The Bill Meyers Tapes
“I got to know Claus Küchenmeister at a seminar for American specialists in German Studies, held in New York State in the summer of ‘85. I told him I had in mind a video project about everyday life in the GDR. There was hardly a thing about it available at the time. The point of the exercise would be to deconstruct prejudiced images. My project interested him and in summer 1986 he arranged for me to enter the GDR. A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation funded the project.”(1)
It’s probable that German teacher and German Studies specialist William ‘Bill’ Meyers of Detroit had no idea back then that Claus Küchenmeister – alias ‘Kaminski’ – was a so-called ‘unofficial employee’ of the Stasi – the GDR’s Ministry of State Security, whose International Press Office in Berlin coordinated the project from the start. The supervisor, a certain Hannes, was likewise a member of the ‘firm’. The first interview that Bill Meyers was able to conduct with the Familie Strassburger of Dresden was accordingly carefully staged: a model GDR family explains to the American – three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall – why life in the GDR is so good. Certain ruptures are evident in the interview nonetheless: the son wears a by no means politically correct Mickey Mouse T-shirt – perhaps in homage to the guest – and in particular the answers given by Mrs. Strassburger, a teacher, suggest that she was well aware of ‘Hannes the cameraman’s’ real job with the Stasi.
“Back in Berlin I told my companion Hannes that, if we were to be allowed to do only that kind of interview, I may just as well fly home; that we would have to do spontaneous interviews too, not only arranged ones. I gave him thirty minutes to reach a decision. When I returned from the hotel bar he said ok, which rather surprised me.”(2)
Subsequently Bill Meyers was indeed able to work pretty much undisturbed. Hannes had a lover and often made use of film-shoots to slip off unobserved to a rendezvous – until his cover was blown, which simultaneously put an end to Bill Meyers’ video project. Even more astonishing however was the fact that Meyers’ footage was not censored, not even examined in fact, so someone obviously had confidence, however misplaced, in Hannes’ vigilance. Throughout the two years of their collaboration Bill Meyers gathered material and interviews on every conceivable aspect of the GDR lifestyle: on families, passers-by, officials, intellectuals, zoos, museums, sports associations and memorial sites. As he lacked professional training in film and worked without a team, the results are very direct: no aesthetic considerations intervened between him and his footage. This ultimately amounted to a small archive of everyday life in the GDR: umpteen hours of film, completely unedited.
“Hugh. I welcome my friend from the distant prairie.” (Chief Powder Face, Radebeul)
The GDR’s relationship with Karl May was ambivalent. On the one hand, in acknowledging his ‘noble savages’ to be victims of American imperialism, it followed the Party line. On the other hand, Karl May was chauvinistic and more or less overtly racist in his dealings with other minorities such as Blacks or Jews, and therefore remained an unsolicited author for many years. Even when ‘Red Indian fever’ swept the GDR in the wake of the 60s’ wave of American Westerns, the state preferred to stick with its own authors and film their work, thereby consciously distancing itself from West Germany’s Karl May cult and films featuring Pierre Brice as Winnetou.(3)
By 1986, when Bill Meyers filmed the Karl-May-Museum Radebeul, said author had – in cleaned up editions – already been rehabilitated. The 13-minute video therefore transpired as projections in a curious hall of mirrors: fiction author Karl May, who had wholly fantasised his image of America, is on display in a communist museum that passes judgement - to propagandistic ends - on the genocide of Native Americans; in turn, the museum is being filmed by an American who hasn’t the least thing in common with stereotypical ‘Yanks’ and is in fact on a mission to dispel Americans’ prejudiced view of the ‘Red menace’ – which makes him perhaps almost as naïve as was Karl May himself. As in so many of Meyers’ interviews, it is evident here that his interlocutor, the museum director, is aware of the anti-American propaganda in the background and is carefully trying to counter-balance it: hence, this is a dialogue on a tightrope between opposing ideologies.
The GDR owes thanks to Karl May and Germany’s enthusiasm for Red Indians for what is probably its strangest cultural phenomenon, the ‘Cultural Forums for Indian Studies’. Based on a tradition from the 20s and 30s and founded in 1956 under the aegis of Chief Powder Face (alias Johannes Hüttner), the ‘Old Manitou Club’ was the first organisation in the GDR in which adults spent their leisure time Red Indian-style. During the 60s well over one hundred of these ‘Folk Art Collectives’ followed its lead, some of which are still in existence today. Like Karl May, the members of these groups had never seen either America or Red Indians, yet they nevertheless strived to be as authentic as possible, imitating, not an idealised ‘universal Winnetou-style Red Indian’ but rather genuine tribes, their rites and their clothing.(4)
In Powder Face und die Kulturgruppe für Indianistik the Chief explains to his American guest – in the most perfect Saxon dialect – various folk dances and also the official yet here seemingly subversive line on Red Indians: “People like us, who are fighting for their rights”. The second part of the tape brings us a cowboy performance. As the GDR’s official reason for allowing Red Indian Studies was the necessity of preserving the customs of a minority subject to repression in the USA, it didn’t in theory gladly suffer ‘cowboy oppressors’. This is probably why a somewhat arbitrary account of the rodeo as an Indian tradition has here to serve to justify the show … before this blithely devotes itself to the myth of the Wild West amid twangs of Country music.
Familie Strassburger, Dresden, 20 min.
Karl May Museum Radebeul, 13 min.
Powder Face und die Kulturgruppe für Indianistik, 35 min.
(all 1986, recorded on VHS-C/NTSC, col, sound)
Bill Meyers, born 1940, USA. Germanist. From 1974 he travelled frequently in former East Germany (GDR). From the mid-80s, as part of his personal mission to break down hostile misconceptions and with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, he made many videos about everyday life in the GDR. For a long while he then toured with his films throughout the USA. He died 2005.
(1) Bill Meyers: Über meine Videoarbeit in der DDR. Unpublished, 1998.
(3) Cf. Friedrich von Borries, Jens-Uwe Fischer: Sozialistische Cowboys. Frankfurt/Main 2008.
(4) Cf. ibid. Kulturgruppe für Indianistik, 35 min.b(all 1986, recorded on VHS-C/NTSC, col, sound)