Tokei-ihto fights a member of the Siksika tribe to convince him to fight the occupiers. The two assert their brotherhood, vowing to fight together.
The Indian tribes fight together and humiliate the U.S. Cavalry.
Tokei-ihto leads his people out of the reservation to their homeland, beyond the Missouri River.
The Missouri River.
The Indian people walk across the Missouri River: an image of purification.
Red Fox challenges Tokei-ihto to a fight.
Tokei-ihto fights with Red Fox and here is dragged behind Red Fox’s horse.
Tokei-ihto gets free, jumps on Red Fox’s horse, and stabs Red Fox to death.
Bloodied but still strong, Tokei-ihto fights off Red Fox’s entire posse.
The posse shoots at Tokei-ihto, but he has superior skill.
The chief from the Siksikas tribe helps Tokei-ihto by shooting an assailant who threatens him. The Siksikas chief runs to the Missouri River and swims across this border to get away from the posse.
The posse shoots at the Siksikas chief as he tries to escape across the Missouri River. This sequence cannot help but recall images of soldiers shooting at those who tried to escape across the border into West Germany from the Eastern sector.
Tokei-ihto stands over the dead body of Red Fox.
A view of the “Missouri River” as the German traditional folk song plays over the image.
Tokei-ihto swims toward home: an image of purification.
Tokei-ihto becomes the new Chief. His mother stands to the right.
Tokei-ihto and his woman stand still, tableau-like, in this verdant valley, in their united homeland.
By the end of The Sons of Great Mother Bear, the allusions to a specifically U.S. Western story have fallen away and have instead been largely replaced by a set of historically resonant German references. From this description, the film seems like little more than a thinly disguised allegory about Germany’s struggle for nationhood against occupying forces. And while this reading is significant, it should be amplified by the insights of other writers. Gerd Gemunden, for example, has claimed that the genre of the Indianerfilme work to define German national character through an identification with the figure of the Indian.[open endnotes in new window] For Gemunden, the Indianerfilme functioned as a vehicle for the post-WW II East German audiences to identify with the victims an U.S. genocide, with obvious reference to the victims of the Holocaust, and so symbolically absolve themselves by taking the position of the victim rather than the victimizer. This message was then compounded with socialist implications, showing the beleaguered Indians moving to more fertile grounds for the purpose of, as Gemunden quotes from Mother Bear, “farming, raising domesticated Buffalo, being blacksmiths and making plows."
Since East German innocence regarding the horrors of Nazism was an agreed-upon fiction encouraged by the East German government (insisting as it did on Communist rather Nazi affiliation during WW II), as was the films’ apparent nod to the forging of a socialist future, this reading sees the films as complying with state policy. My reading, on the other hand, views The Sons of Great Mother Bear as presenting themes of nation and nationalism, a wish for a unified Germany, free of occupying forces, at a time when the building of the Berlin Wall by the East German government further secured the sense of a divided nation. How is it possible to get two such different readings from similar material? And, are they necessarily incompatible, or can they be accepted as additional or even composite readings?
The most important critical distinction is that Gemunden offers a primarily character-based analysis. By addressing the Indianerfilme in this way, he privileges the identity of the Indians. Claiming audience identification with the Indians as the locus of meaning-production diminishes the film's other aspects, especially the generically and culturally coded material, and how the plot sequence works together with the characters in the construction of meaning. This, however, is not to diminish the importance of the Indian characters or oppose Gemunden’s reading. On the contrary, a closer look at the meaning of the Indian within German cultural history, and also within U.S. history, will aid us in better understanding the varied associations this figure renders, and the uses to which it has been put.
It is important to note, as Gemunden has done, that Germans have a long history of identification with the American Indian, and so this figure carries nationalistic meaning rather than just U.S. historical references. In fact, the German practice of Indian personification, of dressing up as Native Americans and fetishizing their customs and artifacts in “Indianerclubs” and “Indianerfestivals," has been popular since the 19th century. To this aspect of German popular culture must also be added the success of Karl May’s Winnetou (1892), the most widely read book in the German language, and one of Hitler’s favorites, whose central, almost erotic focus is the character of the noble Indian. And while it has been claimed that Indian fascination is stronger in Germany than in other nations, it is in not a practice unique to Germany. We can cite Indian impersonations in cultural productions, as well as in acts of political and social resistance, in countries throughout Europe and the United States.
Perhaps the most pertinent example is the 1775 Boston Tea Party staged in the North American colonies. Here revolutionaries, in an act of carnivalesque inversion, dressed themselves in partial Indian costume to stage their defiance against the British. By these examples it becomes obvious that the associations that accrue to the North American Indian are multiple, as are the uses for the acts of imitation. In order to further understand how this figure may operate in The Sons of Great Mother Bear, the Indian, and his associations must be read within specific historical and narrative contexts.
