For the third time in a little over a century, the German-speaking part of the world mourns the passing of Winnetou, chief of the Apaches and anthropomorphic condensation symbol of all things good and noble mankind has to offer at its best.
First, in the late 1800s, his creator, German novelist Karl May, killed him off on the page. Just as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had learned the hard way only a few years earlier, audiences ill appreciate having their favorite protagonists put to the sword (or the ravine or the bullet), and so Mr May, too, quickly opted to resurrect his fallen hero rather than face eternal obloquy by his readers.
Then, in 1965, Winnetou was fatally shot on film. Barely two shakes of his horse’s tail later, in order to stave off riots and boycotts by the German public, the Apache chief was back galloping across the silver screen as if his heart-rending quietus had never happened.
Finally, yesterday, less than 72 hours after I had glancingly mentioned Pierre Brice (say: BREECE) in my previous post, not having intended to discuss Apaches and colorblind casting in this forum again anytime soon, we woke up to the news that the charismatic thespian, whose name had long become as synonymous with one fictional character as Johnny Weissmuller will forever be Tarzan, had succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 86.
Many obituaries that followed Mr Brice’s passing are simply headlined “Winnetou ist tot” (Winnetou is dead).
Besides the personal sense of numinous unease we experience anytime we, perhaps irrationally so, feel as if part of our own youth has perished along with a childhood hero we had deemed physically immortal on account of what they represented to us in the most impressionable years of our lives, there is an aspect to this story that might be of interest even to Americans (the born-and-raised variety), to most of whom the name Winnetou means as much as Matt Lauer means to the average Moldavian, an aspect poignantly encapsulated in this tweet:
Indeed, people from German-speaking nations tend to have a pronounced soft spot for America’s indigenous population and their historical plight. As a New York Times article put it in 2007, “[t]o Germans Winnetou is like Paul Bunyan, Abe Lincoln and Elvis rolled into one … the quintessential German national hero, a paragon of virtue, a nature freak, a romantic, a pacifist at heart, but in a world at war he is the best warrior, alert, strong, sure.”
Even decades before Pierre Brice gave the honorable Apache chief his forever face, the Nazis, in their demented zeal to eradicate anything that might have been perceived to portray non-Arians in a less than unsavory light, wisely stopped short of banning Karl May in spite of his novels’ nettlesome near-deification of a swarthy savage. Hitler and his minions were savvy enough to know that messing with people’s heroes constituted bad politics, even if those heroes sported otherwise intolerable qualities like being ethnicity-challenged.
Perhaps if Jews and gypsies had had their own respective Winnetous, 20th-century German history would have taken a slightly less gruesome turn.
In any case, in the early 1960s Pierre Brice came along and gave Winnetou a face for the ages. An authentic Native-American face? Not exactly.
Although the producer of the Winnetou movie franchise had originally been presented with a Mexican actor that actually “looked like an [American] Indian,” he considered that actor’s mien “unsympathetic,” so he continued his search until, at a Berlin movie festival, he spotted a young French actor, who fit his vision of Winnetou to a T.
Two weeks later, the cameras began rolling, and the blue/green-eyed Caucasian Frenchman, now rocking a long black wig and full (albeit somewhat inauthentic in keeping with the rest of his inauthentic features, imposing as they were) Apache regalia, rode across the Croatian prairie to superstardom in Germany and surrounding nations, instilling into millions of youngsters the notion that the content of one’s character trumps the color of one’s skin.
Nowadays, of course, casting a white person to play a non-white part is, at best, frowned upon and, at worst, regarded as an act of outright racism, especially in the U.S. (Poor Cameron Crowe just got an earful for hiring Emma Stone to portray an Asian woman.)
But in 20th-century Europe, no one seemed confused, let alone disturbed, by a French guy ragged out as an Apache and dubbed in flawless German epitomizing Native Americans and their culture. Pierre Brice, the actor, was even appointed an honorary Native American by some tribe in Nebraska for his ambassadorship in helping draw attention to Native American causes.
In addition, his celebrity status in Germany helped patch up German-French relations after World War II.
So Winnetou was played by a white man. What of it?
To us, he was a redskin.
A redskin we all looked up to.