after evading the troops trying to ship them off to Oklahoma. After Falcon’s wife is killed by Bashaan, Falcon goes on the warpath. As in The Falcon’s Trail, the bad guys are the agents of a mining corporation that uses its power and finesse to stack the local authorities against true justice. The attack on American-style capitalism is not subtle, but it isn’t inaccurate either.

wolves8

White Wolves was filmed as a joint production between DEFA and the Yugoslavian production company, Bosna Film. The film’s star is Yugoslavian, but that would have been true in any case, by the time this film was made, the Yugoslavian actor Gojko Mitić had already become DEFA’s number one Indian. Mitić got his start as a stuntman and bit-part player in the West German productions of Karl May’s novels. These films all starred the American muscleman Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand, and french actor Pierre Brice and Winnetou. Beginning with The Sons of Great Bear, Mitić left behind the small roles in West German productions in favor of starring roles on the other side of the Wall. White Wolves was his fourth East German Indianerfilm. He would go on to appear in nine more Westerns in the GDR, along with other films of every sort. Mitić has 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. Mitic continues to get plenty of television work in Germany. He even played himself in an episode on SOKO Leipzig titled “Der Fall Gojko Mitic” (The Gojko Mitic Case).

White Wolves was co-directed by Konrad Petzold and Boška Bošković. Petzold took a very workmanlike approach to filmmaking. After this film, he went on to become one of the main directors of Indianerfilme at DEFA. Less information is available on Boška Bošković. It doesn’t help that he shares his name with a Slovenian soccer player. White Wolves appears to be the last film he directed. Prior to this, he had directed several shorts and two features for Lovcen Film, a Yugoslavian film company that mostly specialized in short films. He co-directed the DEFA film, Mörder auf Urlaub (The Criminal on Vacation) with Egon Günther, and received an award nomination at the 1961 Moscow International Film Festival for his film adaptation of Đorđa Lebovića’s play, Nebeski odred (Suicide Squad). Bošković died in 2003 in Belgrade, Serbia.

Indianderfilm

Character Actor Rolf Hoppe really steals the show in this film as the utterly unscrupulous James Bashaan. Hoppe has played a wide variety of roles in lifetime, from a rabbi (Go for Zucker!) to a king (Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella), but it is his performances as bad guys for which he is best remembered. He is best-known to western audiences as the evil Nazi prime minister (based on Hermann Goering) in István Szabó’s Mephisto. Hoppe is one of the few actors who suffered no decline in work after the Wende, perhaps because, thanks to Mephisto, he was already well-known in the West. Since the fall of the Wall, he has appeared in dozens of films and television shows. These days he usually plays more avuncular characters than he did in his younger days.

Like The Falcon’s Trail before it, White Wolves more strongly resembles the American-style Westerns than most of the other DEFA Indianerfilme. It includes all the elements we have come to expect in a traditional Hollywood Western (cowboys and Indians, gunfights, old locomotives, expansive landscapes), but with the perspective turned on its head. It is also grimmer than the average western, bringing it closer to the Spaghetti Westerns of the late sixties, in particular, Segio Corbucci’s The Great Silence—the grimmest western ever made (and the main inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight). It isn’t as grim as that film, but it isn’t exactly uplifting. This is probably the main reason the film didn’t do as well at the box office as The Falcon’s Trail, but it is still a must-see for fans of the Western genre and anyone interested in East German cinema.

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Spur des Falken
When it came to telling the truth about the American West, the East Germans had it all over Hollywood. While Hollywood was still portraying Indians as brutal savages, DEFA’s Indianerfilme gave a much more accurate picture of the events, showing that most of the wrongs were committed by the whites who felt that they had a right to the land just because of their skin color and religion. When Hollywood did finally get around to addressing the plight of the Indians in Cheyenne Autumn, they hired John Ford to direct, a man who did more to defame the reputation of the Indians than any other filmmaker. As one might imagine, the resulting film was a limp effort, redeemed mainly by William H. Clothier’s spectacular cinematography. It wouldn’t be until the seventies, with films such as Little Big Man and Soldier Blue, that American movies would finally take a good hard look at the actions of the United States during the 1800s.

After the box office success of The Sons of the Great Bear and Chingachgook, the Great Snake, DEFA decided to continue to tackle the subject of the American Indians. While those first two films were based on books, The Falcon’s Trail (Spur des Falken) is an original story for the movies. It is also more of a traditional Hollywood western in many respects. It has Cowboys and Indians, the U.S. cavalry, the pretty young miss visiting the West for the first time, a honky-tonk, a journey on a steam train, and music score right out of The Big Valley, but the perspective is turned on its head. When the Indians attack the railroad train, we see it from the Indians perspective and root for them. When the cavalry comes charging to the rescue, it is not a good thing. The film is a dizzying experience for those of us who were raised in fifties, when the only good Indian was Tonto.

