1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Is 'Winnetou' reviving old Hollywood cliches?

Amien Essif
December 22, 2016

None of the Native Americans in the film are played by Native Americans, and Winnetou speaks the wrong language. That may not be controversial in Germany, but the debate rages in the US.

Dreharbeiten Winnetou in Kroatien
Image: DW/N. Tomasović

On Christmas day, a new film about an old story will air on the German television station RTL. It is the first of the three-part series "Winnetou: The Myth Lives," based on a century-old series of novels in German about a fictional Native American.

If you are American and have never heard of Winnetou, you're not alone. Apart from a brief mention in Quentin Tarantino's 2009 film "Inglourious Basterds," his name is basically unknown in the land of his fictional adventures.

Karl May, the author who dreamed up Winnetou, crafted the story from imagination and research, having traveled to the US only after the first books in the series came out. The basic idea of his stories: Winnetou, who befriends a German frontiersman named Old Shatterhand, is the good guy. The books, and the many films based on them, take a kind view toward a civilization that was nearly eradicated by decades of genocidal policy in the US.

Filmstill Western Seminole
Anthony Quinn (left) stars as Osceola in the 1953 Hollywood film 'Seminole'Image: Imago/United Archives

Nevertheless, the "Winnetou" tradition is controversial. Mainstream film studios consistently cast actors of European ethnicity to play Native American characters invented by writers of European heritage. Whether the Native people come out looking good, bad, or ugly is not entirely the point. The real question is why Native Americans have so little control over how the world perceives them.

From villainous to virtuous

There are over 300 Indian tribes in 33 different US states, each with its own distinct traditions. Yet filmmakers often compress this diversity into a single composite stereotype for the purpose of the story they wish to tell.

Cinematic Native Americans were long either one or the other: savage villain or glorious "brave." Either way, both were inventions of the European mind, not by Native Americans themselves.

The rise of indigenous filmmakers

Smoke Signals Film
In 'Smoke Signals,' friends Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire struggle to find their identity as Native AmericansImage: picture-alliance/dpa

More recently, Native American filmmakers have been producing films about their own cultures. Cheyenne-Arapaho director Chris Eyre's 1998 film "Smoke Signals" is widely considered the seminal work of this movement. Set on a modern reservation in the state of Idaho, the film tells a story of poverty and isolation common in Native communities.

But it tells that story with humor about how "normal" reservation life can be. In one famous scene the Native-American character Victor ridicules his friend for trying too hard to be a stereotypical Indian. "You’re always trying to sound like some damn medicine man," he says. "I mean, how many times have you seen 'Dances with Wolves'?"

In their own words

Some film industry critics like Chris Eyre feel that the most important struggle is not to teach Europeans how to be more accurate, but to get more Native filmmakers and actors into positions where they can speak for themselves.

Chris Eyre
Chris Eyre is widely considered the most successful Native American filmmakerImage: Getty Images/V.Bucci

"It takes a whole group of people with various points of view," Eyre told the Indian Country Media Network (ICMN) in a 2013 interview, "to show that there is not just one Native America, but a whole spectrum of places and people."

A step in the right direction

Hollywood filmmakers, for their part, have taken steps to avoid recreating stereotypes. Alejandro Inarritu's 2015 film "The Revenant" was hailed as a step forward with its on-set Native adviser Craig Falcon. He described to the ICMN how Inarritu took pains to get the details correct, down to the types of medicines used in ritual prayers of the Pawnee and Arikara tribes.

In addition to Falcon, the studio hired a coach who oversaw the accurate use of the Arikara language. The film also cast four Native Americans in leading roles.

Winnetou, one more time

Kroatien Schauspieler Nik Xhelilaj als Winnetou
Acclaimed Albanian actor Nik Xhelilaj stars as Winnetou in the 2016 RTL productionImage: RTL/Nikola Predovic, RatPack

Is Germany's film industry bound to make all the same mistakes as Hollywood?

The producers of "Winnetou" took measures to improve upon the historical accuracy of the 1960s films, RTL spokeperson Klaus Richter told DW. During the film shooting, Native Americans were on hand to advise set design. The costumes, says Richter, were also modified to be more realistic, and a language expert trained Albanian actor Nik Xhelilaj, who stars as Winnetou, to speak a dialect of Lakota - and even to speak German with a Lakota accent.

Richter says, however, that their priority was to recreate the world of Karl May, a fantasy that has held several generations of Germans in thrall. The film "does not claim to be a documentary about Native Americans," says Richter. "The important thing is its message of courage and friendship" between Winnetou and the German frontiersman Old Shatterhand, noting that the film depicts the "injustice" inflicted on America’s original inhabitants.

The film may be favorable toward Native Americans, but no Native acted in it. Richter says that being a German company and filming in Croatia was a barrier to hiring non-Europeans as actors. And while Winnetou speaks a passable Lakota, it's the wrong language. As an Apache, he would have spoken Apache. "Absolute purists might criticize it," he says.

Is this okay? Richter argues that the message of "Winnetou" reflects positively on Native Americans, but for some critics, that does not solve the problem that indigenous people feel they have no voice.

Dreharbeiten Winnetou in Kroatien
Production crew in Croatia on the set of 'Winnetou'Image: DW/N. Tomasović

When a dozen Native actors walked off the set of Adam Sandler's 2015 film "The Ridiculous 6" due to offensive stereotypes in the script, actress Alison Young lamented to ICMN about how little progress has been made in cinema in the past century. "Nothing has changed," she said. "We are still just Hollywood Indians."