Знак W - Вождь краснокожих в книгах и на экране
(Vozhd Krasnokozhikh v Knigakh i na Ekrane)
Sign W - Leader of the Red Skins in Books and on the Screen
Zeichen W - Der Häuptling der Rothäute in Büchern und auf der Leinwand
("W" = Western)
Андрей Шарый/Andrey Shary
Moscow 2008, ISBN 978-5-86793-562-7
Dean Reed on pages/auf den Seiten:
On the Socialist Trail
In a new book, Andrei Shary revisits the East German Westerns of his childhood and their hero, Gojko Mitic.
By Anna Malpas
As a small boy, Andrei Shary used to play Cowboys and Indians in the yard with his friends, but the games weren't based around the adventures of John Wayne. Instead, the hero of the day was Gojko Mitic, an actor from Yugoslavia whose craggy looks made him the "Red Indian" star of almost all the East German films about the Wild West. Now 40, the Radio Liberty journalist and author has written a nostalgic book about German Westerns and their reception in the Soviet Union.
In the introduction, he remembers watching his first Mitic film. "The print quality wasn't great, and for some reason it was in black and white, but I had never had a stronger impression in all my 7 years. I came out of the cinema shellshocked, sweaty like after a banya, carrying in my scrawny childish chest all the pain of the Red Indian people and an unbelievable, just unbelievable, desire for death-defying adventure and immediate struggle for justice."
Mitic was "the idol of a whole generation," the author said Wednesday, talking from Prague where he works for the Radio Liberty Russian service.
Titled "Leader of the Red Skins in Books and on the Screen," the book is part of a pocket series by Shary on pop culture heroes. Its aim is to "fill in a huge cultural blank" for adults who grew up in the Soviet Union with its lack of information on the world beyond the Iron Curtain, he said. A previous book examined James Bond, and he is now finishing one on Zorro.
The book covers the German Western from its source in Karl May's turn-of-the-20th-century novels, which were later adapted for the screen in West Germany in the 1960s. In response to the vast popularity of the "schnitzel Westerns," East Germany's DEFA film agency began to make its own, more socially engaged films starring Mitic in 1966 and continued as late as 1983.
Judging by the film stills in the book, both the East and West German films were a kitsch-fest of fake tan, braided wigs and inauthentic locations. But Shary doesn't see it like that. "They are decent films. Neither [the East nor West German films] are trash. Are they masterpieces? Of course not," he said. "They are a part of my life; they are my good friends."
His requests for Mitic to give an interview about his Red Indian past for the book were turned down -- "Maybe he's a bit tired of those roles," Shary said. But the actor wrote a message for the blurb, saying, "For me it was a joy and an honor to take part in the DEFA films about the fight of the Red Indian tribes for freedom."
Unlike the original Westerns in the United States, May's books and the screen versions sympathized with the Native Americans, depicting their pure way of life threatened by colonialists. A fantasist and convicted fraudster, he wrote vivid, detailed narratives that are still widely read today, even though he only visited the United States once, and never got as far as Arizona or New Mexico. The West German film versions starred American actors including Stuart Granger.
In the Soviet Union, only some of these films were shown, at least in Shary's childhood. "When I was in the fifth grade probably, by the will of the Soviet distributors there was a wave of repeats of the West German series from the 1960s," he writes. "But Gojko Mitic remained for me the main Indian, unchanging in his many incarnations, like God."
He only saw the final film about May's hero, Winnetou, while researching the book. "It's funny that the film 'Winnetou: 3' was never shown in Soviet cinemas," he writes. "Probably it wasn't bought for ideological reasons: The leader of the Apache shouldn't have searched for God so openly; before his death, he even hears the sound of church bells. So we had no idea then that Winnetou died. Thanks to the censors, the Little Octobrists and Young Pioneers of the Soviet Union were saved from a powerful psychological trauma."
May came from a town near Dresden that ended up within the East German borders, but his books were frowned upon by the socialist authorities, perhaps because his much younger widow was an avowed Fascist before her death in 1944, and perhaps because of the books' mystical elements. They were not published in the Soviet Union either, Shary writes.
When the East German film company DEFA began making Westerns, or Indianerfilme in 1966, it took as a basis books by various authors including German writer Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich and Fenimore Cooper. The idea behind the films was to beat the West Germans at their own game by painting an authentic picture of Native American life that exposed the ills of the capitalist system.
"The West German westerns, like Karl May's novels, are adventures for the sake of adventures. The films with Gojko Mitic are all historic adventure dramas, at the center of which are always Red Indians and not the white conquerers of America," Shary writes, although he says that as a child he was unaware of the political subtext.
Among the stars of the East German productions were Dean Reed, the American actor and singer who espoused leftist causes, and Polish actress Barbara Brilske, who later became a Soviet megastar in the comedy "Irony of Fate." But the hero in 12 of the films was Mitic in the roles of various Indian chiefs. Strangely enough, Serbian-born Mitic began his career in the West German genre films but only gained leading roles in the Eastern versions.
His bulging muscles and striking dark looks compared favorably with his counterpart in the West German films, French actor Pierre Brice. "The name of the film doesn't matter. In each one, Gojko Mitic is in great shape," Soviet Screen magazine wrote ironically.
Mitic always played heroic roles, usually dying at the end, Shary writes. "Gojko Mitic as the chief of the Dakota, Clear-Eyed Hawk, died in a hail of bullets -- but a moment before his death he managed to kill bandit Beshan with a thrown knife; Gojko Mitic as Tecumseh, the chief of the Shawnee, died the death of the brave in an unequal fight for freedom with American soldiers. Even when Gojko Mitic's Red Indians were allowed to live by the screenwriters, they were condemned to exile and new battles."
Although the Soviet Union never made any films about Native Americans, it provided some of the locations for the East German movies. Crimea stood in for the Pacific coast and Tippecanoe County in one film, while the Mexican desert was recreated near Samarkand, Uzbekistan, for another. Locals were also drafted in as extras. Toward the end of the series, though, these locations became more and more unconvincing.
"The [last] film 'Chief White Feather' ('Der Scout') was shot in 1983 in the Mongolian People's Republic, when the makers already seemed to realize that it was time to call a stop to the theme of suffering Red Skins," Shary writes. "The Mongolian extras who stood in for Red Indians on stocky steppe ponies look pitiful and ridiculous."
"Leader of the Red Skins in Books and on the Screen" (Vozhd Krasnokozhikh v Knigakh i na Ekrane) by Andrei Shary is published by NLO.