The Trail of the Falcon

As it would be with several of the DEFA Indian films, the story is based on actual events that occurred in 1876. In 1868, the United States signed the Fort Laramie Treaty, exempting the Black Hills from all white settlement forever. Four years later gold was discovered there, and prospectors descended on the area. Instead of enforcing the treaty, the government reneged on it, taking the land back and turning it over to the settlers. It is one of history’s cruelest jokes that the popular expression for someone taking back something they gave a person was “Indian giver.”1

As one might imagine, the Indians were not amused. What followed was the Great Sioux War. An exact date of the events in the movies are not given, but the story appears to have taken place shortly after the Battle of Little Bighorn, but before the war was over. Much of what is shown here is factual. It is true that the Indians were kicked out of the lands that had been previously allotted to them because white settlers found gold there, and it is true that buffallo were killed by the millions for the specific intent of robbing the Indians of their primary source of food. In the end, the United States took back almost all the land they had promised to the Sioux Nation, and arguments over this continue to this day.

Playing Farsighted Falcon, the leader of the Indian renegades is Gojko Mitić. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, Mitic was DEFA’s number one Indian. Mitić, born in Serbian Yugoslavia, got his start as a stuntman in westerns made by various European production companies. With his black hair and good looks, it was only a matter of time before a director noticed him and gave him a speaking role. In The Falcon’s Trail, Mitić gets to take full advantage of his stuntman background, running along the top of a moving train, scrambling up rocky hillsides, and riding bareback. As usual, Mitić’s voice is dubbed. Mitić speaks very good German, but with a slight Serbian accent, so he is usually dubbed for the Indianerfilme. Here, he is dubbed by Karl Sturm. Likewise, Polish actress Barbara Brylska, who plays the young Miss Emerson, is dubbed by Annekathrin Bürger. Also worthy of mention is the supporting cast, with Hannjo Hasse and Rolf Hoppe playing a couple particularly nasty villains, and Helmut Schreiber and Fred Delmare as good guy counterparts.

Gojko Mitic

Standing in for the American West is the Caucasus of Georgia, and standing in for a Union Pacific train was a specially prepared train and locomotive made by the “Karl Marx” Locomotive company in Babelsberg (Lokomotivbau Karl Marx). Those knowledgeable about trains and the black hills area of South Dakota will spot the differences, but they act as passable stand-ins here.

Costumes are by Günter Schmidt, who, having already done the costumes for The Sons of the Great Bear and Chingachgook, was well on his way to becoming the go-to designer for nearly all of the Indianerfilme. The music is listed as being composed by Wolfgang Meyer and Karl-Ernst Sasse. I’ve discussed Sasse at length elsewhere on this blog (see Her Third), but Wolfgang Meyer is a new name. In fact, The Falcon’s Trail shows up as his only feature film score. There are some noticeable differences between the music in this film and the music from the other westerns in the DEFA catalog. Of all of them, this one sounds the most like an American western, which may be one of the reasons why Meyer didn’t contribute to more films. DEFA was occasionally (depending on the period) relentless in its avoidance of Hollywood clichés.

Like the previous two Indianerfilme, The Falcon’s Trail was a hit at the box office, and was the first of the East German westerns to spawn an actual sequel—White Wolves (Weiße Wölfe), which was released a year later. On an amusing side note, the title of this film is the same as the German title for one of the best-known films of all time: The Maltese Falcon.

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1. The expression has finally fallen out of fashion, but it still lingers. for an in-depth examination of the term, see NPR’s report on the subject.

Sing Cowboy Sing
American pop singer Dean Reed’s popularity in East Germany cannot be underestimated. He was not called the “Red Elvis” for nothing. He played to packed houses throughout the Eastern Bloc nations, especially in Russia, where he was a huge star. Although he was born in Denver, Colorado, and under contract to Capitol Records, Reed’s big break came in South America, where his song “Our Summer Romance” was a hit in spite of its lack of airplay in the States. Reed started performing in South America exclusively, where he met and became close friends with Victor Jara, the Chilean singer and political activist who was tortured and killed by Pinochet’s goons after the U.S. orchestrated coup d’etat. Later, in East Germany, Reed would direct and star in a TV movie about his murdered friend, El Cantor.

When things got too hot in South America, Reed went to Europe, where he started appearing in films, primarily spaghetti westerns such as God Made Them… I Kill Them, Twenty Paces to Death, and Adios Sabato. In 1973, he starred in his first DEFA film, Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts (The Life of a Ne’er-do-Well), but it was his next film for DEFA, Kit & Co., that brought him real attention. At that point, Reed decided to move to East Germany.

Dean Reed

This was a public relations goldmine for the GDR; up there with Angela Davis’ visit to the country a year earlier. While the U.S. government continued to paint the communist countries as hellish places that no one would want to have anything to do with, here was an American pop star living in East Germany and loving it. As a consequence, Reed was given a great deal more creative freedom than any East German filmmaker was ever allowed. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Sing, Cowboy, Sing, the western comedy that Reed starred in and directed.

