Visual Representation as Political Propaganda: Or, How James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer Became the 1967 Indianerfilm Chingachgook, Die Grosse Schlange

Signe Wegener (University of Georgia)

Presented at the Cooper Panel on “Cooper and Visual Culture” at the 2016 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, California.

Copyright © 2016, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal Spring/Summer, 2016, pp. 1,3-5.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]


Promotional poster for Chingachgook, Die Grosse Schlange.

From the very beginning of his writing career, James Fenimore Cooper engendered an immense output of artistic interpretation as illustrations to his works. Thomas Cole, F. O. C. Darley, and Tompkins H. Matteson are among those who found inspiration in his works. This applied to not only his Leather-Stocking Tales, which so forcefully and visually persuasively showcased the magnificent American landscape and the people who traversed it, but also his other novels. Over the years, though, as the general tendency was to relegate his works to the catch-all sack “boys’ books,” the artistic quality waned, both in various “youth versions” and in the very popular Classics Illustrated. A cover of a Danish early-twentieth-century version of Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Tales is a case in point: it comes complete with pyramid, palms, and a character armed with a scimitar.

Likewise, the movie industry — American and global — has long sought inspiration in Cooper’s works — The James Fenimore Cooper Society website lists fifty-nine Cooper-based movies for the period 1907-1996. The first version of The Deerslayer, for instance, appeared in 1911. The Last of the Mohicans leads the cinematographic parade, but The Deerslayer has a respectable number of versions. Yet for me, the most unusual and unexpected version of them all is the 1967 East German movie Chingachgook, Die Grosse Schlange (Chingachgook, The Great Snake), based on The Deerslayer, which reshapes and refocuses the original work. (Curiously, the movie is not listed on the Society website.)

For James Fenimore Cooper scholars and other viewers unfamiliar with the East German movie scene, the 1967 movie seems odd in focus and characterization. However, one must bear in mind that the end goal is not merely entertainment. Instead, the movie had an obvious political role: it was part of the German Democratic Republic’s anti-American and anti-colonialist propaganda series, a series exploiting the audience’s abiding interest in Native Americans but investing the movies’ plots with obvious communist characteristics. As the GDR government had appropriated the Western clubs for their own indoctrination purposes, they now extended this appropriation to the movie industry. Through the DEFA — the Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft — Indianerfilme, audiences got a popular adventure tale and a solid dose of indoctrination. The movies were designed to foster a socialist consciousness and solidarity with minority groups in young people growing up within the socialist state itself.

DEFA logo

Since the German re-unification of 1990, the DEFA movies have acquired somewhat of a cult status among the public and academia alike. But immediately after the reunification, when the DEFA studios had been sold and the DEFA name removed from the trade mark listings, the whole body of work seemed, as Sebastian Heiduschke observes in a 2013 article, “ready for the dustbin” (Heiduschke 2013 par. 1). And yet, the opposite was true, the movies were, as consultant Eberhard Wagermann claimed in a Berliner Zeitung interview in 1995, “black gold” (Heiduschke 2013 par. 1), especially in the academic realm. The University of Massachusetts-Amherst now houses the DEFA archive, and movies have been sent on traveling exhibits to places in the US and Europe. A large number of critical works have appeared, both books and articles, and at least one doctoral dissertation. These texts explore artistic and political values but also argue for seeing them as artifacts of the recent past and of the intricate relationship between political indoctrination and success at the box office.

The DEFA output was particularly prolific, often releasing more than a dozen movies annually: comedies, musicals, historical dramas, thrillers, visions of contemporary life, romantic comedies, and so on, like western nations did. Chingachgook, Die Grosse Schlange, for example was one of fourteen releases in 1967. The cinematic output was strictly controlled and followed Soviet guidelines of presentation. The government, through the Ministry of Culture, funded and produced the movies, and controlled the distribution. Daniela Berghahn shows in her 2005 Hollywood Behind the Wall: The Cinema of East Germany, that although the GDR officials claimed that freedom from censorship was guaranteed in the laws, thirty movies were banned, never completed, or never released in the period 1951-1989 (Berghahn 134). However, this number does not seem very high, the repressive political climate taken into consideration.

