copyright 2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 50, spring 2008

An East German Indianerfilm:
the bear in sheep’s clothing

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 )[1][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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] Moreover, the Western’s dissemination continues to have a wide scope, with its generic elements identifiable in contemporary film, television, and video games.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]

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,[10] a practice that, as early as 1965, links this East German Western to the impulses of postmodernism 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.[11]

Generic Western landscape

The Sons of Great Mother Bear employs a number of aesthetic and narrative strategies to accomplish this effect. Along with the image of the Indian, the film's landscape, as well as costumes, set design, music, and story elements, all have the quality of being imitations drawn from the history of the U.S. Western. And as with the image of Mitic as Indian, these elements become re-contextualized, not without a degree of cynicism, yet without overt parody. I will begin a discussion of this practice by first addressing the use of landscape in the U.S. Western and its variations, and by comparing landscape in these films to its use in select scenes from The Sons of Great Mother Bear. One of the most-often noted characteristic of the U.S. Western is its setting in the U.S. West. No sooner are these words spoken than a number of contradictions come to mind. From 1908 to 1911, for example, the early silent Westerns were in fact set in the eastern part of the United States, most notably New Jersey and New York, and are often called “Eastern Westerns," or “Eastern Filmed Westerns."[12] These Eastern Westerns were set in wooded areas, amidst lakes and streams, and had a pastoral quality with stories to match.[13] Moreover, a significant number of these films were billed “Indian and Cowboy stories” because of the prominent presence of the “noble savage," and because they often told idyllic tales of the land and the Indian’s unavoidable vanishing from it.[14] When the film industry moved its location to Los Angeles in 1911, however, the shift in the location also caused a change in the story line of the Western. The landscape of the U.S. West, with its wide open, even terrifying, deserts and plains fostered a new tone and suggested a new story.[15] The Indian now became part the threatening landscape and took his position as the personification of wilderness, and so the antagonist to the forces of advancing civilization.

In the 1960s, the alteration of the Western’s landscape was a significant feature in the films of Sergio Leone. In Once Upon A Time In The West (1969), for example, the setting still meant to signify the North American West, but the actual location of the shooting had shifted. The open secret is that of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns were often shot in Spain or in the Southern regions of Italy, rather than in the U.S. West. Certainly these locations were chosen for financial reasons, but the results of the physical displacement were used to aesthetic effect. The dislocation mobilized an intellectual and visual double exposure: an ironic clash between the U.S. film genre and this imitation, one that lent to an anti-Western, often anti-capitalist reading of the texts. As an Italian Marxist filmmaker, Leone had purposefully usurped the language of the powerful U.S. genre and re-presented it in depleted, displaced form. With this gesture, his films offered the viewer downtrodden environments, deformed replicas of the original Westerns, with characters and stories to match.

It could be said that The Sons of Great Mother Bear, and many East German Indianerfilme, operate in a similar fashion since they too refer to the U.S. Western but are not shot in the U.S. West. The East German films are notorious for being shot on location in Soviet Bloc countries such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, or Bulgaria, thus infusing the generic U.S. landscape with a Socialist subtext. While watching The Sons of Great Mother Bear one gets a feeling of a double exposure, with the assumed U.S. film (not a specific film, it must be noted, but a vague Western imaginary that now stands as its referent) shifting in compliance, and in contradiction, to the actual image on screen. But in Mother Bear, the clash between the two is not strong enough to present one form as a clear critique of the other and is not sufficiently supported by other elements of the text. Instead, the new film, in a kind of blank parody, re-presents images and conventions of the U.S. Western while infusing landscape, story, character, and language with German cultural resonances.

And while this and other East German Indianerfilme have often been interpreted as delivering a critique of the United States and of U.S. capitalism because of their pro-Indian stance and because of their depiction of the mercenary and genocidal strategies of the United States against its native population,[16] additional readings can be garnered, deeper ones that might explain why these films so attracted East German audiences, making the Indianerfilme the single most successful film genre produced by DEFA. In order to probe this question more carefully, we must first inquire as to the particular effects of positioning U.S. Western genre conventions within an East German context.