Sing, Cowboy, Sing follows the adventures of Joe (Dean Reed) and his pal Beny as they travel across the American West, singing in saloons and performing in Wild West shows. It is a silly affair that would be a kids’ film if not for a few gags involving large breasts. There’s a shootout at the end, but nobody suffers anything worse than an injured hand. Occasionally the action stops so that Joe and Beny can perform a song. There’s some political content here but very little. The bad guy is, of course, a rich American, and the one town he doesn’t control is Liebenthal (literally, “Love Valley”), which was founded by Germans.

Sing, Cowboy, Sing is part of a fine old genre, the comedy western. It harks back to the silent era and includes such classics as Destry Rides Again, Along Came Jones, Cat Ballou, and Blazing Saddles; along with some very silly movies such as Ride ‘Em Cowboy, Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County, and The Apple Dumpling Gang. Sing, Cowboy, Sing falls squarely in the latter category. It is a very light and silly movie, but with touches that show an influence from Reed’s work on spaghetti westerns. Stylistically, it is all over the map. One scene will feature sped up action for comic effect, and the next will be played for high drama with scene that looks like it was shot by Gianfranco Parolini.

Dean Reed as gunfighter

The film uses an international cast, including Czechs, Romanians, and even Dean Reed’s old acting coach and TV director, Paton Price whom Reed had flown to East Germany to help him get through the production. As one might imagine, these actors were all dubbed by Germans. Reed himself was dubbed by Holger Mahlich, an actor often called on for dubbing on both sides of the wall (he left East Germany in 1982). He is often called upon to do the voices for Xander Berkeley and Ed Harris, but he has dubbed everyone from Harvel Keitel to John Candy. His is the voice of John Steed in the German release of The Avengers.

Beny is played by the Czech actor Václav Neckář, who is best known for his first feature film role—that of Milos in Jirí Menzel’s Oscar-winning classic, Closely Watched Trains. Like Reed, Neckář was a successful pop singer, with several hits in his native Czechoslovakia. Some of these songs were originals, while others were Czech cover versions of popular tunes such as “Mrs. Robinson,” “Suzanne,” and “Bungalow Bill.” Unlike Reed, Neckář started as an actor and came to singing later. He had several success singles in the sixties, then joined his brother Jan’s group Bacily (which translates to “The Germs”) in 1971.

In 2000, his named cropped up on a list of informants for the StB—Czechoslovakia’s version of the Stasi. This didn’t help his movie career any. Since the publication of that list, he’s only done one film as a voice in an animated movie, and a small part in the Czech TV show, Gympl. He continues to perform with Bacily, as several videos on YouTube can attest.

Neckar

The lead female love interests of Maria and Susann were played by Violeta Andrei and Elke Martens (née Gierth), respectively. Violeta Andrei is best remembered as the voluptuous cosmonaut Rall who dances with the snake at the party in Gottfried Kolditz’s wild East German science fiction film In the Dust of the Stars, and as Gojko Mitić’s love interest in Severino. She is a Romanian and appeared in several movies in her home country, including The Moment (Clipa) and The Pale Light of Sorrow (Lumina palidă a durerii). She was married to Ștefan Andrei, foreign minister for Nicolae Ceauşescu. She occasionally still appears in Romanian TV shows, but hasn’t done a feature film since the overthrow of Ceauşescu.

Elke Martens, appearing in this film under her maiden name, Gierth, hails from Dresden. Like Reed and Neckář, she is a singer, although she gets no chance to demonstrate it in this movie. She mostly here for cleavage gags. During the seventies and eighties, she performed in the GDR with her band, Megaphone. Occasionally, the band ran afoul of the authorities for its provocative lyrics and faced a year-and-a-half ban in 1980 because of this. More recently, Martens has made a name for herself in Schlagermusik—easily the least provocative music known to man. Martens outed herself as an IM, claiming that she was forced to sign an agreement to provide the Stasi information lest she go to prison. Reed’s original screenplay for this movie was in English. According to one source, it was Martens who created the German script for the film.

The music for the film is by Karel Svoboda, a Czech composer best known for his work on children’s films. Svoboda started out studying to be a dentist, but his love was always music. In 1963, with the burgeoning popularity of bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, he started the group, Mephisto, who later became the house band for the Rococo Theater (Divadlo Rokoko) in Prague. While the songs in Sing, Cowboy, Sing are adequate but forgettable, the score features some excellent set pieces that a clever director will some day repurpose. Along with his scores for several movies, Svoboda also wrote musicals based on popular fiction, including, Dracula, Monte Cristo, and Golem. In 2007, Svoboda committed suicide in the garden of his home in Jevany.

Critics were unkind to Sing, Cowboy, Sing. Renate Holland-Moritz, the resident film critic for East Germany’s humor magazine Eulenspiegel, found Reed’s directing unfocused and felt he was unable to tell the difference between what’s funny and what’s merely absurd, and West Germany’s Cinema magazine called the film amateurish slapstick. As is often the case with intentionally silly films, the general public found the movie more entertaining than the critics did. The film was a hit. As inane as much of the humor is, Reed’s ingratiating personality and his obvious cowboy credentials carry the movie. This would be Dean Reed’s last film for DEFA before his death.