Old Shatterhand

Karl May as Old Shatterhand.

But why the Indianerfilme? And why James Fenimore Cooper? As I demonstrated in my 2009 presentation at the James Fenimore Cooper Conference, “Not Really the Last Mohican: Chingachgook and the East German Indian Movement,” the American West and “das Westernhobby” had (and still have) a long history in Germany, shaped by literature, by paintings, by Wild West shows, and by a large number of movies. But in Germany, the interest and sympathy lie with the Indians, not the cowboys. In the 1950s, when West Germany was re-establishing its movie industry, a sure box office success, besides musicals and movies that glorified life in royal circles in the nineteenth century, were movies based on Karl May’s novels. Incidentally, not all of them were set in the Wild West. In total, nineteen movies were released over a ten-year period. Old Shatterhand was played by the American Lex Barker, a former Tarzan portrayer, Winnetou by the French Pierre Brice. The movies were immensely popular (Borries and Fischer 46; Michaels, par. 2).

Interest in Karl May’s works was also strong in the GDR, but the government here would not allow the movies to be shown. May was not only attacked as a bourgeois, but a librarian even characterized him as a “literary poison-blender” (Borries and Fischer 18). Furthermore, he had been Hitler’s favorite author, and everything connected to Hitler was denounced (Borries and Fischer 19). His books were not exactly banned, but hushed up (totschweigen). That is, they were neither sold nor reissued and they were removed from most public libraries. According to René Wagner, the manager of the Karl May Museum, this was worse than being banned (Borries and Fischer 22 ). If East- Germans wanted to read Karl May, books had to be imported from the west via family and friends. The Karl May movies were not exactly banned in the GDR, but many people opted to travel to view them — for instance to Prague, where the movies were shown in German, with Czech subtitles (Borries and Fischer 46).

Czech Poster

The DEFA movies, which aimed at both domestic and international dissemination, were intended as a corrective to the West German movies: they aimed “to correct May’s pulp fiction and not a single one was built on his work” (Gemünden 247). DEFA initially found inspiration in literature but used a more appropriate source than Karl May. For the first cinematic Indianer-venture, DEFA presented Die Söhne der Grossen Bärin (The Great Bear) (1966), based on a successful series written by Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich between 1951-1964 designed specifically as “a weapon in the class struggle” (Borries and Fischer 47). The novel series was an international success deemed free of potential ideological impurities, written by an author long devoted to the communist cause. It was also based on in-depth research into Lakota life, one of Welskopf-Henrich’s fields of expertise.

The movie was an instant success, watched by eleven million people, and its star, the Serbian actor Gojko Mitic became “the” East German Indian and subject to immense attention wherever he went. Songs were written about him, and mothers named their sons for him (Borries and Fischer 47). Yet the movie was more than a foil to the West German ones. DEFA transformed the western: unlike American Westerns where the cowboys are the good guys, “The cowboys always win,” as Thomas-Builds-the-Fire argues in the 1998 Native American movie Smoke Signals, the emphasis shifts. In East German movies, the good guys are the Native Americans, victims of colonial oppression. And {p. 4} even when they lost the war, they were brave resistance fighters (Borries and Fischer 42). But as with other DEFA movies, the ideological intent was obvious: socialist values had to be inculcated and reinforced. And Native Americans slid effortlessly into the niche of transmitter of socialist values. Already Friedrich Engels had, in his discussion of family, private property, and the state (Der Ursprung der familie, des Privateigentums und des Staates), argued that for example the Iroquois lived in a “communist” society, where “the earth was communal property” and the tribe “knew their responsibilities towards the old, the sick and those paralyzed by war. Everybody is equal and free — also the women. There is no room for slaves, nor for the subjugation of foreign tribes” (qtd. in Borries and Fischer 41-2).

