Red Westerns Today

Gottfried Kolditz’s Apaches

A Western from communist East Germany, featuring a scantily clad Serbian lead in “red face”, sounds like a laugh fest. But Apaches is anything but.

The colonised strike back.

Despite a screenplay devoid of subtlety, subpar acting, Indians who look like spray-tanned hippies, and extremely poor facsimiles of the American Southwest’s most iconic plant, director Gottfried Kolditz’s 1973 film still packs a serious punch.

If audiences today have difficulty feeling that punch’s impact, it’s because decades of ironic consumption function as a powerful anaesthetic.

Like the postwar Westerns from Hollywood and their “Spaghetti”  brethren, Apaches is particularly vulnerable to this response. The film is sincere and straightforward.

Despite Apaches’ country of origin, neither its content nor its form deviates markedly from our deeply rutted expectations about its genre.

The terrain is mountainous and sparsely inhabited. The Native men are muscular and shirtless. Horses abound.

If a conventional Western from the West struggles to be taken seriously these days, a conventional Western from the East has almost no chance.

In the case of Apaches, though, this would be a big mistake.

Even those aspects of the East German film that seem most wrong today have something to teach us. And the ones which Apaches gets right have the potential to undermine the self-righteousness that inevitably infects reception of culture that we consider dated.

The first response most people have to Apaches is astonishment.

Why was the dour German Democratic Republic, seemingly intent on making its Eastern Bloc neighbours look soft, willing to make a film in that most American of genres?

Apaches was no one-off experiment, either.

Starting with the 1966 film The Sons of Great Bear, the East German film industry released a steady stream of Westerns, sometimes termed Osterns, that turned the conventions of Hollywood on their head, with Native Americans as sympathetic protagonists and white men their treacherous opponents.

Many featured the charismatic figure of Gojko Mitić, who, while he didn’t look much like an Indian, at least didn’t look much like a German, either.

In Apaches, Mitić gets to play the noble savage, not as the peaceful victim seen in some American films sympathetic to the plight of North America’s native population, including Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, but as a composed, resolute resistance fighter by the name of Ulzana.

Apaches is a revenge narrative.

The plot follows a small band of Apaches whose ancestral lands, unfortunately, include a lucrative copper mine.

Early in the film, we learn that this band’s chief has signed a peace treaty with the Mexican authorities. In exchange for the Apaches pledging not to interfere with the mine, band members are invited to travel once a year to the small town of Santa Rita, where they are fêted and given sacks of relief flour.

Although some of the band’s warriors take issue with this relationship, which makes the Apaches dependent on people exploiting their land, their chief insists that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

Ulzana, the lead sceptic, normally steers clear of this annual trip. Suspecting that something has changed for the worse, however, in the Apaches’ relationship with the men intent on exploiting his homeland, he agrees to go with his wife and other band members.

Once the Apaches have arrived in Santa Rita, Ulzana goes investigating. But right when he discovers that new American visitors have brought a cannon with them, he is captured and tied up.

At the peak of the celebration, the town’s Mexican mayor gives a speech which doubles as a signal. Suddenly, the Americans open fire on the Apaches gathered in the town square, killing most of them, including Ulzana’s wife.

Ulzana manages to free himself and escape, along with a number of the band’s warriors. But many men who made the trip, including their chief, and almost all of the women and children perish in this massacre. We then see the Americans take scalps from the dead.

The band’s few remaining members burn their village and merge with another group of Apaches. Then they go on the warpath, revenging themselves on both the Americans and the Mexican leaders who collaborated with them on this surprise attack.

As anyone who has watched Westerns from Hollywood’s Studio Era knows, this story inverts the one featured in so many American Westerns, in which marauding Indians burn, pillage, take hostages, and scalp their victims.

There is one crucial difference. During the gruesome sequence in which the Americans scalp their victims, we learn that they keep those of the men in a separate bag from those of the women and children. Although all Apache scalps bring a reward, men’s scalps are worth more.

From the perspective of communist ideology, harming others for profit is the most vile behaviour of all.

Because we know that the GDR was a surveillance state that severely punished dissent, the impulse to regard the message of “red” Westerns like Apaches with scepticism is strong.

But that would be foolish. No matter how hypocritical it might seem for Eastern Bloc culture to point fingers at the West, the historical evidence cannot be wished away.

