Appropriating the “Other” for the Cold War Struggle: DEFA’s Depiction of Native Americans in its Indianerfilme

By Jennifer Michaels

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Many Europeans, especially Germans, have long been fascinated with Native Americans whose imagined culture they have appropriated for a variety of different agendas and by so doing have essentialized “the Indian”. Lischke and McNab observe that non-Aboriginal peoples “often fail to understand the sheer diversity and multiplicity and the shifting identities of Aboriginal people” 1 and have represented “‘Indians’ as European categories of thought rather than as human beings”. 2 Reflecting on such imaginaries the Anishinabe cultural critic Gerald Vizenor notes in his book Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence (1998) that before colonial times the term “Indian” did not exist. It was invented by Euro-Americans. In his view, “the Indian” is “a simulation without a referent”. 3 DEFA’s Indianerfilme were shaped both by ideological intents and by what Hartmut Lutz terms “Indianthusiasm”. 4 Die Söhne der großen Bärin (1966, The Sons of the Great Mother Bear) was so successful – around ten million GDR citizens saw the film – that it led to other popular Indianerfilme throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. Unlike the enormously popular West German westerns of the 1960s, based loosely on Karl May’s Winnetou and sometimes called “Sauerkraut” or “Spätzle” westerns, DEFA’s Indianerfilme do not depict Native Americans as a homogenous group, but instead attempt to present different tribes and time periods. Yet with their focus on imperialism, colonialism and genocide the films consciously appropriated Native Americans for the Cold War struggle. Although DEFA prided itself on its historical portrayal of Native Americans, it nevertheless borrowed them for GDR politics of anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism and perpetuated such romanticized stereotypes of Native Americans as “noble savages”, popularized by May. In these films, “the Indian” with his perceived stoicism and struggle for freedom was utilized as a potent, yet also defeated symbol of resistance.

To appreciate depictions of Native Americans in the East German westerns, it is useful to consider briefly their previous images in American westerns. Early American silent westerns frequently showed Native Americans positively and often included friendships between them and whites. Some were set “entirely within tribal communities or feature a ‘noble redskin’ as guide or savior to the white hero”. 5 As in the Indianerfilme there is a tone of nostalgia about “civilization’s advance and the native’s demise”. 6 Later, however, many westerns depicted Native Americans as savage and degraded, as “one more roadblock thrown by nature against the advance of pioneers”. 7 Gerald Vizenor observes that westerns “are not cultural visions, but the vicious encounters with the antiselves of civilization, the invented savage”. 8 In pro-progress westerns, Native Americans are stereotyped as violent and treacherous to justify their defeat. John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), for example, is “one of the most viciously anti-Indian films ever made” because “the entire film is in effect an argument in favor of killing Indians as the only solution to the ‘Indian Problem’”.  9 In contrast, many anti-progress American westerns create different stereotypes of Native Americans as noble and virtuous and often treat them patronizingly.