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Dean Reed and Renate Blume

From time to time, East German filmmakers looked to America for source material. Bellboy Ed Martin was based on Albert Maltz’s play, Merry-Go-Round, and Chingachgook, the Great Snake took most of its story from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking book, The Deerslayer. Jack London was a natural choice for DEFA. He was an ardent socialist, writing often about the struggles of the working class and the problems they faced in a capitalist society. London’s writing style is well suited to cinematic interpretation. It started in 1908 with some short films by D.W. Griffith and went on from there. Nearly everything he wrote has been made into a movie somewhere in the world. The Iron Heel—with its indictment of the way corporations help a select few scoop up all the money while the rest of the world struggles to get by—seems like a natural for film interpretation in the Communist Bloc, but it was only made twice, first as a silent film in Russia, and then again in Russia in 1999 (I’m not including the Ben Turpin and Paddy McGuire comedy reel, The Iron Mitt, which IMDB claims is also based on the book).

Kit & Co is based on several of Jack London’s “Kit Bellew” stories, first published in Cosmopolitan magazine, and later compiled into book form under the title Smoke Bellew. Many of the stories hark back to the folklore tradition of the trickster that we’ve seen before in the form of Till Eulenspiegel. Other stories are flat-out adventure tales. The film concentrates primarily on the trickster tales, and it follows these stories remarkably well. Kit’s first encounters with Joy Gastell are taken nearly verbatim from the book. Likewise, the roulette wheel caper, the egg grift and the dogsled race are presented here virtually intact.

You could hardly ask for a better cast. Manfred Krug, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Rolf Hoppe were all popular stars by the time this film was made, but, of course the real draw was Dean Reed. Here was an American—ein echter Amerikaner—starring in an East German movie. Reed was the perfect choice to play Bellew. His combination of boyish charm and rugged good looks suited the part to a tee.

Kit & Co was Dean Reed’s first East German film, but it wouldn’t be his last. The film was a major hit and ensured a highly successful career in the GDR for the American pop star. Reed went on to star in four East German films, directing the last two himself. His popularity extended past the borders of East German to the USSR as well. He was equally popular in Russia and was nicknamed “The Red Elvis.” The moniker was used for the title of a 2007 documentary about Reed. [See also, El Cantor and Blood Brothers.]

In 1986, Reed was interviewed by Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes. Reed saw this as an opportunity to bridge the gap between the east and the west, and get back to making films in America, but years of living in East Germany had deprived Reed of the perspective he needed to conduct a successful interview with the likes of Wallace. When the episode aired, Americans were appalled by Reed’s defense of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and his comparison of Ronald Reagan to Stalin. Hate mail flooded in and angry right-wing DJs derided him on the radio. Shocked and desolate, Reed committed suicide at Zeuthener Lake near his home in East Berlin. He left a note apologizing for his suicide, but the Stasi hid the note from the public, preferring to let the public to think that his death was part of conspiracy rather than the cold hard truth that Reed killed himself.

Monika Woytowicz, Manfred Krug and Renate Blume

Joy Gastell is played by Renate Blume. Blume’s career got off to a roaring start with Konrad Wolf’s spectacular film, Divided Heaven, but after that her star dimmed a bit. She was married to director Frank Beyer for five years, and lived with Indianerfilm star Gojko Mitic for two years after that. For most of her time in East Germany, she primarily appeared in TV shows and stage plays. In 1984, she married Dean Reed, and they remained married until his death. After the Wende, she continued this career path, acting on stage and appearing occasionally on television. She has appeared in several popular TV shows, including Edel & Starck, In aller Freundschaft, and, Tatort, and Polizeiruf 110—both before and after the Wende.

Kit’s pal Shorty is played by the popular East German actor, Rolf Hoppe. Hoppe was one of the most popular character actors in East German. He appeared in dozens of films and TV-movies. He had a special knack for villains, and was often seen as the bad guy in the Indianerfilme. He received international acclaim in 1981 for his portrayal of the  Göring-like Tábornagy in the classic Hungarian film, Mephisto. In Kit & Co, Hoppe gets to engage in a different western stereotype: the sourdough—that grizzled prospector of the California and Klondike Gold Rushes. He has fun in the role and makes the character as engaging as he is on the page. Hoppe still appears in films from time to time, and he resides in Dresden’s Weißig section.

As with many of the better films from DEFA, the music for this film was by Karl-Ernst Sasse. Sasse, a classically-trained composer, normally followed a classicists approach to his scores, using lots of strings and full orchestration. Sasse felt, however, that this wouldn’t work well in a film like Kit & Co. Instead, he created a score that imitated the music of the period, with minimal orchestration. Some songs consist of nothing more than a bass viol, trap set, and a banjo. Other tunes add horns to mix with a sound reminiscent of a Salvation Army band. [For more examples of Sasse’s work, and further information on the composer, click on his name at the top of this post.]