First we must acknowledge that the historical period of The Sons of Great Mother Bear is broadly but not specifically post-WW II Germany, as Gemunden claims for the Indianerfilme. Produced in 1965, the film is clearly positioned within a Cold War environment in East Germany. But most important, it appealed to a new generation, a 1960s generation that faced the conflict of re-negotiating, possibly even rejecting, its parents’ ideals, while also facing the limitation of its economic, political, and national frontier. The Berlin Wall was built in 1961, and the population faced an increasingly restrictive central government known as the Socialist Unity Party (SED). And although an almost incessant undercurrent of dissent characterized public opinion during this period, overt acts of resistance were extremely rare.
In terms of film history, then, we must address two potentially significant ongoing conditions. It was during this time span, from 1965 to 1983, that the Indianerfilme became DEFA's single most successful genre. Conversely, it was in 1965, the year of The Sons of Great Mother Bear, that the East German government banned 12 DEFA films, subsequently known as the “Rabbit Films,” or the “Forbidden Films,” citing objections to their overt political content. Could it be possible that The Sons of the Great Mother Bear presented a covert opposition to the dominant order, telling a story that supported government policies on one level, while also subverting it through nostalgic longings for nation and nationalism on another, especially at a time when the building of the Berlin Wall further separated East and West Germany?
Genre film as discourse
To explore this possibility we must consider prominent theories of how audiences read films as cultural products, and what usefulness such cultural products may have to their societies. Will Wright provides us with a structural model by analyzing the plots of popular Westerns and claiming that their meaning, across periods of audiences’ greatest responses to certain story formulas, comprises a myth, that is, a story popularly received because its resolves an on-going conflict in the society. Fredric Jameson, on the other hand, sees mass culture as accomplishing a double articulation, at once supporting existing ideology while also enacting a collective cultural wish, one that, as he writes, satisfies
Roland Barthes also uses the term “myth,” but in a somewhat different manner than Wright, and without Jameson’s wish fulfillment claims, but certainly from the point of audience reception. Barthes formulates myth as a type of speech, as a cultural discourse, comprised of the interaction of narrative, stylistic, cultural and symbolic codes through which the viewer creates meaning. I will pursue Barthes’ method in furthering the analysis of The Sons of the Great Mother Bear because it allows for a play of cultural connotations in the production of meaning, while also letting us understand the film as satisfying certain societal needs within a particular historical period.
Barthes advises beginning with the title of a work since it poses the first question asked by the text. We must thus consider, who and what are The Sons of Great Mother Bear? Cultural associations proffered by the title reveal certain nationalistic longings within it. Since the bear is a well-known symbol for Berlin, we could read the title, as “The Sons of Berlin” or, by extension, of Germany itself. But why a “Mother Bear" — what can this add to our reading? Can it be seen to refer to a “motherland” or by inversion, and most potently, to the “fatherland”? If all this seems too speculative, let me give a number of other examples supplied to us by the text that refer to Germany and its history. I will first address the image of Mitic as Indian, especially in the representation of his body and the cultural connotations that it encourages.
In The Sons of the Great Mother Bear Mitic is most often seen bare-chested, thus foregrounding his male physical beauty. Mitic’s past as a physical education teacher certainly underscores this image, but athletic beauty is not the only element at play. Mitic’s body is eroticized as well, a feature that recalls the sensuous beauty of Winnetou, the fetishized “other” of the May novels. In The Sons of Great Mother Bear, Mitic is often seen standing with little movement, in an obvious effort to hold his abdominal muscles tight, expanding his rib cage and cinching in his waist in a distinctive contour. This posture makes Mitic’s chest appear more prominent, especially his large pectoral muscles, adding a quality of sensuality to his stance. His shapeliness is then often presented in distinction to the other “braves” of the tribe, all played in this film by white actors, many of whom are notable because of their very lack of muscle definition. Mitic is certainly the leader here, the now-disguised white leader to whom we all pay homage and follow.
It has been well documented that these themes have a significant history within Germany, and can make us feel more than a little uncomfortable. In fact, Susan Sontag, in her now legendary essay “Fascinating Fascism,” has claimed fascism too has an aesthetic and can structure even seemingly innocent works. Sontag cites Leni Riefenstahl 1965 photographic essay on The Last of the Nuba as one of her examples. Sontag notes Riefenstahl’s fascination with the Nuba’s “primitive” funereal ritual, and especially with the bodies of these physically perfect men who are photographed naked, and covered in white ash to connote death. As to whether a similar aesthetic is present The Sons of Great Mother Bear, I will offer only a few tentative examples. Sontag notes the fascination with the primitive within the fascist aesthetic, as well as with the cult of beauty, especially that of the eroticized male body, in conjunction with death. In The Sons of Great Mother Bear, Mitic’s eroticized beauty is presented in the form of an Indian, a “primitive," and a figure acknowledged as a victim of genocide. From this perspective we can now observe that the white man (compounded by a Serbian “otherness”) has put on a costume: he is wearing the skin of a dead man.