As the United States expanded across North America, it did to the continent’s native population precisely what happens in the film. First, it made treaties to gain an advantage. Then, it broke them whenever it was expedient to do so.

American director Martin Scorsese’s new film Killers of the Flower Moon, a three-and-a-half-hour epic about what happened after oil was discovered on Osage tribal lands in 1897, recounts a more modern version of this tale.

While the film has been celebrated for its storytelling power, it is still a vehicle for stars, with Scorsese’s long-time collaborators Robert De Niro and Leonard DiCaprio receiving top billing.

For this reason, some Osage have expressed misgivings. Others seem happy with how they are represented and praised the production for providing good-paying jobs.

Whatever you think of the film politically, it is clear that aesthetic concerns took precedence over activism. Critics and fans were excited that Scorcese, in the waning years of his storied career, was finally tackling the one Holywood genre that he had avoided.

Comparing Apaches to Killers of the Flower Moon might seem like a fool’s errand. Yet for all of the East German film’s low-budget awkwardness, it has one thing going for it that the impeccably made American film lacks.

There is nothing “meta” about Apaches. It isn’t a film in which a legendary director tried something out of character or an endlessly self-referential spectacle like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

The screenplay, sets, and cinematography are too workmanlike to draw attention to themselves. And, while Mitić had become a beloved figure in Eastern European cinema by the time Apaches was released, we never get the sense that his minor stardom is being elevated at the expense of the story.

It’s worth noting that there was more intellectual depth to “red westerns” like Apaches than initially appears to be the case. Mitić’s first red-face role was in Sons of the Great Bear, which Liselotte Weiskopf-Heinrich adapted from her novel of the same name.

One of the leftists who became an East German by choice at the end of World War II, Weiskopf-Heinrich was a professor of ancient history in the GDR who had become deeply invested in the plight of Native Americans as a teenager when her love of Karl May’s widely popular but historically and geographically inaccurate novels about the American Southwest collided with her burgeoning political convictions.

Unlike May, Weiskopf-Heinrich did extensive research for her novels. She was even permitted by the GDR authorities to make trips to North America to learn about the Indian experience firsthand.

While the depth of Weiskopf-Heinrich’s knowledge doesn’t come through in the Osterns she inspired, the conceptual framework she created does. Her natives are not treated with the sentimental condescension found in May’s work and the nostalgic sensibility it promotes.

Although May was no political radical, his work was celebrated by the Nazis. This led to it being banned in the GDR, opening the door to a woman author who could create something better.

People inclined to laugh at films like Apaches should bear their provenance in mind.

Osterns may strike contemporary audiences as cringeworthy examples of cultural appropriation, given the lack of native actors or accurate mise-en-scène. But they were trying to communicate more complicated lessons about the American frontier than the vast majority of their counterparts in the West.

It is still hard for Americans like me, with extensive personal experience of the Southwest, to wrap our heads around the European fascination with its landscape and the people who have made it their home.

Every January, my home in Tucson, Arizona is overrun by French, German, and Scandinavian visitors who come for our world-famous Gem and Mineral Show and feed their desert fantasies in the process.

Most of them qualify as politically progressive by American standards. But their conceptions about our rich native culture and its relationship with the nearby border with Mexico can be almost as dated as Apaches looks.

Sometimes, however, the distance opened up by datedness reveals how the past persists into the present.

Like the much more famous Spaghetti Westerns from Italy, Apaches testifies to the richness of a cinematic heritage at odds with stereotypes of the deliberately obtuse, ostentatiously intellectual European art film.

Rather than draw attention to the artificiality of the medium, by making audiences struggle with the problem of form, it conceals aesthetic decisions behind the veil of content.

Instead of trying to prevent audiences from identifying with Mitić and his people, Apaches eagerly encourages them to do so.

In short, despite Apaches highly critical stance toward the American treatment of native peoples, it is content to tell its story the way Hollywood did.

While this might make the film seem less European at first, the truth is that it offers a powerful reminder that the binary opposition between American movies and European films that structured so much postwar discourse was far less stable than it seemed.

Like Killers of the Flower Moon, Apaches offers a powerful lesson on the injustices faced by Native Americans.

But it takes much less time to communicate that lesson than Scorsese does.

Screenshot courtesy of DEFA Stiftung. All rights reserved.