Saturday, September 12, 2009

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

An East German Indianerfilm: the bear in sheep’s clothing
by Vera Dika
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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 ), 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.

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