Two-tiered reading

The opening image of The Sons of Great Mother Bear can be useful in understanding this dynamic since it begins a two-tiered process of reading, one that privileges the film's fiction and another that resonates with regionally pertinent historical references. The Sons of Great Mother Bear, for example, tells the story of Tokei-ihto, the son of a murdered elder chief, who must now face the prospect of having his people banished to a reservation, a situation symbolically resonant within a divided Germany, especially after the raising of the Berlin Wall. In the opening sequence, the first time we see Mitic as Tokei-ihto, he is framed in a wide shot and shown walking with two saddled but rider-less horses. Although this is a Western-like image, elements begin to gather that allow for an increasingly regional reading of the events. Quite traditionally framed, the shot presents horses and Indian walking slowly across a landscape. One of the horses is brown, while the other has a grey and white spotted coat that mimics the gravel-strewn terrain that surrounds them. Grey white stones dot the green grass, as a cloudy blue sky rises over a snowcapped mountain range in the distance. In the foreground, a lifeless tree frames the image, a symbol of war and sorrow that will be repeated throughout the film.

Compared to a paradigmatic U.S. Western, such as The Searchers (1956), with its shots of Monument Valley, its intense blue skies, russet bluffs, and lone Western hero on horseback (a scene inspired by the 19th century landscape paintings of Fredric Remington which meant to connote the rejuvenation and freedom inherent in the U.S. West landscape), the image at the beginning of The Sons Of Great Mother Bear is a rather melancholy one. This feeling is confirmed in the following sequence by the murder of Tokei Ihto’s father, Manatoupa, and by a shot of his riderless horse as it now gallops alone across the rubble-strewn landscape. The visual tropes presented in here are then elaborated upon as Mother Bear progresses.

In a later sequence, for example, we see a landscape in extreme wide shot, a view that again mimics the style of the U.S. Western. On a narrative level it presents us with the first altercation between the Indians and the wagon train and can be read in anti-imperialist terms since it shows the defeat of the Americans by the superior skill and bravery of the Indians. And while the image imparts a characteristically Western feeling of liberation because of the expansive use of space, it is never completely free of its status as a copy, and a somewhat displaced one at that. This effect is perhaps created by the cloudiness of the blue sky, the stagy perfection of the costumes and makeup, or by the actors’ faces themselves, all regional, “non-Hollywood” performers, thus mobilizing a set of visual disruptions from the assumed original Westerns. The film's aural elements also have an impact here. The use of German language grounds us in the film's historical and geographical context, while the musical score recapitulates this displacement by interlacing Western-like film music with other musical references, most significantly, with German ones.[17]

Lastly, one cannot fail to mention the rocky terrain across which the characters ride. Uncharacteristic of the paradigmatic Western landscape, this terrain at once recalls the U.S. genre while also bringing to mind significant German historical images. Here white rocks once again dot the field, a rubble-like land that may recall the fields of war pictured in news photographs of postwar Germany and also in films of this period, ones known as “Rubble Films” because of the rubble-strewn environment characteristic of their mise en scene.[18] Although this reading may at first seem incidental, the expressive use of a rubble-like landscape, and its opposite, a lush fertile terrain, plays a particularly important role in The Sons of Great Mother Bear and will be elaborated upon both visually and narratively in later sequences of the film.

When Tokei Ihto returns to his Dakota Indian village, for example, the landscape's color and texture dramatically changes from rocky sterility to verdant lushness. In contrast to earlier sequences, the film is now awash with the rich colors of grassy knolls and overhanging trees, shimmer of bright sunshine, and blues of fresh water pools. The pastoral is evoked by an idyllic community of wives, mothers, sisters, children and friends, all of whom happily cluster in this valley. As the story progresses, however, the landscape is carefully manipulated to reflect aspects of recent German history. When Tokei Ihto refuses to move his people out of their ancestral lands, for example, the army rides to massacre and then forcibly removes them. The sorrow of this action is visualized in a long shot of the slow march of the Indian people over an arid terrain (an image visually evocative of the Allied-enforced mass expulsion of almost 12 million ethnic Germans from various European territories after World War II), a trek that finally culminates with their arrival at the reservation.

In The Sons of the Great Mother Bear this new home is shown to be little else than stones: only small patches of ground show through as rubble-like white rocks cover the whole of the area. Here the Chief proclaims, in a phrase that could be directed equally to the U.S. government of the 1870s depicted in the film, or to the U.S. and Soviet forces in recent German history:

“Your peace is not sun and green grass. Your peace is stones and death.”