DEFA, the state-owned film studios in the GDR, was not blind to the success of the West German westerns of the early 1960s. Because they were banned in the GDR citizens travelled to Czechoslovakia to see them. The GDR government dismissed May as a bourgeois author of trivial literature and banned his works. That Hitler had enjoyed his stories further harmed his reputation in the post-World War II era. 10 When DEFA proposed making a western or Indianerfilm, their preferred name that highlights their focus on “the Indian”, the studio had to conform to GDR cultural policy that literature and film “educate” the public. DEFA used a Marxist-Leninist perspective to depict Native Americans in the struggle against U.S. imperialism. Through their attention to history “the producers and filmmakers were hoping to infuse what state officials considered a sensationalist and escapist genre with an enlightening and educative purpose”. 11 Through telling the story of the “Indians” the producers wanted to teach young people about the evils of capitalism. In an article in the Berliner Zeitung in 1971 Günter Karl, the chief dramaturge of the DEFA group “Roter Kreis” (red circle), which produced many of the Indianerfilme and included such prominent directors as Josef Mach, Gottfried Kolditz and Konrad Petzold, emphasized the group’s historical-materialist perspective, but also pointed out that to be effective they had to use successful aspects of the western genre, including a “gewisse Romantik” (a certain romanticism) in their treatment of Native Americans. 12 In contrast to the West German westerns’ lack of concern with historical accuracy (for example totem poles, clearly modeled on those from the Pacific North West, appear in some scenes of Mescalero Apache villages), DEFA stressed that its films were based on historical documents, and the studio worked with Dr. Lothar Dräger from the Leipzig ethnographic museum to achieve historical authenticity. 13 Günter Karl, who wrote the script for Spur des Falken (Trail of the Falcon), for example, not only conducted extensive historical research, but also used support from the Leipzig Ethnographic Museum. As Torner has observed about the film Osceola, however, Dräger idealized Seminole culture “via a hybrid of Völkerkunde (ethnography) and Marxist-Leninism”, 14 an idealization that also informed his perceptions of Native American tribes in the other DEFA films. The supposed anthropological authenticity was, therefore, filtered through romanticized versions of Native Americans that perpetuated stereotypes. Thus, like American and West German westerns “the Indian” becomes in the DEFA films an ideological construct.

DEFA used this “quintessentially” American genre to sharply criticize the United States. 15 It did little, however, “to question established genre conventions” and accepted “a certain degree of Americanization” in order to “gain favor with home audiences”, tired of “DEFA’s political fables”. 16 The films closely follow the conventions of the western genre, including, for example, tavern scenes, action shots of “Indian” attacks, ambushes of stagecoaches and railroads, and shootouts. Where they differ is in their positive depictions of Native Americans. By adhering closely to these conventions DEFA undermined, however, its attempts at differentiation and authenticity in its portrayal of Native Americans. In particular these attempts collided with the studio’s decision to adopt the star-system. Following the western genre’s use of white actors playing their Native American roles in what Katrin Sieg terms “ethnic drag” 17 and noting the success of Pierre Brice as Winnetou in the West German westerns, DEFA chose the Yugoslav actor Gojko Mitić to impersonate all its Native American protagonists. As a result Mitic came to represent “the Indian”, thereby working against DEFA’s goal to differentiate the various tribes: “The faces of all tribes (. . .) were collapsed into Mitic’s strong jaw, exaggerated red make-up, a long black-haired wig and muscular torso”. 18 Mitic had already played parts in some West German Winnetou films, for example, in Unter Geiern (1964, Frontier Hellcat) where he was the chief’s son Wokadeh. Through his various Native American roles for DEFA Mitic became a superstar with a large following of enthusiastic fans in East Germany and other Eastern European countries and later, after the demise of the GDR, also in the West. Whenever Mitic appeared, there were spontaneous mass rallies that the GDR government had not even ordered. 19 He became “a role model for children, the dream of teenage girls, and an ideal son-in-law – a particularly Teutonic form of model Indian and model citizen”. 20 The athletic Mitic, who had studied sport, performed all his own stunts, once being bitten by a horse, 21 and during the filming of Chingachkook in the Tatra Mountains his canoe capsized several times in the cold lake. 22 Ironically, Mitic, who played the Indian “Other”, was for East Germans also an “Other” since he was from Yugoslavia, and in the films his voice was always dubbed by a native German speaker. Although Mitic spoke German fluently, he did so with an accent. The director Konrad Petzold justified such dubbing by saying that in American westerns “Indians” often speak incorrect English, which he saw as discrimination, hence the East German “Indian” hero had to speak correct German, since it would have been “happig”, a colloquial phrase meaning “a bit much”, if an “Indian” spoke with a Slavic accent. 23

