Westerns from the East

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Between 1966 and 1983, the East German state movie production company DEFA produced 12 "Indianerfilme" ("Indian movies"). The common theme is the life, culture and struggle of Native Americans during the 18th and 19th century, and the general history of the United States during that period of time. Some of the movies are based on figures in Native American history ("Tecumseh", "Osceola", "Ulzana"), and one of them is based on Fenimore Cooper’s "The Deerslayer" ("Chingachgook, the Great Snake").

East German "Indian movies" are adventure movies, with "good" and "bad" guys, heroes and villains. The movies generally portray Native Americans as proud, spiritual and cultured heroes, and white Americans as greedy, power-hungry and insidious invaders. But they also feature Native American traitors, half-castes, as well as honest and sympathetic white Americans.

Most of the movies were filmed in the mountains of former Yugoslavia, some in Czechoslovakia, Romania, Cuba, Mongolia, and in the former Soviet Union. All of them are 35mm and in color. The leading actor in all of the 12 movies is Gojko Mitic, a Yugoslavian native. Because of these movies, he became an East German superstar. Every summer, the annual "Sommerfilmtage" (outdoor movie festivals all over East Germany) were opened with a new "Indian movie".

The movies had an immense impact on how East Germans perceived Native Americans. Several generations grew up with these images. This contributed to the fact that when East German children played "Cowboys and Indians", nobody wanted to be a "bad cowboy". Everybody wanted to be the "good Indian". Mothers even named their children after the leading actor. And the daughter of the actor who usually played the "bad guy" had a hard time with her classmates, since her dad "killed Gojko" ("White Wolves").

The movies also had huge success in the former Soviet Union, and Gojko Mitic is still very popular in Russia.

The first movie in the series was produced four years after the Berlin Wall was erected. At this time, the East German Communist party gave out new guidelines for the development of socialist culture. "Socialist Realism" portraying working people building socialism was the slogan of the day. Non-conformist movies were banned, and their makers discredited. The production of "Indian movies" can be seen as an attempt to calm down the frustrated East German populace, and to satisfy their desire for western-style entertainment. Nevertheless, the movies were not very well liked by East German Communist party officials, who even wanted to discontinue their production after the first three movies. Only a widespread wave of support allowed the continuation of the series.

The movies can also be interpreted as an answer to popular West German Karl May westerns. In contrast to the West German productions, which were often historically inaccurate and full of clichés, East German filmmakers did extensive research in an attempt to be true to the historical events in general, and the Native American culture in particular.


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