It is often tempting to trivialize the propaganda aspect of the East German movie industry. However, the citizens of the country after its founding faced a tremendous task: what kind of state could be built on the ruins of Hitler’s Reich. In the East, the Red Army had dismantled factories and infrastructure and transported them to the Soviet Union, and even then the Soviet Union extracted war reparations. The country was flooded with refugees. Yet East Germany opted for a Communist state. And, faced with food shortages, insurrection, and a large number of people fleeing to the west (3.5 million in the period 1949-1961 before the Berlin wall went up) (Borries and Fischer), the East Germans deliberately set out to foster a socialist consciousness in the younger generation, those born and grown up after World War II. This was accomplished through formal education and political youth organizations — seventy-five percent of young people belonged to Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth Party) (Saunders 41), and also through activities like the Indianistik movement and the movie and television industry. Added to this came the relentless control of people’s activities by the secret police, the Stasi (Borries and Fischer 128). Too much deviation from the expected norm — excessive interest — would mean less education and thus lower-level work (Borries and Fischer 131). As a result, of course, many people after reunification claimed they had never been communists; they merely belonged to the party to get a job. They belonged to Indianistik collectives because it was in their hearts, and “everybody knew this” (Borries and Fischer 128). The Indianerfilme, then, as Gerd Gemünden has observed, were designed to “articulate an outspoken critique of colonialism and racism that fueled the westward expansion in the United States” (Gemünden 244) and turning them into “blueprints for a better socialist Germany” (Gemünden 245).

But why Cooper? The facile answer is, that he was not May — but he had been and still was a well-known and popular author in the Soviet bloc. Yet it is worth noticing that even the use of Cooper’s The Deerslayer for the second DEFA Indianerfilm was a one-off event — no other Cooper titles were adapted. And why choose this particular novel when The Last of the Mohicans was a more popular work? The answer must lie in the fact that in The Deerslayer, the whole heroic adventure — and romance story — is centered on the Native American characters and is thus more easily adaptable for DEFA’s purposes. Natty Bumppo, the hero of other Leather-Stocking tales, is here supporting his heroic comrade Chingachgook. The movie makes this abundantly clear. Ironically, this role reversal is rather in keeping with Cooper’s text: in the novel, Chingachgook is “a noble, tall, handsome and athletic young warrior” (Cooper 152) whereas Natty Bumppo, despite being “six feet in his moccasins,” is “comparatively light and slender” ... and whose “face would have had little to recommend it except youth, were it not for an expression that seldom failed to win upon those who had leisure to examine it” (Cooper 20).


Chingachgook and Natty Bumppo

Still from Chingachgook, Die Grosse Schlange.

The anti-American and anti-colonial message is straightforward. In the movie, Chingachgook calls for Indian unity, for Delaware and Hurons to join forces against the British colonialist when he is captured by the Hurons. The Huron chief finally agrees when his camp is attacked by British soldiers. DEFA’s Captain Warley openly admits to the European manipulation of their indigenous “allies”: they are to fight the war between France and England until no Indian remains. In the movie, as Franz Birgel observes, “the Delaware and Huron tribes are presented as cannon fodder, fighting a war for foreigners on their own soil” (Birgel 43). Only two more literary works made their way into the Indianerfilm line-up: Kid & Co based on stories by Jack London, and Severino, based on a novel by Eduard Klein and set in the mountains of Argentina, the only of the Indianerfilme not set in North America. In the Johannisthal line-up (another DEFA studio also making western movies 1979-85), we find Anna Jurgen’s Blauvogel, a story about a young white boy abducted and raised by the Iroquois.