DEFA used a variety of settings, mostly in Eastern Europe, to represent the American West. Many of the films were co-productions with studios in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Romania, Mongolia, and even Cuba, where part of Osceola was filmed. Filming in Yugoslavia, where the West German westerns were also filmed, was particularly helpful since DEFA could use sets left behind from the Winnetou films and could also rely on experienced extras who had already played in the West German westerns. Another advantage of filming in Eastern Europe was that people in South East Europe had darker skins, which made it easier to represent them as “Indians”. 24 In the DEFA films, the extras are portrayed as somewhat backward, as primitive and almost childlike, in contrast to the heroic, resolute chiefs played by Mitic. DEFA frequently used non-professional actors. For example, the slaves in Osceola were actually African students studying in the GDR. 25 Not only were locations in Eastern Europe only an approximation of the American West, but they also presented some challenges. For example, while filming Trail of the Falcon in the Caucasus wood to build the tipis was stolen. 26

Because the DEFA films were not bound by the May model set among the Mescalero Apaches, they attempted to give a broader picture of different tribes and time periods. Tribes depicted include, for example, the Dakotas (Die Söhne der großen Bärin, 1966, The Sons of the Great Mother Bear; Spur des Falken, 1968, Trail of the Falcon; Weiße Wölfe, 1969, White Wolves); Apaches (Apachen, 1973; Ulzana, 1974); Mohicans, Hurons, and Delawares (Chingachgook, 1967); Shoshones (Tödlicher Irrtum, 1970, Deadly Mistake); Seminoles (Osceola, 1971); Shawnee (Tecumseh, 1972); Cheyenne (Weiße Wölfe; Blutsbrüder, 1975, Blood Brothers); Nez Percé (Der Scout, 1983); and Iroquois (Blauvogel, 1979, Blue Bird). Of the above Blue Bird is the only one not narrated from what DEFA viewed as a Native American perspective. The films address Native American tribes only at a specific point in time, and their plots are predictable, showing incidents of Native American resistance to the encroaching whites. No attempts are made to understand their lives over time. While they include such Eastern and Southern tribes as the Hurons, Delawares and Seminoles, like most westerns they focus on defeated and vanishing tribes of the American West. The term “Indianer” has long been associated in the Euro-American and particularly the German imagination with Plains Indians 27 so it is not surprising that such tribes feature prominently in DEFA’s films. Since the late 19th century, “the befeathered and mounted warriors of the plains had become the dominant Indian stereotype within popular culture”. 28

DEFA films are always sympathetic to Native Americans’ struggles for existence and glorify their “courage and integrity”. 29 Native Americans are portrayed as noble and peaceful and they want to live in friendship with the whites. Several films depict an idyllic life in villages where Native Americans live in harmony with nature – until the whites burn the village and kill women, children and old people. Reflecting a growing environmental consciousness they imagine “the Indians” as living a wholesome life amidst nature in sharp contrast to the many smoky and often violent saloon scenes where the whites drink and gamble. Native Americans become hostile only to defend themselves, to escape from barren reservations, or to revenge massacres. They are the “good guys” fighting bravely and hopelessly for their freedom against overwhelming odds as ever-more white settlers flood into the West. In the film of the same name the chief Tecumseh likens whites to swarms of mosquitoes. In contrast to many American westerns of the time, which present conquering the West as a triumph and an important step in nation building and which celebrate the heroism of cowboys and settlers, DEFA films sympathize with the victims of such “progress”.

In their depiction of imperialism, colonialism and genocide these films sharply criticize the United States and they stress the close connection between capitalism, militarism and racism (the GDR considered itself anti-racist, and DEFA took the high moral ground in these films). 30 In most of the Indianerfilme there is a gulf between white Americans and Native Americans. Unlike the West German westerns close friendships between whites and Native Americans are rarely shown, and only a few good whites appear. One exception is Blood Brothers, whose script was written by the American singer and songwriter Dean Reed, who moved to the GDR for political reasons, in which the white Harmonika, played by Reed, and the Cheyenne chief, played by Mitic, become blood brothers. Another is the good sheriff in White Wolves. Otherwise most American whites are depicted as greedy, violent and vicious. They are bandits, fat capitalists, rich mine owners, and land speculators, such as the aptly named Bludgeon in Trail of the Falcon. Some even have pointed teeth to signify their predatory nature. They not only fight against “the Indians”, but also against each other, shoot the buffalo so that Native Americans have no food, and massacre Native Americans. More and more whites steal their land, break treaties made with Native Americans at will when for example gold is found in the Black Hills, and murder them, encouraged by the government bounty offered for Native American scalps, emphasizing that Native Americans are treated like animals, and undermining the notion that only “Indians” take scalps.