In sharp contrast to the idyllic life in the verdant valley of their rightful lands, the Indians have been banished to an unlivable terrain. This image must have been resonant to East German audiences who just 20 years before, in addition to the experience of mass expulsion, had also faced their own postwar environment with cities like Berlin, Dresden, and Munich reduced to rubble. These audiences knew full well places of stones and death, as well as the pain of partition, and the loss of nationhood.

German historical context

German connotations and issues of unification further take hold as the story of The Sons of the Great Mother Bear continues, a story that must now be read on both literal and allegorical levels. Escaping the U.S. Army prison, Tokei Ihto returns to his people on the reservation. Seeing the despicable conditions under which they live, he vows to lead the Indians back to their rightful land beyond the border of the Missouri River. (A river, it must be added, that divides the east and west regions of the United States, symbolically, as Germany was divided into East and West.) With this goal, Tokei Ihto unites with other tribes of Indians: men who now understood each other to be brothers and part of one nation. After he is victorious in battle, Tokei Ihto treks over the land on his way home. Through this remarkable sequence we are presented with images of purification as the warrior swims across sparkling rivers to finally reach a land of green valleys, majestic mountains, and large freshwater lakes.

The landscape views in this segment of Mother Bear not only look much more like German valleys, lakes, and mountains than images typically used to signify the U.S. West, but they are also accompanied by German traditional music on the soundtrack. Since a Western-like musical score has accompanied almost the entirety of the film, the inclusion of a German song at this point is especially notable. Here we are presented with a German language song, significantly one sung and orchestrated in the style of German folk music, with lyrics that tell of a better future:

“Waves and ocean currents take with it all of the sorrows of yesterday. A better day approaches before his eyes and will bring the lights again.”

In this pastoral environment, then, Tokei Ihto is re-united with his gallant people in their rightful homeland. As the sequence comes to an end Tokei Ihto walks across a verdant terrain to a woman who waits for him. This is a chaste and symbolic moment. Man and woman view each other from a distance. Motionless and without touching, they stand in this lush valley that speaks to the promise of a fertile future in united land, with a united people.

If we look at the characters in The Sons of the Great Mother Bear as types rather than as individuals, they can be divided into four major groups:

The plot functions and character types proceed in the following sequence:[19]

  1. The hero witnesses the murder of his father.
  2. The hero plans to join with other tribes against the occupying forces.
  3. The occupying forces plan to move the Indian people to a reservation.
  4. The occupying forces imprison the hero.
  5. The occupying forces banish the Indian people to a reservation.
  6. The hero escapes.
  7. The hero discovers the secret of his fathers.
  8. The hero unites to fight with other Indian tribes.
  9. The hero fights the occupying forces.
  10. The hero defeats the occupying forces.
  11. The hero leads the people to their own homeland.
  12. The hero is untied with the woman in his homeland.

Identifying with the Indian

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.[20] 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."[21]

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.[22] 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,[23] 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.[24] 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.[25]

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[26] 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.[27] 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

“our deepest fantasies about the nature of social life, both as we live it now, and, as we feel in our bones, it ought rather to be lived.”[28]

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.[29] 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.

Cultural connotations

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.[30] 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.[31] 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.[32]

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.[33] 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.

Stylistic elements

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.[34] 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.


1. The English translation of the film’s title is variously given. On the recently released 3 DVD box set the film is presented as The Sons of Great Bear. However, the noun for “bear” in the original German title is feminine. The film has been copyrighted under the title The Sons of the Great Mother Bear. I have chosen to use this translation of the title in the present study.

2. Bazin, Andre. “The Evolution of the Western.” What is Cinema? Vol. 2. Ed. and trans. Hugh Gray, pp. 149-57. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

3. Examples include, The Red Girl (1908), Hiawatha (1913), Broken Arrow (1950), and Dances With Wolves (1990).

4. Ross, Corey, The East German Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives in the Interpretation of the GDR, London: Arnold Press, 2002, 8-10. The building of the Wall put to an end the East German exodus to the West, and unwanted capitalist influence. Interpretations of the Wall’s efficacy differed on each side of it. From a West German perspective it was seen as the “centerpiece of an illegitimate totalitarian regime.” From an East German perspective it was dubbed “an antifascist protective wall.”