Critics were divided on Kit & Co, but the audiences weren’t—they loved it. The Soviet Union made their own version the Smoke Bellew stories the following year (Smok i malysh) and DFF, the East German television company, made two more movies based on Jack London’s works (Alaska-Kids großer Coup and Der Mexikaner Felipe Rivera). Most recently, Bellew and Shorty returned to the small screen in the French mini-series, Chercheurs d’or. Considering the enduring popularity of Jack London’s work, we’re certain to see more films based on the exploits of Kit and Shorty. Kit & Co remains one of the best.

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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, My Wife Wants to Sing, 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, 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.

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Hollywood has always had an ugly relationship with Apaches. Even at their most sympathetic (most notably in Broken Arrow and The Battle at Apache Pass) they are portrayed as ruthlessly violent. Most of the time they are a cipher, as incomprehensible to white folks as the tripods in War of the Worlds. Even after the shift in the early seventies to more sympathetic portrayals of Native Americans (e.g., Soldier Blue and Little Big Man), the Apaches remained as ruthless as ever (e.g., Ulzana’s Raid, 1972).

East Germany had no such preconceptions. As far as they were concerned, the Apaches were as capable of nobility and heroism as anyone else. The real problem was, as always, the white men that drove them off their land in the name of property, precious metals, and, later, oil. They had already made movies about Mohicans, Shawnees, Seminoles, Dakota Sioux, Arapahos and Shoshones. It was time for DEFA to take a good hard look at the Apaches in the film of the same name.

The basis of Apaches (Apachen) is a little remembered event that took place in 1937 in the small mining community of Santa Rita in the Mexican province of Nuevo Mexico. In 1835, the Mexican government placed a bounty on the scalps of the Apaches who occupied their northern territories (now, Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas). This essentially gave people a license to kill. An American trader named John Johnson invited the local Mimbres Apaches to pick up free flour and then let loose on them with rifles and a cannon filled with scrap iron, glass, and a length of chain. Among those killed was the tribe’s chief, Juan José Compá. All of this is recorded with fair accuracy in the film, although, in the film, the man who takes over for Compá is called Ulzana.

In truth, the new leader’s name was Mangas Coloradas (Spanish for Red Sleeves). Considering how careful the filmmakers were in most other aspects, the choice of the name Ulzana is a mystery. Perhaps it was to cash in on the name recognition created by Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid—a fictionalized account of the Battle of Little Dry Creek, which did involve an Apache named Ulzana (also known as Josanie). Why Mangas Coloradas has received such short shrift in films (both east and west) is also a mystery. He was a great leader whose attempts to barter a truce between the Chiricahuas and the white people were repeatedly thwarted by the double-dealing of the U.S. Cavalry and vengeful settlers. It was he who was tied to a tree and whipped as portrayed in the film, although this event took place fourteen years after the Santa Rita Massacre. Mangas Coloradas met his end in 1863, when he went to the U.S. Cavalry under a flag of truce. Ignoring the truce, the Cavalry tortured and killed him. His head was cut off, boiled to remove the skin, and the skull was sent to renowned phrenologist, Orson Squire Fowler, whose theories on the importance of the shape of the skull laid the foundations for the development of eugenics. So much for the rules of engagement.

The star of the film is Gojko Mitic, the astoundingly well-built Yugoslavian actor/stuntman who became East Germany’s favorite Indian, starring in thirteen East German Indianerfilme (some sources cite twelve, but I count thirteen). Mitic also co-wrote the script with director Gottfried Kolditz. At this point, Mitic had already made a name for himself as an actor, but this was his first turn as a scriptwriter. The actor is as athletic as ever here, doing his own stunts, including a particularly dangerous looking one for both him and the horse. The film was popular and led to a sequel, aptly named, Ulzana, also written by Mitic and Kolditz (not currently available with English subtitles).

The villain in this piece is played by Milan Beli in a role that plagued him for the rest of his career. As with Gojko Mitic, Beli hailed from Yugoslavia. He first appeared in the French/Yugoslavian co-production Burlak, and also worked uncredited on choreography for Konrad Wolf’s Goya. In the west, he is best remembered for his role as Ronk in Gottfried Kolditz’s psychedelic sci-fi classic, In the Dust of the Stars. He was almost always cast as a villain and is reported to have said that he relished those occasions when he could play someone who was not so evil. This may explain why he took the relatively small, but benign role of the victim of a fender bender in Konrad Petzold’s cat-and-mouse thriller, Für Mord kein Beweis (No Evidence for Murder).

One area that was an inescapable problem for East German filmmakers was the lack of access to the American west while making these films. Nonetheless, the stand-in countrysides of Romania and Uzbekistan do a reasonably good job of mimicking the landscapes of southwestern New Mexico and the Chiricahua Mountains. As someone who grew up in Tucson and has spent a fair amount of time in Silver City, New Mexico, the landscapes looked good to me. The only major fault I can find are the pathetic excuses for saguaro cacti.