A frequent scene in American westerns is when the cavalry rides to rescue the settlers from “the Indians”, thereby playing the heroic role of saviours. In the Indianerfilme, however, the cavalry, representing the military, is always shown as an instrument of government oppression that protects the capitalists and hunts down and murders “the Indians”. One of many such examples is in Blood Brothers, which begins with the Sand Creek massacre in which the cavalry slaughter peaceful Cheyenne, mostly women and children. DEFA films also depict the cavalry’s participation in the forced removal of Native Americans from their fertile lands to rocky, barren reservations.

In several films, DEFA addresses imperialism, showing that the colonial powers, using a divide and conquer strategy, manipulated Native Americans to fight on their side and thus against each other. In Chingachgook, whose plot derives from James Fenimore Cooper, for example, which takes place in the 1740s during the colonial wars between the British and the French, the Hurons fight for the French and the Delawares support the British. In Tecumseh the Shawnee chief, betrayed by the United States government, joins the British in Canada to fight against American oppression, where he is also betrayed. The films do not differentiate between the colonial powers, which all break treaties and promises and grab Native American lands. The French and the British appear less repressive than the Americans only because their subsequent defeats took away their opportunities to plunder and kill Native Americans. In Apachen DEFA depicts imperialism in action as the United States, represented by capitalists and the cavalry, encroach increasingly on New Spain, belonging to Mexico. Ironically, the film treats the Mexicans, who are also imperialists, but are not a target of Cold War rhetoric, quite positively since they try to help the Apaches. In Tecumseh DEFA alludes briefly to Christianity’s complicity in colonialism. Tecumseh’s attempts to unite various tribes to resist fail when some choose the Americans and Jesus. DEFA’s reflections on imperialism are silent about Germany’s own previous imperialist endeavours.

The DEFA films stress the genocide perpetrated against the Native Americans by the United States and show genocide as integral to capitalism and colonialism. Their attempt to link racism and class largely fails since the films suggest that racism exists in all levels of white society. The films show a close connection between economics and racism with the profit motive used to justify murdering those who stand in the way of “civilization”. Many of the films depict massacres in Native American villages, where, to drive home their message, the camera focuses slowly on the representations of brutal murders of women and children. The booklet accompanying Blood Brothers uses the word  “Ausrottungspolitik” (extermination policies), a word fraught with meaning for a German audience after the Holocaust, to characterize American policies toward Native Americans. 31 Most of the American whites are racist, as the frequently repeated “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” suggests, an attitude shared by the colonial powers as when a British officer remarks: “We will fight to the last Indian”.

Surprisingly, given the GDR’s supposed anti-racist attitudes and its promotion of women’s rights, the films, following the conventions of the western genre, demonstrate a definite gender bias and a reluctance to accept interracial relationships. For the most part white and especially Native American women are shown as “passive and obedient, reflecting what German women should be and not what Aboriginal women really were (and are) like”. 32 Most are depicted as childlike victims, helplessly dependent upon their men. Like American westerns DEFA also avoids addressing interracial marriage. In Blood Brothers, for example, soldiers kill Harmonika’s pregnant Native American wife, conveniently avoiding the issue of miscegenation and eliminating the “problem” of giving birth to a mixed race child.