5. It is important to note that West Germany too had a Western-inspired cinematic form during this period. Inaugural works of the cycle are the Winnetou I, II, and III (1963, 1964, 1965) directed by Harald Reinl. The similarities and differences of these films to the East German Indianerfilme are significant and require their own special study, one outside of the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that distinction between the East and West German films is in the quality of their story structure. So while both practices appropriate Western genre conventions, they are dissimilar in the stories they tell, and in the style of genre re-workings that they employ.

6. More recent examples include The Killer (1989), Cowboy Bebop (1998), Deadwood (2004), and 3:10 to Yuma (2007).

7. A three DVD box set was recently released through the DEFA Film Library, and includes not only The Sons of the Great Mother Bear (1965), but also the following Indianerfilme: Chinachgook, The Great Snake (1967), and Apaches (1973). The DEFA Film Library, founded by Barton Byg, is located at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Devoted to the study of East German film and culture from 1946 to the present, the library houses film prints, videos, and DVDs, as well as articles, books, and periodicals for continuing research.

8. Simmon, Scott, The Invention of the Western Film, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

9. Gemunden, Gerd, “Between Karl Marx and Karl May: The DEFA Indianerfilme” in Germans and Indians: Fantasies, Encounters, Projections, edited by ColinCoolway, Gerd Gemunden & Susanne Zantop, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2002, p. 251.

10. Jameson, Fredric, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in The Anti-Aesthetic, ed. Hal Foster, Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983, p. 111. Jameson identifies these practices as being constituent features of Postmodernism. He defines pastiche as “imitation without laughter.” Blank parody can be further defined as the processes of appropriating the style or form of an existing artwork and placing it in a new context with new content.

11. For a longer study of this practice see Vera Dika, Recycled Culture: The Uses of Nostalgia in Contemporary Film and Art, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

12. Simmon, op. cit., pp. 3-30.

13. Ibid.

14. Dippie, Brian, W. “The Moving Finger Writes: Western Art and the Dynamics of Change.” Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts: Transforming Visions of the American West. According to Brian Dippie the Indian has a consistent meaning in representation:

“Show an Indian and you tell a story, and in the end it is always the same tale. That is the allegorical imperative of the Vanishing American.” p.96.

15. Simmon, op. cit., p. 22.

16. Gemunden, op. cit., p. 244.

17. This musical score is especially striking when compared to Ennio Morricone’s score for the Sergio Leone Westerns, a use of sound that has been lauded for its sumptuousness and expressivity. The low budget status of The Sons of Great Mother Bear may be given as the reason for a use of music that often sounds like an obvious, but not always accurate, copy of per-existing scores. On the other hand, I would argue that the score of Mother Bear creates a palpable feeling of a vague, half-remembered past, a reading that is encouraged by other elements in the film.

18. Examples of the German “Rubble Films” are The Murderers are Among Us (1946), Those Days (1947), and The Lost One (1951).

19. This manner of analysis is influenced by Will Wright and his study of the U.S. Western in Six Guns and Society, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. However, the list of plot functions in Mother Bear is significantly different from the plot sequences Wright found in his study of the most popular U.S. Westerns, and also different from the stories of the Sergio Leoni Westerns, and even of Karl May’s Winnetou. So while the surface elements of a number of Western variations may share similarities, their story sequences can be quite different.

20. Gemunden, op. cit. p. 246-247.

21. Ibid. p. 245.

22. See also Hartmut Lutz, “German Indian Enthusiasm: A Socially Constructed German National(ist) Myth” in Germans and Indians, op.cit., p. 167-184.

23. Ibid. p. 169.

24. Deloria, John, Playing Indian, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, p. 31-32.

25. Ross, op. cit. p. 97-125.

26. Another example of this type of story is in the Indianerfilm Chingachgook: The Great Snake (1967). Here the British and the French use the Delawares and the Hurons as pawns in the French and Indian War. Chingachook, himself an Iroquois, argues passionately that the Delawares and the Hurons should abandon their conflict and join together to fight against the colonizing French and British.

27. Wright, Will, Six Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

28. Jameson, Fredric. “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture” in Signatures of the Visible, New York: Routledge, 1992.

29. Barthes, Roland, Mythologies, New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

30. Byg, Barton. “DEFA and the Traditions of International Cinema” in DEFA: East German Cinema, 1946-1992. New York and Oxford: Gerghahn Books, 1999, p. 23-24.

31. Lutz. op. cit., 177-178.

32. Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. Translated by Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1972.

33. Gemunden, op. cit., p. 251.

34. See Dika, op. cit.


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