A postcard image of “authentic Indians,” Ute tribe, sold in a Western paraphernalia store in New York City, 2006.
Select characteristics of Native Americans are mimicked and performed by white actors in many Hollywood films. Here Jeff Chandler (nee, Ira Grossel) plays Cochise in Broken Arrow (1950).
Gojko Mitic, the Serbian National who stars as Tokei-ihto in The Sons of the Great Mother Bear, plays an Indian hero in many of the East German Indianerfilme produced between 1965 and 1983.
Tokei-ihto first appears leading two saddled rider-less horses across a gravel-strewn terrain. The image is framed by a lifeless tree.
The frontiersmen first appear in shots from the interior of a cabin.
Tokei-ihto enters and joins Manatoupa, his father, in a side room, where the old man sits alone. The older Indian is in the cabin with the frontiersmen, but not part of their group.
“Red Fox” Clark appears, framed in close-up, without any establishing shot of his entering the front door or clarifying his position in the space.
Red Fox stabs Manatoupa because the Indian elder won’t divulge the location of the gold, “the secret of his fathers.”
Manatoupa dies saying, “Tokei-ihto,” passing his legacy onto his son.
One of the rider-less horses gallops alone into the depth of the image. This is a funereal image. A saddled rider-less horse is often used as a symbol of the fallen, especially in military funerals.
The opening credits of The Sons of Great Mother Bear show a German title accompanied by Western-inspired music and landscape. The image repeats the motif of a lifeless tree in the left foreground, and rubble-like rocks to the right.
by Vera Dika
The first time I saw an Indianerfilm, it was introduced to me as being an “East German Western.” As I settled in to watch The Sons of Great Mother Bear (Die Sohne der grossen Barin )[open endnotes in new window], a 1965 film made by DEFA in the now-defunct German Democratic Republic known as the GDR, I kept thinking that this Western was “all wrong.” I am an American, and even as a film scholar, I could not initially process what I was seeing. From my historical and cultural perspective, the Western’s more conventional elements were being displaced in ways I had not previously experienced. For example, The Sons of Great Mother Bear was shot on location in Yugoslavia, giving the landscape an uncharacteristic, “un-Western” look. The language spoken was German with English subtitles. And the U.S. soldiers were played by East German actors, while a Serbian national starred as the lead Indian. In these terms alone the film registered as almost an affront, not only to conventional “American” connotations, but also to the Western itself, a genre Andre Bazin once identified as being “quintessentially” American.
It could be said that The Sons of Great Mother Bear resembled Italian Spaghetti Westerns, especially those of Sergio Leone, films made at around the same time and similarly displacing conventional elements of the genre, especially those of landscape, language, casting, and story. But The Sons of Great Mother Bear was notably different. To begin with, this system of imitation had no intended humor. Instead the film was fashioned almost as blank parody, a copy of the U.S. Western that included culturally and historically resonant German elements with little irony. So when a friend leaned over to me and asked, “Is this a Western?” I almost didn’t know how to reply. The film sidestepped so many of the established guidelines for identifying and defining the Western genre that I felt it crossed the line into its own genre, or at least its own subgenre. But the story of The Sons of Great Mother Bear created the final rupture. On the manifest level, the film inverted the traditional Western story by placing the Indians as heroes against the treacherous Americans who endeavored to inhabit their land and destroy their society.
Again, one could say that this type of inversion is not completely irregular since the Indian as noble victim is a variation in a number of U.S. Westerns from the silent period to the present.  On looking closer, however, the East German Indianerfilm makes a more profound alteration: it shifts the more characteristic tension of the popular U.S. Western, one identified by such scholars as Will Wright in his now-classic Six Guns and Society, as a conflict between the forces of civilization and wilderness, to an equally potent historical concern. The Sons of Great Mother Bear tells the story of an Indian hero who fights against the forces confining his people to a reservation. In this way, the film presents a conflict best described as the struggle for nation against the forces of partition.
In the light of post-World War II German history, and especially within the immediate historical context of the film's production, this tension can be seen as particularly significant. The Sons of Great Mother Bear was made in 1965, just 4 years after the building of the Berlin Wall, an act that underlined the separation between East and West Germany and, for the foreseeable future, put an end to discussions of a unified nation. Moreover, 10 million East Germans flocked to see The Sons of Great Mother Bear, making it one of the most commercially successful films in the history of the East German film studio. One could speculate that a people undergoing the conflicts of a separated nation might respond to a film that symbolically told a similar tale. But my questions in this essay will also have a broader scope. What methods, for example, did the East German filmmakers employ in manipulating the Western genre to now speak a new text? And, how does this film compare to other significant Western genre re-workings of the period?
I have to make clear that my purpose here is not to argue whether The Sons of Great Mother Bear is, or is not, a Western. The film is certainly a variation on that acknowledged U.S. form, one whose presence spans across 20th century film, and whose influence can be found in the cinematic works from around the world. Moreover, the Western’s dissemination continues to have a wide scope, with its generic elements identifiable in contemporary film, television, and video games. In our era of broken boundaries, however, I would like to re-establish some guidelines and consider The Sons of the Great Mother Bear in its specificity. The reason for doing so is to incorporate it into Western film history, since the Indianerfilme as a whole is a newly recovered form, one that has only recently come to light after the re-unification of Germany in 1989. And while 11 additional Indianerfilme were made by DEFA between 1965 and 1983 after the success of The Sons of Great Mother Bear, the present discussion will focus on the first film of the cycle. By then positioning The Sons of Great Mother Bear in the context of select Westerns of the period, I will address recent genre practice in a transnational setting. I will argue that The Sons of Great Mother Bear, as an early example of the East German Indianerfilme, manipulates character, setting, and plot in a manner that sets itself apart as a notable addition to the history of the Western genre.