The Sons of Great Mother Bear thus has elements of German national culture, including the cult of the hero, the allure of the “primitive," the eroticization of the body, and the fascination with death. And there are other elements as well. In fact, Barton Byg has claimed that within the GDR, remnants from the National Socialist period remained on many social levels, including within the DEFA film studio. But since official GDR policy disavowed responsibility for the Nazi past, the government was not severe in suppressing references to an era seen as not its own. For example, we can note elements from Karl May’s novels in The Sons of Great Mother Bear. Here Mitic, as Tokei Ihto, is fashioned like Winnetou (and Old Shatterhand) of those works, with characteristics once embraced by Nazi propaganda as models for German manhood: skill, bravery, endurance benevolence, and, loyalty. But even with these similarities to German national culture, The Sons of Great Mother Bear was not made in the Germany of 1938, and for this reason, significant differences must be noted.
Mitic’s disguise, for example, must be seen within the historical context of 1965. While the actor’s costume and makeup serves to impersonate an exterminated Native American people, what is most striking about this impersonation, as we discussed, is its obvious existence as a disguise. But why is disguise so important? To shed light on how this quality of impersonation may be operating in The Sons Of Great Mother Bear, I will turn to a study by Rene Girard entitled Violence and the Sacred, in which the author underscores the function of disguise and misrecognition, now in the cultural practice of ritual. To make his point Girard offers an example drawn from the Old Testament story of Isaac and Jacob. In this tale Jacob wears a disguise. He covers himself with the skin of a sacrificial lamb to be misrecognized by his blind father and so avoid the old man’s wrath.
In the context of 1965, the wearing of an Indian disguise by Mitic’s character in a popular film may be seen as a symbolic form of insulation against violence, a kind of protection to ward off evil. And this is perhaps how the “wearing” of an U.S. film genre itself can be interpreted. However, it is the act of misrecognition that is most intriguing about this reading. Since The Sons of Great Mother Bear is an appropriation of the cultural language of the U.S. Western by an East German film, we need to examine the implications of usurping this generic construct and using it for one’s own.
As Gemunden has noted, this act of appropriation could be interpreted as a form of resistance similar to how the colonized enact ritual usurpings of the colonizer's language. And while Gemunden ultimately discounts such an interpretation because the German people cannot be seen as the victims of colonization, could we perhaps see a conflicting dynamic in operation here, one at once in compliance and in resistance to the GDR government and to the status quo? Of course the terms have to be adjusted, from “colonizer/colonized," to “vanquisher/vanquished," yet within this context, the gesture of appropriating the conventions of the U.S. Western and infusing them with German cultural elements bestows power onto a people vanquished under the GDR dictatorship. It also forms a kind of insulation, a warding off of evil, now through the act of misrecognition that it engenders.
The GDR censors discounted the Indianerfilme as examples of a lowly genre and were even pleased by a story line that critiqued U.S. Imperialism and absolved the East German people of past war crimes. Yet The Sons of Great Mother Bear, with the wide popular response to its allegorical story, presents a wish for a unified Germany through a method that is almost carnivalesque, though more covert in form. Here the cinematic language of the United States, the “external other” because of its status as a conquering force, is used in opposition to the GDR, now seen as the “internal other,” the internal enemy of the people, as the film covertly presents a discourse on nation and nationalism.
In order to understand The Sons of Great Mother Bear’s distinctive contribution to the history of the Western, we must put its particular strategy of genre reworking into a cinematic historical context. First, it is important to note that by 1965 the U.S. Western was well on its way to extinction. The heyday of the genre had been in the 1930s and 1940s when Hollywood made over 40 Westerns each year. The Western started its decline in the 1950s with the demise of the studio system, followed in the 1960s with the beginnings of the counter culture and opposition to the Vietnam War. During this period the Western genre and its mythic tales of U.S. national identity were being re-evaluated through cinematic productions known as “revisionist” Westerns. By the 1970s such films as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), as well as changes in U.S. historical and cultural conditions, had effectively “killed” the Western. The Sons of Great Mother Bear, along with the Italian Spaghetti Western we have already mentioned, in some ways fits into this revisionist tradition. Yet this Indianerfilm has a different aesthetic dynamic than the Italian films and must be seen as distinctive in its ultimate effects.
