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Germans have a long and enduring love affair with the most American of genres. Wild West tales from High Noon to Once Upon a Time In the West to Dances With Wolves have been huge hits here. There are more than a hundred Wild West clubs across the county where grown men (and a few women) gather to play cowboys and Indians on stage sets of saloons and hitching posts. Iconic Western images of the wide, unbroken horizon, the solitary cowboy on the lonely trail or the sheriff bringing justice to a lawless land are as engraved on the German mind as the characters of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
But there is also a tradition of Westerns made in Germany. In West Germany in the 1960s there were the Winnetou films, based on the Wild West novels of Karl May, a German writer who never visited America. The adventures of the Apache brave Winnetou and his white-skinned blood brother Old Shatterhand were instant hits and are still staples on German TV.
Quentin Tarantino pays tribute to the franchise in Inglorious Basterds in the scene where German soldiers are playing a who-am-I guessing game where the answer is “Winnetou, chief of the Apaches!”
Bavarian director Bully Herbig went one step further with his 2001 western spoof Mannitou’s Shoe, which lovingly mocks the Winnetou films. It earned some $90 million, making it the most successful German film of all time.
It was a different story in the East. If anything, in the former GDR, Westerns were even more popular.
“When I was a kid in Leipzig, East Germany, playing Indians was an antidote to the Young Pioneer’s indoctrination and propagated anti-Americanism,” says Peter Bischoff, president of the German association for the study of the Western, a non-profit group which boasts the world’s largest collection of Western literature worldwide outside the Library of Congress.
But Bischoff, like most Germans, sympathized more with the redskins than the palefaces.
“When the roles were chosen (to play cowboy and Indians), everybody wanted to be an Indian,” he says. “It was left to the losers to play the cowboy. Playing Indians connected us to the land of our dreams, the officially scorned capitalist America.”
But love of these “imperialist” movies didn’t suit East Berlin’s communist regime. Instead of fighting their people’s love of Westerns, they decided to replace American cowboy movies with state-approved homemade “Indianerfilms” or Indian Films. In these East Germany productions, the traditional hero roles are reversed.
“The imperialist cowboy was substituted by the anti-imperialist Indian who was honored for his brave resistance to Yankee greed and imperialism,” says Bischoff. “They were really just agitprop. But popular. Form 1966 through 1975, DEFA studios made one ‘Indianerfilm’ a year.”
The Western has gone in and out of style in America. Many are hailing True Grit, with its 10 Oscar nominations and U.S. box office success, as a return to form for the genre. But in Germany, East and West, there’s no need for a Westerns comeback. German cowboys and Indians never hung up their guns.
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