As several critics have observed, the Indianerfilme “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”. 33 By using Native Americans to criticize the United States the films contributed to Cold War rhetoric, but they also offered, as Gemünden points out, “blueprints for a better socialist Germany”. 34 At the end of The Sons of the Great Mother Bear chief Tokei-ihto exclaims “Ackerbau, Büffelzucht, Eisen schmieden – das ist unser neuer Weg” (farming, raising buffalo, smelting iron – that is our new way), 35 a utopian vision of a peaceful and productive workers’ society. The films also emphasize the necessity for citizens of the GDR and other Eastern European countries to work together in solidarity to build new societies just as in Ulzana the Apache chief attempts to build a self-reliant nation out of different and often warring tribes. 36 By emphasizing Native American resistance, the Indianerfilme remind their viewers of their state’s commitment to antifascism, one of the foundational myths of the GDR. 37 Other aspects of the films resonated with East German audiences. Dika argues that the conflict in The Sons of the Great Mother Bear is “best described as the struggle for nation against the forces of partition”. 38 In her view, East German audiences could identify with “the Indians” because they had experienced “the pain of partition, and the loss of nationhood”. 39 Through identifying with a persecuted minority audiences could also ignore “the recent racist German past that had been characterized by extinguishing alleged enemies”. 40 Similarly, the films’ portrayal of the long, brutal marches to infertile reservations would arouse multiple associations in East German audiences: the deportation of the Jews, the forced death marches of concentration camp inmates at the end of the war, and the expulsion of ethnic Germans from the East. By implication, the films’ solidarity with the resistance of historical Native Americans against an imperialist power suggests the GDR’s solidarity with freedom movements around the world, such as the Vietnamese people in their struggle against United States militarism. “Indians” in some films, for example Apachen and Blood Brothers, “employ guerrilla and terrorist tactics against their scheming American enemies”. 41 The films thus suggest a model for resistance groups around the world, but since, as they demonstrate, the “Indians” were ultimately doomed, this model is hardly compelling.

The subtitle of White Wolves, “wilder Westen und historische Wahrheit” (wild West and historical truth), points to DEFA’s conflicted goals in these films. It wanted to present authentic and ideologically correct portraits of Native Americans, but it was also concerned with box office success, which led it to emphasize the adventure/entertainment aspects of the western genre. Lischke and McNab argue, in fact, that commercial concerns were primary, that  “any attempt to lend accuracy or authenticity to them was quite secondary”. 42 DEFA took over uncritically widespread romanticized stereotypes of Native Americans as noble savages and tropes of a dying race, perpetuated in the West by May. Unintentionally, the films offered many East Germans, whose travel was restricted, not only entertainment, but also a temporary escape into a more exotic world. As Briel notes “shots of roaming tribes and of the big blue sky of the American West had a particular appeal”. 43 Inadvertently, by depicting Native Americans’ resistance to the American government the films also gave their audiences a space to question their own government’s policies. 44

In DEFA’s Indianerfilme, its most successful film series, Native Americans, despite the studio’s repeated claims of authenticity 45 and its attempts to avoid a false romanticizing of “Indians”, are appropriated for Cold War rhetoric against the capitalist and militarist West, specifically the United States. They undergo a “re-mythification” to become brave examples of oppressed groups fighting throughout the world for their freedoms. Despite the many inaccuracies and the appropriation of Native Americans for ideological purposes, however, the films’ focus on Native American perspectives, their attempts at historical authenticity, and their positive depictions of Native Americans as individual people were at that time quite unique.

Frames # 4 1-12-2013. This article © Jennifer Michaels. This article has been peer-reviewed.