For the other Indianerfilme, DEFA relied on historical documents and biographical material, all depicting Native American resistance. More importantly, they never presented Native Americans as a monolithic unit, focusing {p. 5} instead on a variety of tribes. Furthermore, DEFA moviemakers prided themselves in authenticity, even hiring Leipzig University ethnographer Lothar Düger as a consultant (Michaels par. 10). Nothing was spared to create a box office success. The average non-Indian DEFA movie cost 1 million Ostmark. Each Indianerfilm, though, cost close to 2.5 million Ostmark (Torner par. 5). The money was well spent due to the movies’ popularity domestically and internationally.

Still from Chingachgook, Die Grosse Schlange.

Despite the claim of authenticity, though, the movies are, as Torner observes, “more indicative of (East) German fantasies about themselves and indigenous peoples than about the indigenous experience, and were more about the stunts and glamour shots of muscular East European bodies in action than true solidarity with the people portrayed” (Torner par. 9). Furthermore, they are “artifacts of resistance” and “ambiguous, commodified, ever-circulating celluloid fantasies that are screened as both illustrations of a dead country’s media history and as a form of rebellion against some pernicious threat—through the haunting active bodies and talents of fake indigenous people depicted onscreen” (Torner). And GDR leaders believed there was, indeed, a “pernicious threat” — each and every day East Germans were exposed to the influence of what Erich Honecker, the party leader, called “the enemy on the roof,” television entertainment and news from the West which negatively impacted East fGerman youth (Saunders 32-42). Not surprisingly, the DEFA Indianerilme expressed a situation analogous to their own, and “the fate of the North American Indians provided a showcase of what it means to be a victim of capitalist expansion” ... a perspective “compatible with the GDR’s official critique of colonialism” (Gemünden 245).


One ought in all fairness to admit that what is here being used to denounce the DEFA Indianer, is equally true about the Karl May movies and other westerns. They all abounded in fake indigenous people. Both the East and the West were exploiting a popular subculture for financial and political gain. Indianer + name recognition (May, Mitic) = box office success and a wider dissemination of doctrine. And, in a particularly ironic historical twist, white Europeans once more were exploiting indigenous Americans.

DEFA’s use of James Fenimore Cooper’s works begins and ends with The Deerslayer, the only one of the texts that was easily adaptable to GDR purposes. As Cooper readers and scholars, we ought to appreciate that the East Germans showed this restraint.

Works Cited

  • Berghahn, Daniela. Hollywood Behind the Wall: The Cinema of East Germany. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2005. Print.
  • Birgel, Franz A. “The Only Good Indian is a DEFA Indian: East German Variations on the International Westerns: Relocating the Frontier. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013. Print.
  • Borries, Friedrich von and Jens-Uwe Fischer. Sozialistsiche Cowboys: Der Wilde Westen Ostdeutschlands. Frankfurt am Main, GER: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2008. Print.
  • Chingachgook, Die Grosse Schlange. Dir. Richard Groschopp. DEFA 1967. DVD.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Deerslayer or, The First Warpath. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. Print.
  • Gemünden, Gerd. “Between Karl May and Karl Marx: The DEFA Indianerfilme.” Germans and Indians: Fantasies, Encounters, Projections. Galloway, Colin G, Gerd Gemünden, and Suzanne Zantop. Eds. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. Print.
  • Heiduschke, Sebastian. “Cinema as Commodity: Marketing DEFA Films Since Unification.” German Studies Review, Vol 36, Number 1, Feburary 2013. Web.
  • ------. The Afterlife of DEFA in Post-Unification Germany: Characteristics, Traditions, and Cultural Legacy . Dissertation. University of Texas Austin. 2006. Print.
  • Michaels, Jennifer, “Appropriating the “Other” for the Cold War Struggle: DEFA’s Depiction of Native Americans in its Indianerfilm.” Frames Cinema Journal 2016. Web.
  • Saunders, Anna. Honecker’s Children: Youth and Patriotism in East(ern) Germany. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2007. Print.
  • Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Miramax 1998. DVD.
  • Torner, Evan. “The DEFA Indianerfilm as Artifact of Resistance.” Frames Cinema Journal, 2016. Web.