Director Gottfried Kolditz was an interesting choice of director. He had already made one very successful Indianerfilm (Spur des FalkenThe Falcon’s Trail), and had worked with Gojko Mitic on the science fiction film Signals (Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer). Kolditz was one of East Germany’s best directors. His oeuvre encompasses nearly every type of film from light-hearted musicals (Revue um Mitternacht and Geliebte Weiße Maus), to cerebral sci-fi (Signale and Im Staub der Sterne), to fairy tales (Schneewittchen and Frau Holle). As with other DEFA directors (most notably, Konrad Wolf), this makes it hard to tie his films up into a neat, auteur package. Frau Holle, for instance, has very little in common with Apachen, except maybe the strong sense of color and mise-en-scène common to all of Kolditz’s films. Other than that, they are as different as chalk and cheese.

Music is always an important aspect of Kolditz’s films, and Apaches is no exception. For this film, Kolditz worked with Hans-Dieter Hosalla. It was Hosalla’s first western score. As with fellow movie composers, Wilhelm Neef and Kolditz favorite, Karl-Ernst Sasse, Hosalla was a classically trained musician. Besides his work for DEFA, he is best known for his musical interpretations Berthold Brecht’s lyrics in Saint Joan of the Stockyards (Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe) and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui). In Apaches, Hosalla takes his cues from Morricone, combining traditional classical instruments with Spanish guitar and odd percussion. This is not to say that score sounds anything like a Morricone score; it doesn’t.  Hosalla’s score swings between frenetic piano music and incongruously lighthearted flute and guitar music. While there is no record of how well Kolditz got along with Hosalla, or what he thought of his music, it is probably significant that for the sequel to Apaches, he went back to his favorite composer, Karl-Ernst Sasse.

As a footnote to this story, the town of Santa Rita was repaid for the events of 1837 with poetic retribution. Starting in 1901, the town was forced to move repeatedly as the mine grew. Finally in 1957, the entire town was forced off its property in the quest for copper—a move instigated by the Kennecott Corporation. A new townsite was erected, but the site was quickly and badly chosen. Shortly after it was established, most of the town was washed away during an erosive flood (not uncommon in this area—in late 1800s the main street of nearby Silver City was replaced with a creek due to wagon track erosion on the trail from the mines). By 1967, the town, which once had boasted over 6,000 citizens, no longer existed. Today, all that remains is a verdigris pit so enormous it is almost impossible to judge its scale until those tiny trucks you see in the bottom of the pit drive past you and you notice that their wheels are taller than you are.

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When DEFA started making westerns (Indianerfilme), they first looked to literature for stories. The only writer who was definitely off limits was Karl May, the most popular writer of western fiction in Germany. The fact that he was Adolph Hitler’s favorite author is usually cited as the reason for the GDR’s rejection of his books. This attitude toward May was largely provoked by Klaus Mann’s famous essay, “Cowboy Mentor of the Fuhrer.” In fact, Albert Einstein was also a fan of May’s books. Probably a bigger factor in the East German ban on May was the fact that by the time the GDR got around to making their Indianerfilme, West Germany had already turned several May’s books into movies (Apache Gold, Shatterhand, Frontier Hellcat, and many others).1 The East Germans looked to other sources for inspiration. For their first effort, The Sons of the Great Bear (Die Söhne der großen Bärin) by the East German author Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich was chosen. Although Ms. Welskopf-Henrich was not happy with the film—feeling that they took too many liberties with the facts—the film did very well at the box office, and helped define the direction that DEFA would take when it came to making these films The good guys were always the Indians, and the U.S. and British Armies (or the miners and cattle barons) were the bad guys. They also placed a stronger emphasis than Hollywood and the other western countries ever did on the accuracy of the costumes and tribal rituals.

So it was that Chingachgook, The Great Snake (Chingachgook, die grosse Schlange)—the second Indianerfilm—came to be based on The Deerslayer, by the American author, James Fenimore Cooper. It was an interesting choice. Cooper bore many similarities to May. Like May, his knowledge of the west was mostly anecdotal, having grown up in Cooperstown, New York and spending much of his adult writing career in England (although it should be noted, that the Cooperstown of his youth was very much a frontier town). Also, like May, he was enamored of the concept of the noble savage, and always included both good and evil Indians and white people in his books. But unlike May, the GDR authorities were okay with his work. Why this was so, given the fact that he was an American author, is hard to answer. Mostly it seems to be because he wasn’t May.

The years between the 11th Plenum and Honecker’s rise to power were strange ones for DEFA. Overnight, the neo-realism, so beloved by DEFA directors before the Plenum, was now shunned in favor of styles and genres that we usually associate with Hollywood. Frivolous fun like Hot Summer would have had difficulty getting past the authorities prior to the Plenum, but was now just what the doctor ordered. And the concept of the star system, inherently antithetical to socialistic ideals, was now endorsed in the form of Gojko Mitic, the hunky Yugoslavian actor who starred in nearly all the DEFA westerns.