  1. Ute Lischke and David T. McNab, introduction to walking a tightrope: aboriginal people and their representations, ed. Ute Lischke and David T. McNab (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2005), 1.
  2. Ibid., 5.
  3. James Mackay and David Stirrup, “Introduction: Native Americans in Europe in the Twentieth Century,” European Journal of American Culture 31, no. 3 (2012): 182.
  4. See Hartmut Lutz, “German Indianthusiasm: A Socially Constructed German National(ist) Myth,” in Germans and Indians: Fantasies, Encounters, Projections, ed. Colin G. Calloway, Gerd Gemünden, and Susanne Zantop (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 167-184.
  5. Scott Simmon, The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre’s First Half-Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 4.
  6. Ibid., 18.
  7. Ibid., 25.
  8. Gerald Vizenor, Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 7.
  9. Jon Tuska, The American West in Film: Critical Approaches to the Western (Westport Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1985), xix.
  10. Generations of Germans, among them such prominent people as Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, and Hermann Hesse, however, enthusiastically read his books. Karl May was also favored reading for refugees from the Nazis in such far away places as Shanghai, see Sigmund Tobias, Strange Haven: A Jewish Childhood in Wartime Shanghai (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 73.
  11. Gerd Gemünden, “Between Karl May and Karl Marx: The DEFA Indianerfilme,” in Germans and Indians: Fantasies, Encounters, Projections, ed. Colin G. Calloway, Gerd Gemünden, and Susanne Zantop (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 244.
  12. Quoted in Frank-Burkhard Habel, Gojko Mitic, Mustangs, Marterpfähle: Die DEFA-Indianerfilme: Das große Buch für Fans (Berlin: Schwarzkopf & Schwarzkopf, 1997), 12.
  13. Ibid., 9.
  14. Evan Torner, “The Red and the Black: Race in the DEFA Indianerfilm Osceola,” New German Review 25, no. l (2011): 69.
  15. An observation by Andre Bazin, quoted in Vera Dika, “An East German Indianerfilm: the bear in sheep’s clothing,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 50 (spring 2008): 1, accessed 4 October 2013,
  16. Gemünden, “Between Karl May and Karl Marx,” 251.
  17. See Katrin Sieg, “Ethnic Drag and National Identity: Multicultural Crises, Crossings, and Interventions,” in The Imperialist Imagination: German Colonialism and Its Legacy, ed. Sara Friedrichsmeyer, Sara Lennox, and Susanne Zantop (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 295-319.
  18. Torner, “The Red and the Black,” 65.
  19. Habel, Gojko Mitic, 12. The GDR government often ordered mass rallies to “demonstrate” support for its policies.
  20. Gemünden, “Between Karl May and Karl Marx,” 251.
  21. Habel, Gojko Mitic, 24.
  22. Ibid., 37.
  23. Ibid., 186-87.
  24. Ibid., 11.
  25. Ibid., 86.
  26. Ibid., 48.
  27. Susanne Zantop, “Close Encounters: Deutsche and Indianer,” in Germans and Indians: Fantasies, Encounters, Projections, ed. Colin G. Calloway, Gerd Gemünden, and Susanne Zantop (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 13.
  28. Edward Buscombe, “Photographing the Indian,” in Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western, ed. Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson (London: bfi, 1998), 31.
  29. Leonie Naughton, That Was the Wild East: Film Culture, Unification, and the “New” Germany (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 28.
  30. Gemünden, “Between Karl May and Karl Marx,” 246.
  31. The GDR presented itself as the “good” Germans, the anti-fascists who fought against the “bad” Germans, now banished to the Federal Republic. Thus its use of this word is also a criticism of West Germany.
  32. Ute Lischke and 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, ed. Ute Lischke and David T. McNab (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2005), 296.
  33. Ibid., 284.
  34. Gemünden, “Between Karl May and Karl Marx,” 245.
  35. Habel, Gojko Mitic, 20.
  36. Holger Briel, “Native Americans in the Films of the GDR and Czechoslovakia,” European Journal of American Culture 31, no. 3 (2012): 241.
  37. Gemünden, “Between Karl May and Karl Marx,” 249.
  38. Vera Dika, “An East German Indianerfilm,” 2.
  39. Ibid., 7.
  40. Uta G. Poiger, “A New ‘Western’ hero? Reconstructing German Masculinity in the 1950s,” Signs 24, no. 1 (1998): 161.
  41. Torner, “The Red and the Black,” 64.
  42. Lischke and McNab, “‘Show me the money,’” 287.
  43. Briel, “Native Americans in the Films of the GDR and Czechoslovakia,” 232.
  44. Ibid., 243.
  45. Habel, Gojko Mitic, 57.