Indian as image
Let us begin with a discussion of the image of the Indian in The Sons of Great Mother Bear. While browsing in a New York store specializing in U.S. Western paraphernalia, I came across a postcard entitled, “Ouray: Chief of the Utes.” Since the caption on the back claimed that this was a photograph of authentic tribesmen, I purchased the card to assess the distinction between the representation of “real” Indians and Hollywood Indians, and by extension, the image of Indian in The Sons of Great Mother Bear. Scanning the faces in the “Chief of the Utes," faces of Native Americans who once lived, I find the man on the far right to be somewhat problematic. While all of the others seem to comply with my culturally based idea of what an Indian should look like (they all have long hair, appropriate Indian dress, beads, and moccasins on their feet) the man on the far right is not as easily distinguishable. I find that his skin is too dark to fit my pre-conception, that his hair is not loosely flowing, and that his shirt is not “Indian” enough. This man would not be in my Western movie. In fact many Native Americans who went looking for jobs as actors in early silent Westerns found that they were turned away because they did not look sufficiently “Indian” to represent those characters on film.
The Indians who did make it into Hollywood films, however, satisfied audience expectations in specific ways. At times they were represented in seeming authenticity, as in the 1910 film White Fawn’s Devotion, or as faceless men on horseback who are shot down with deadly and repeated force, as in Stagecoach (1939), or even accepted when obviously impersonated by a white actor, as in Broken Arrow (1950) with Jeff Chandler as Cochise. Certainly the fact that Jeff Chandler played a white man impersonating an Indian was not entirety lost on the 1950s viewers, but audiences accepted this type of convention, one not strong enough to rupture the fiction of the film. The resulting meaning of Chandler’s character in Broken Arrow is “Indian," and the image is carefully controlled to carry this message. The hair is characteristically flowing, the bandana fits snugly across the forehead, the vest is made of buckskin, and the make-up is applied to create a complexion just the right color of bronze. Moreover, any information on the true nature of Jeff Chandler’s background (that his real name was Ira Grossel, for example, or that he was born in Brooklyn) was not widely publicized to the viewing public.
Let us now turn to another image. This is of Gojko Mitic. He played the Indian hero of The Sons of Great Mother Bear and in so many of the other Indianerfilme that he gained an association with that genre comparable to the prominence of John Wayne in the U.S. Western. We must first note that Mitic is also a white man, not a native American, yet his image bears a meaning different from the other Indians and Indian impersonations mentioned here. While it is true that Mitic is appropriately dressed, even meticulously so (the hair, the bandana, the beads, the buckskin all comply with convention), his meaning is consciously constructed to be much more than simply “Indian” to an East German audience. The surface signifiers of his image vie with a host of additional associations. Mitic’s background as an ex-physical education teacher, as well as his Serbian nationality (with its own associations of “otherness” within a German context), and his father’s anti-Nazi resistance during WWII, were widely publicized at the time. Moreover, as Gerd Gemunden remarks in his essay on the Indianerfilme, the image of Mitic has an “unavoidable association” with other white men, such as Jeff Chandler and Burt Lancaster, who have impersonated Indians in the Western film.
My point is that the image of Mitic as Indian is structured in a way unlike the other Indian images we have discussed. Mitic’s image not only bears culturally specific associations, but is also historically and culturally distant from the “original” Westerns. This distance helps code the image as a signifier. Mitic is openly in disguise here, and his image is a picture of a picture, one that refers to the history of the North American Indian on film, yet to no one image in particular.
Parody or pastiche?
Of course, one might say that considering the impact of star image is not entirely new. The question of an actor’s persona is always relevant and resonant to playing a role. John Wayne, for example, carried a rich persona into his roles, infusing his characters with a sense of “Americaness," and even “John Wayneness," that cannot be denied. But the effect of Wayne’s performance was not to refer it insistently to images outside the text. For this reason The Sons of Great Mother Bear has a style much closer to the technique employed by Sergio Leone in his Spaghetti Westerns, of which Fistful of Dollars (1964) is the earliest example. Here the U.S. Western and its characters are openly represented as imitations of, or in contradiction to, the original form. The Leone films sought to critique the Western film genre itself, to de-mythify it, that is, to bring into consciousness its underlying capitalist assumptions, an effect often accomplished through the use of irony. Leone’s characters gained their meanings not by referring to “real” cowboys, historical figures on the fringes of the frontier. Instead the films' purpose was to corrode the very image of the gallant cinematic Western heroes, straining each character through exaggeration and parody.
Arguably, The Sons of Great Mother Bear also set out to critique the Western genre, and the United States as well, by telling stories of U.S. greed and dishonesty and acts of aggression against the Native American population. The method of imitation in the German replica, however,is accomplished differently. The characters in the East German films are striking precisely because they lack a parodistic edge. In fact the quality of their imitation is closer to pastiche, or to blank parody, a practice that, as early as 1965, links this East German Western to the impulses of postmodernism rather than to the rather than to the the modernist methods of the Leone films. The result in The Sons of Great Mother Bear is only an apparent thematic inversion of the Western’s generic story elements, without the critical self-referentiality of modernist works. Throughout this essay I will claim that rather than demythify the Western genre, this Indianerfilme accomplishes a different effect. Its impact is closer to a “re-mythification," that is, a reformulation of established genre conventions for the purpose of telling a new myth, now to a specific people at a particular time in history, and accomplished by the nearly blank re-presentation of generic form and variation.