Right out of the gate, Die Söhne der großen Bärin (The Sons of Great Bear) is confrontational, startling, and something else we can’t quite describe. Deafening and slightly jazzy war drums play over the opening shot. In the scene that follows, the noble yet dissolute Lakota elder Mattotaupa plays cards with some dishonest cowboys until they abruptly demand to know the location of his tribe’s hidden gold and kill him. And then the music comes in: slightly corny, slightly operatic, it brings to mind Siegfried’s funeral march from Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Like Mattotaupa, Siegfried was deceived and killed by men he believed were on his side.
Now that the white settlers know about the tribe’s secret gold stash, and now that Tokei-ihto – Mattotaupa’s son – is out for revenge, the plains of the Mid-West (Yugoslavia) will be awash in treachery, rivalries, battles, and blood. The Lakota-Sioux want a homeland and the “long knives” (the whites) want the hidden gold.
The first of the so-called Red Westerns, The Sons of Great Bear was a huge success throughout the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union, inspiring successors and imitators, as well as off-shoot genres such as the Ostern – which were set in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, not America. Unfortunately, the film itself suffers from a patchy screenplay, originally by the book’s author (the historian and anthropologist Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich), then rewritten by others. It is a sprawling collage of cultural touchstones, musical styles, techniques, and agendas. Some are quite intentional, but others emerge subconsciously, unavoidably, due to the context of the film’s production.
As far back as James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans, Germanic culture has had a longstanding obsession with romanticised notions of Native American life. In the early 20th century, pulp novelist Karl May became hugely popular in Germanic nations (his fans included Kafka and Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler and Albert Einstein1) for his thrilling adventure tales of the Lakota brave Winnetou – a totally fictional figure. In a similar way to the myths and themes of Wagner’s mythic opera cycle, those of May’s stories – honour, purity, and heroism – may have appealed to Germany’s sense of itself (it was still a relatively young country, having unified in 1871), but also to its increasingly nativist ambitions.
The rise of the Western as a film genre has always centred around the visceral thrills of contrived gunfights, implausible relationships/robberies/rescues, and victory over criminal gangs – a category that included Native American nations. The Western’s archetypal nature has always allowed diverse audiences to project their beliefs and ideologies onto the film they are watching, whether in the United States, the United Kingdom, or Europe – hence the genre’s great popularity for much of the 20th century. For the Soviet Union, however, the Westerns of the 1950s and ’60s were blatantly imperialistic. Even West German Westerns, based on Karl May’s Winnetou books, were banned in the Eastern bloc (as were the books themselves), as DEFA – East Germany’s state film apparatus – had an idea: to create an anti-imperialist Western combining the epic scope of a John Ford blockbuster with “corrected” politics.
Critics have observed that Red Westerns, “tell us more about the politics and culture of former East Germany and Germans in the late twentieth century than they do about Native people in North America.”2 Whereas the Native Americans’ heroism had appealed to pre-WW2 Germans, the flipside now was post-WW2 Germans – horrified by what they had done (or permitted) during the War – could now find catharsis in watching films where America was just as bad3
As for the film’s Communist appeal, it presents – in a scene towards the end – what is essentially “a utopian vision of a peaceful and productive workers’ society.”4. The fictional, disgraced Lakota warrior Tokei-ihto (Serbian bodybuilder Gojko Mitic) is berated by his tribal chief – actual historical figure Tatanka-yotanka/Sitting Bull: “You are the son of the one who betrayed her secret … who will take us away from the holy mountains.” The her is the Great Bear, the tribe’s totem, a deadly creature that lives in a cave nearby. But, very soon after, the Great Bear dies – shot by a white treasure-hunter – and Tokei-ihto adopts her cub, believing it to be a sign that the (now fugitive) tribe is to go to a new homeland, raise buffalo, etc. He solemnly pronounces, “That is our new way.”
But this New Way is also a mission statement for a new way of telling stories about our enemies – and ourselves: turning the usual tropes on their head, with somewhat chaotic echoes of past struggles, ancient myths, and modern sounds. This is a New Way not just for the Lakota-Sioux, not just for the Eastern Bloc, but for any part of the world devastated by disaster (whether from within or without), trying to find a path forward now that the Great Bear – that deadly yet holy creature – is dead.
. . .
The Sons of Great Bear (1966 East Germany 92 mins)
Prod Co: DEFA, Bosna-Film Sarajevo Prod: Hans Mahlich Dir: Josef Mach Scr: Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich, Margot Beichler, Hans-Joachim Wallstein Phot: Jaroslav Tuzar Ed: Ilse Peters Art Dir: Paul Lehmann Mus: Wilhelm Neef
Cast: Gojko Mitic, Jirí Vrstála, Rolf Römer, Hans Hardt-Hardtloff, Gerhard Rachold, Horst Jonischkan, Jozef Majercík, Jozef Adamovic, Milan Jablonský
- Michael Kimmelman, “Karl May and the origins of a German obsession,” The New York Times, 12 September 2007. ↩
- Ute Lischke & David T. McNab, “‘Show me the money’: Representation of Aboriginal People in East-German Indian Films,” in Walking a Tightrope: Aboriginal People and Their Representations, Ute Lischke & David T. McNab, eds (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2005), p. 284. ↩
- J. Hoberman, “When Westerns Were Un-American,” The New York Review of Books, 1 June 2012. ↩
- Jennifer Michaels, “Appropriating the ‘Other’ for the Cold War Struggle: DEFA’s Depiction of Native Americans in its Indianerfilme,” Frames Cinema Journal 4, 1 December 2013. ↩