The Sergio Leone films created a formal disjunction on the level of editing style and acting. Genre codes of the U.S. Western were deconstructed through the use of exaggeration, to the point of parody. The same cannot be said of The Sons of the Great Mother Bear. Instead, the film presents itself as a low budget production with formal limitations. These limitations can be seen to create subtle disturbances, but not ones strong enough to rupture cinematic illusion. Like many low budget films, The Sons of the Great Mother Bear does not fully comply with mainstream Hollywood standards in terms of editing style, acting, production value, and directing. But it does not completely reject them either. The film’s editing is the first to cause concern. The linkages between the represented spaces, and the location of the characters within them, are not defined in a totally conventional way. Establishing shots are at times missing or are inconveniently placed. The effect is mildly disruptive, often allowing the shots and characters to appear on their own, caught in their represented action.
At other times, however, The Sons of Great Mother Bear very clearly articulates cinematic space, now by the use of panning and tracking shots. This technique is consistently used, and it is often paired with a particular acting style. In many of the sequences, in fact, the acting is distinctive because of its stiffness. Not only are lines delivered in a manner that evades the deeper psychology of each character (encouraging reading characters as types rather than individuals), but the actors often hold their bodies in a fairly rigid stance. For example, when a group of characters is presented in a non-action sequence, often in medium or wide shot, the actors tend to hold fixed pose, almost tableau-like. Even when characters move within the frame, they do so with deliberate, contained action. At times the camera will follow a character, defining the represented space, and in the process pass by characters who stand nearly motionless in that setting.
The musical score for The Sons of Great Mother Bear carries similar types of displacements and disruptions. The composer of the film’s soundtrack, Wilhelm Neef, was obviously familiar with music from classic Hollywood Westerns, as well as from Western TV shows of the 1950s and 1960s, and his Mother Bear soundtrack appropriates some of these styles. However, the action themes used for Tokei Ihto’s early ambush of the U.S. convoy, for example, as well as his battle with Red Fox near the end of the film, are interlaced with an upbeat musical score, featuring uncharacteristic instruments and orchestration. Here the “copy” of Western film music is “off," at once reminiscent of that established U.S. form, yet dissimilar from it, a quality characteristic of the film as a whole. This sense of disjunction is made more explicit when the Western film visuals are paired with a soundtrack that includes German musical references. In a saloon scene, for example, Cabaret music plays from a turn-of-the-century jukebox and is accompanied by a German Cabaret-like song sung by Jenny, the barmaid. Finally, the German folksong in the closing sequence of the film secures associations of German national culture.
The director of The Sons of Great Mother Bear, Joseff Mach, is not the director of the other Indianerfilme in the recently released 3-DVD box set. Although his style may have its shortcomings, with the later films of the set being more naturalistic in acting style and cinematic direction, I find the effects of Mach’s techniques noteworthy. His strategies tend to destabilize cinematic illusion in a consistent way, calling attention to the film’s constructed surface. The rigid acting, mildly disruptive editing, and intermittently accurate Western film music — all these exist on the level of disguise, imitation, and the fake, thus weakening the surface fiction and allowing the film’s underlying meanings to rise.
Myth and re-myth
The Sons of Great Mother Bear presents itself as a notable variation on the Western precisely because of its particular inflection of genre conventions. The Italian and U.S. Revisionist Westerns are modernist works. They use Western conventions to critique the genre itself, and they do so through methods of distanciation that position the viewer to question the assumptions of the genre consciously, as well as the historical conditions that surround the film. The Sons of Great Mother Bear is more like postmodern works of the 1970s, ones that re-position generic conventions in less obvious ways and use pastiche rather than irony in their method of imitation. So while this Indianerfilm presents an inversion of the Western story, its effect is not so much to undermine the U.S. genre, to “demythify” it. Instead, it “re-mythifies.” It stages a new myth, by using the U.S. Western’s conventions to tell stories of special interest to East German audiences. The Sons of Great Mother Bear recounts a story with a dual register. On one level it critiques the history of U.S. genocidal activities against the Indians. On another level, it tells a story of nation and nationalism, centered on the tension between nation and partition.
The Sons of Great Mother Bear is also distinctive in that it uses blank parody in its appropriation of the Western genre. Like wearing the "skin" of the Indian, this Indianerfilm is “wearing the skin” of an U.S. genre. Certainly usurping the language of the victor has power, but it is also empowering for an East German audience to watch culturally resonant German material being infused into a dying U.S. form. On its surface, The Sons of Great Mother Bear was fashioned as mass entertainment, not as historical critique. Yet by dissimulating, by pretending not to be what it was, it could enact a popular, even nostalgic, wish for the unification of a people, and of a nation.