Normally, DEFA took greater pains to follow books as closely as possible (or, at least, more closely than Hollywood), but they did take liberties with Cooper’s book. In the book, Natty Bumppo—the “Deerslayer” of the title—is the hero of the story, and Chingachgook is his Indian sidekick. For the film, the focus is shifted almost entirely to Chingachgook and many of the Deerslayer’s feats of derring-do (such as catching the tomahawk and throwing it back at the attacker)  are attributed to Chingachgook. The character of Hetty, the sweeter but simpler of Tom Hutter’s two daughters, is eliminated completely.

The book was the last of Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales,” but is the first story chronologically. At the start of the film, we see Chingachgook preparing to marry Wah-ta-Wah, the pretty daughter of a Delaware chief when suddenly she is kidnapped by Hurons. While Chingachgook paddles after his beloved in his canoe, Deerslayer and his traveling companion, Harry Hurry, take a different path in search of the girl.

For this second Indianerfilm, DEFA once again called on Gojko Mitic to play the lead. Originally a stunt man in West German/Yugoslavian co-productions, Mitic’s good looks and dark features made him an ideal choice to play a variety of Native American superheroes, from Chingachgook to Ulzana. Although he speaks excellent German, his voice was dubbed for most of his DEFA films to eliminate his Serbian accent. Also back for a second time in an Indianerfilm was Rolf Römer; this time, thankfully, not playing an Indian this time, but the Deerslayer himself.

In a role as different as possible from the one he played in Stars, Jürgen Frohriep plays Harry Hurry, one of the film’s main villains. In Stars, Frohriep  played Walter, the young German soldier who tries to save the life of the Jewish woman he has fallen in love with. In Chingachgook, his character is far less sympathetic; a rank opportunist who is not above scalping women and children for the money. Frohriep made his biggest splash in East Germany playing Kriminaloberkommissar Jürgen Hübner on the popular TV crime drama, Polizeiruf 110. He played the character more than sixty times from 1972 until the Wende. After Deutscher Fernsehfunk (DFF)—the television equivalent of DEFA—was dismantled. Frohriep found getting work difficult in the new Germany and started drinking heavily, which eventually led to the dissolution of his long-time marriage to the American-born actress, Kati Székely. Frohriep died in Berlin in 1993.

Chingachgook featured the music of Wilhelm Neef, who also did the music for The Sons of the Great Bear, and other DEFA Indianerfilme. A Cologne-born composer, Neef settled in the east after the war. Like his fellow composer, Karl-Ernst Sasse, he was primarily a classical musician, but unlike Sasse, he rarely ventured outside of the traditional classical instrumentation in his film scores. In 1972, he stopped composing for films to work on his classical pieces, penning his moving Violin Concerto (Violinkonzert) and Piano Concerto #2 (Klavierkonzert Nr. 2), which were released in 1973 on Nova records—VEB Deutsche Schallplatten’s label for “serious” contemporary music (traditional classical music appeared on the Eterna label, and pop tunes on Amiga).

Chingachgook was directed by Richard Groschopp, whose previous films, Die Liebe und der Co-Pilot (Love and the Co-pilot) and The Baldheaded Gang had been box-office hits. Chingachgook followed suit and was the most popular DEFA film in the GDR in 1967. It was also Richard Grosschopp’s swan song as a feature film director. After working on the popular TV mini-series, Geheimkommando Ciupaga, Groschopp wrote and directed two more TV movies and then retired. He died in 1996. [For more information on Richard Groschopp, see The Baldheaded Gang.]

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1. The GDR would eventually abandon this anti-May position with the back-to-back filming of Präriejäger in Mexiko: Benito Juarez and Präriejäger in Mexiko: Geierschnabel in 1988, based on Karl May’s Waldröschen.

If I was to choose the one film that got me interested in East German Cinema, it would have to be this one. Sometimes referred to as the “East German Barbarella,” In the Dust of the Stars (Im Staub der Sterne) is one of the strangest film to grace the movie screens of the GDR; or anywhere else for that matter. Featuring a cast that heralded from a number of different eastern European countries, In the Dust of the Stars is the story of a space team sent from the Planet Cyrno in response to a distress call on TEM 4, a desolate planet on the outskirts of inhabited space. When they arrive, they are whisked off to an extravagant compound belonging to a man known only as the “Chief”—a decadent despot who has enslaved the indigenous people of TEM 4 for his own profit and enjoyment. The team is invited to a party that features dancing maidens in an art park, boa constrictors on the hors d’oeuvre table, and a screaming woman on a trampoline. At the party, the team is brainwashed into assuming that nothing is wrong on the planet, but the one crew member that skipped the party remains sceptical. He thinks something is amiss and he is, of course, correct.

