First there was Karl May, the odd 19th-century German novelist who brought ‘the Western’ to Germany. Even though he’d never been to the United States, May’s amazingly vivid descriptions of the rugged landscape of the West, and the ruggeder men who tamed it, were popular with German children. All Germans, and I mean all, can recite volumes about the loyal Indian scout "Winnetou", and the various palefaces who explored the West with him, including "Old Surehand" and "Old Shatterhand." The books remain in print to this day. In fact, Karl May has sold more books than any other German-language author.
Then there were American Westerns. Then came West German Westerns, which were successful. Then came Westerns…from the East! East Germany, that is. East Germany’s historical role was the Potemkin country, the dolled-up store-display Communist dictatorship that showed the rest of the world that anything the West could do, the Soviet bloc could do just as well. (At least one Soviet-bloc country that is, which was relatively highly-developed and helped by massive infusions of Soviet economic aid). There were East German car brands, medical congresses, detective shows, management consultants, and even dance crazes (the Lipsi: "a dance invented by a committee, a bizarre hipless camel of a thing").
So there had to be socialist Westerns, and there were. In these Westerns, the Indians were wise, peaceable beings who didn’t even have a word for "property," and the cowboys, except for a few noble exceptions, were sadistic liars or unwitting tools of the capitalist robber barons. The Indian chief was usually played by the muscular Gojko Mitic (l), the son of a Serbian peasant family who became a (socialist) world-wide star in such movies as Chingachgook the Great Snake and The Son of the Great Bear.* Although Mitic could speak fluent German, his dialogue was always dubbed, in order "not to discriminate against the Indians." (G).
In 1990, Communism was called home by the Great Spirit. Mitic’s career, after an initial dry spell, resumed. In 1992, he took over the role of the Indian Scout Winnetou in the Karl May Festival, a seasonal amusement park featuring open-air re-enactments of scenes from Karl May novels.
On the occasion of his recent retirement from this role, the taz newspaper recently interviewed (G) Mitic for the September 9/10 issue. Here an excerpt, in my translation:
The reunification in 1990 probably wasn’t so easy for you, since you were a huge East German movie star typecast as an Indian. Doesn’t that mean: no more roles?
No, [the reunification of Germany] didn’t bother me at all. The best thing, I found, was that the stupid Wall was gone. It wasn’t as if I couldn’t have traveled before — after all, I still had my Yugoslavian passport, and you could go everywhere without a visa when you had one of those. But the division of Germany disturbed all of us. All of us. [After the reunification] I thought: you’ve got two hands and a healthy body — you can do everything. I could always have become a truck driver. I have all the right licenses for that: I could have driven tomatoes from Bulgaria to Germany. But, in any event, the first offer of a film role came soon: "The Movie-Teller." Of course, these were smaller roles than before…
But when the offer to play Winnetou in the Karl May Festival came, did you immediately say yes?
No. First, I talked to [predecessor] Pierre Brice, whom I knew from before; we had worked on films together. He advised me to take the part. So I came here and took a look around. I stood up there on the rocky outcropping [at the festival site] and then looked down into the arena — and decided to take the role.
You played your part up there on the rocks?
Yes; I had to rappel down from up there. That’s no longer possible. We’re not allowed to go up on the rocks anymore, since it’s now under environmental protection. Some kind of endangered snail lives there.
The snail would be threatened?
Yes, you might accidentally step on one.
An of course, Winnetou would never do that.
No, Winnetou would never do that.
* These eminently-watchable movies, most of which were filmed in the Socialist brotherland of Yugoslavia, were products of the East German film company DEFA. The University of Massachusetts has bought the rights to most DEFA films; visit their DEFA Film Library to find out more.