The children’s film “The Young Chief Winnetou” serves the myth of the “noble savage”.
This is not a film review because after about an hour I got fed up with racist depictions of indigenous peoples of North America. Karl May wrote his works at the time of colonialism, the stereotype of the “noble savage” survived him by several generations. But Hollywood showed itself to be capable of learning, and a change has already been made in mainstream cinema there. But what you can now see in “The Young Chief Winnetou” has long been banned from screens and screens in most western film cultures. Reddish make-up for white actors is frowned upon as “redfacing”. To see the Apache people depicted in a children’s film today, as at a Cologne carnival celebration, ignores all efforts not to pass on the distorted representation from the 19th and 20th centuries to the generations.
One may argue about whether, as in the USA, the word that Columbus coined in the erroneous belief that he had gone to India should also be banned here. In any case, in this film it is innocently on everyone’s lips.
Already in January, FR columnist Hadija Haruna-Oelker warned against the stereotypes that the trailer already gathered under the headline “Racism: Columbus and Winnetou”. She summed it up: “Precisely because indigenous people are hardly noticeable in this country (which does not mean that they are not there), we encounter their stereotypes, mostly unchallenged, in large numbers in so many offers, to which it is guaranteed that not a single person of any people in America feels a part .”
This film, which is superficially based on the Karl May films of the 1960s, is also hardly up to date in terms of craftsmanship. It’s the kind of movie that’s cut so you don’t see a kid getting on a horse or trying to save himself from falling off a cliff during an important action scene. The story about the young Winnetou (Mika Ullritz), who lets the white boy Tom (Milo Haaf) show him the way to the bad guys who want to steal the tribal gold, was hardly on the gold scales.
But how can it be that a film that transports colonialist and racist stereotypes in its script is funded with millions of dollars from the federal and state governments? Those responsible remain silent. Two FR inquiries to the “FilmFernsehFonds Bayern” were not answered. The press spokesman for Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth also failed to give the answer he had announced for last Monday.
The German Film Fund, which is also involved, informed FR that it would not comment on funding decisions as a matter of principle. When asked whether there were general guidelines regarding racism, press spokesman Jens Steinbrenner replied: “Yes, we have an interest in preventing the promotion of films with racist content. Our rotating, independent selection committees judge the film projects much more strictly than is required by the constitutional ban on discrimination that is relevant to us.” But aren’t the stereotypes of the “noble savage” and “redfacing” included?
In fact, German funding institutions do not disclose their assessment criteria. Even though the introductory sentence of the first film promotion law of 1967 has already included “strengthening the quality of German films”, there is no discussion of the content.
After all, the task force against racism, “Artef”, founded within the European film industry and funding landscape, has been campaigning for two years. Artef conveyed her criticism to The Young Chief Winnetou production team, Ewa Karlstrom and Andreas Ulmke-Smeaton. In the letter of reply, translated from English here, those addressed protest against all accusations of racism: “Your harsh reaction to our film has taken a toll on us […]. The world is different today than it was when we started developing a children’s film based on one of Germany’s most popular literary characters […]. We are beginning to realize that no matter how good our intentions, our perspective is limited by privilege, unconscious bias, and internalized racism—we are more than willing to learn. What we are not willing to do, however, is to be shamed or pressured into remorse that we do not feel.” Then the letter that the distributor sent us raises doubts about the legitimacy of the anti-racism task force: “We will not let ourselves monitor and reprimand by an organization mandated not by the group targeted by alleged racism but by our own industry.”
Finally, the production duo refers to the award “Predicate valuable”. In fact, the decision of the committee of the Wiesbaden film evaluation office was narrow with 3:2 votes. At the end of a long discussion, the yes votes prevailed, but the official jury statement documents how controversial the cultivation of Karl May’s myths is in 2022: “Karl May’s literary idyll is in the home country of the indigenous peoples of North America, so the statement of the jury members, a lie that would completely ignore the genocide of Native Americans and the injustice inflicted on them by the white settlers’ land grab and the destruction of their natural habitat…”.
From Karl May’s imagination
However, a majority of the jury came to a different assessment of the film: It is well known that Karl May wrote his stories in what he called “Indianerland” and also in the “Orient” from his imagination and never at the location he had imagined had been an adventure.
It will probably be a long time before the reality of the genocide of the Native Americans has reached the myth-makers in Germany as well. At least there is a debate going on.
The young chief Winnetou. D 2022. Directed by Mike Marzuk. 103 mins