DEFA made four outer-space films. In the Dust of the Stars was the fourth and final one. Unlike the three previous films (The Silent Star, Signals, and Eolomea), In the Dust of the Stars is not based on a book. The original screenplay was written by the director, Gottfried Kolditz. Kolditz got his start in the fifties working as a musical advisor on The Love Mazurka (Mazurka der Liebe) and The Czar and the Carpenter (Zar und Zimmermann). He started directing shortly thereafter, at first working on the short comedy films for the Statcheltier group, and then on musicals. He directed Midnight Revue (Revue um Mitternacht) and Beloved White Mouse (Geliebte Weiße Maus)—two of the most popular musicals in East Germany. In the late sixties, he moved into other genres, directing two science fiction films (Signals and In the Dust of the Stars) and three Indianerfilme (Trail of the Falcon, Apachen, and Ulzana). Kolditz died in 1982, shortly before he was to begin filming yet another Indianerfilm (Der Scout).

In the Dust of the Stars

The music score is by Karl-Ernst Sasse, one of the most accomplished, and prolific composers in East Germany (see Her Third, for more information on Sasse). Kolditz and Sasse worked together often, beginning with Midnight Revue in 1962 and continuing until Koldtitz’s death in 1982. Considering Kolditz’s start as a musical advisor for DEFA films, it is no surprise that he would make movies in which the music is an important component. What is surprising is that he would choose a science fiction film to continue his exploration of the subject (although there are good reasons for this, and I’ll be covering them in my review of Signals). In an interview with the cinematographer, Peter Süring, Süring opines that the nude musical number performed by Regine Heintze is superfluous to the narrative; but this opinion assumes that the obvious story (that of the oppressed people of TEM 4) is the primary point of the movie. Perhaps Kolditz was after something more complex here. Music figures prominently throughout the film. The eccentric Chief seems to need music at all times, and is unable to think without it, and it is music that is used to hypnotize the spaceship’s crew into ignoring the warning signals they received earlier.

Sasse’s score varies from jazzy pop à la Can’s Tago Mago, to abstract numbers resembling the electronica of Beaver & Krause. Most of the time, the music is combined with modern dance numbers performed by a bevy of heavily made-up women in colorful harem costumes. In one memorable scene, The Chief (whose hair color changes in every scene) serenades Akala, the spaceship’s captain, in a hall of mirrors filled with the usual dancing women. The Chief performs this number on a musical instrument that looks like exactly what it is: a board covered with Christmas lights. Like the nude dancing scene, it does nothing to move to plot forward and further bolsters the effect that In the Dust of the Stars is really a musical revue that has been interrupted by a slave revolt.

In the Dust of the Stars

At other times, it resembles a western. When we first see Chta, the Temian slave of the evil overseer, Ronk, she is dressed in a Native American outfit that looks like it was borrowed —and probably was—from one of the Gojko Mitic Indianerfilme. The effect is further enhanced by the appearance of Milan Beli as Ronk. Beli had already impressed East German audiences with his performance as a villains in Tecumseh, and Apachen, and he is no less villainous here. The climax of In the Dust of the Stars features a shoot-out on mud flats that would have been at home in any western on either side of the iron curtain.

The film was a co-production between DEFA and the Buftea Film Studios near Bucharest. The location shots were done in Romania first, primarily at the Berca Mud Volcanoes and an abandoned salt mine nearby. At that time, DEFA was using ORWOcolor, the East German version of AGFAcolor. Romania, on the other hand, was using Kodak’s Eastmancolor. When it came time to develop the first batch of film, the Buftea studios had to modify their equipment to handle the ORWOcolor film. The finished film had a softer contrast than usual, and Wolfgang Staudte liked the look of it. After the production moved back to Babelsberg for the in-studio filming, Staudte had all the film sent to Buftea for processing. This forced the movie to work at a slower pace than usual since dailies weren’t possible. To speed things up, DEFA set up a hotline between Buftea and Babelsberg in case of emergencies.

In the Dust of the Stars

1978, the year that In the Dust of the Stars came out, was one of those pivotal years in East German cinema. Two years earlier, the officials had exiled the popular folk singer Wolf Biermann while he was performing in Cologne. Although he was an ardent communist, his criticisms of the Stalinist policies in the GDR stirred the wrath (or, as he suggested, the terror) of party officials and they thought it would be better if he just didn’t come home. This provoked protests, particularly in the arts community, and eventually led to some of the the strongest lights at DEFA to cross over to the west, among them, Frank Beyer, Jutta Hoffmann, Angelica Domröse, and Armin Mueller-Stahl. For many of these people, 1978 was the last year that we would see them in East German films (and some, like Rolf Römer, stayed in the east, but were effectively blacklisted because of their pro-Biermann stance). Conversely, 1978 is also the year that afforded the most artistic freedom to filmmakers in terms of style and subject matter. Had In the Dust of the Stars been made in 1965, it would have almost certainly been banned; the same holds true for Egon Günther’s 1978 made-for-TV oddity, Ursula (although after only one screening, Ursula did manage to get itself banned not only in East Germany but also in Switzerland). In these films we see the ultimate examples of  cinematic experimentation at DEFA. From here until the Wende, mainstream movies in East Germany would never again reach this level of oddball imaginativeness.

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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 all 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.

IMDB page for the movie.

The Teleport City website’s extremely thorough examination of the film.

Buy this film.