The Ostern (Eastern; Russian: И́стерн, Istern; or остерн) is a film genre created in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc as a variation of the Western films. The word "Ostern" is a portmanteau derived from the German word Ost, meaning "East", and the English word "western". The term now includes two related genres:
American Westerns were amongst the US films imported into the early Soviet Union. As a result, certain Soviet films at the time are seen to incorporate Western elements. For example, the image of the western cowboy is used to symbolize the United States and the West as a whole in the soviet silent comedy The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924). Red Devils is a revolutionary action film that also borrows from the Western genre. As cultural restrictions tightened during the Stalinist era, however, Western-inspired films in the Soviet Union became few and far between. It is worth noting, however, that Stalin was an avid enjoyer of Hollywood Western films, and is argued by some to have desired the Western genre within the Soviet Union.
1957's Miles of Fire is one of the earliest examples of a Soviet Western as it was released years before the Ostern genre became formalized and prevalent. The Western genre saw a resurgence in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, largely resulting from the Khrushchev Thaw. In 1962, the USSR allowed for the screening of certain US and foreign films. The Magnificent Seven, an American Western starring Steve McQueen, become the most successful of these films commercially, becoming an instant cult classic amongst Soviet moviegoers. The overwhelming popularity and commercial demand of films like The Magnificent Seven enticed Soviet filmmakers and state-run film institutions to experiment with Western elements in their own productions, resulting in the creation of the Soviet Western.
The Czechoslovakian comedy Lemonade Joe or the Horse Opera (1964) gained popularity amongst Soviet citizens and those in the Eastern Bloc. Though the film is largely a parody of the Western genre, its commercial success nonetheless furthered the familiarity of Western tropes within the Eastern Bloc and the general Soviet audience.
The East German The Sons of the Great Bear (1966) is a seminal Red Western. The film turned the traditional American "Cowboy and Indian" conventions on their head, casting the Native Americans as the heroes and the American Army as the villains, a motif inspired by Karl May's highly successful German Western novels (such as the Winnetou series). The film started a series of Indianerfilme or "Indian Films" produced by the East German DEFA studios. These films were immensely popular among the East German audience, furthering the widespread German fascination of Native American culture (see Native American Hobbyism in Germany).
White Sun of the Desert (1970) stands out as the quintessential Ostern, with its release considered by some to usher in the "golden era" of Soviet Western film. Set in rural Turkmenistan, the film incorporates many elemental Western characteristics, namely wide shots of empty skies and nature, transportation via horse and leather saddle, and the lone stoic protagonist. The film quickly obtained a cult-like status, with multiple catchphrases from the film making its way into casual conversation.
The Antagonists of Osterns are played by the various groups that stood in opposition to the Soviet Union and Communism throughout history. Films set during the Russian Civil War vilify the White Army and various Basmachi guerilla factions. Easterns parallel American Westerns in how their antagonists are almost always of non-white ethnicities. These antagonists typically Central Asian and Middle Eastern minority groups of the Soviet Union, and are commonly exoticized and contrasted with the societal ideals of the Soviet Union.
As stated previously, the villains in East German Westerns are the American settlers of the Western frontier, opposite to the "Cowboys versus Indians" motif seen in American and European Westerns. Though Native Americans are also exoticized in these films, perhaps unavoidably, their portrayal is as similar to that of the Soviets, therefore superior to the capitalist western world. Red Westerns additionally parallel Spaghetti Westerns and other Euro Westerns in how they attempt to imitate, rather than replace, the traditional "Wild West" setting.
Unlike traditional Western films, women in Osterns are not stereotyped or confined to a small set of pre-established gender roles. The idea of women being subservient, helpless and in constant need of help by men is criticized by the Soviet Western in multiple ways. Though the individuals captured in Osterns are predominantly female, their captivity represents the gender inequality faced in a non-communist society. Once freed, these women are liberated from gender constructs and enjoy permanent gender equality in the USSR.
Though all Osterns innately communicate a pro-Soviet message, the bluntness of this message and influence by the state varies film to film. The Elusive Avengers, a Mosfilm-produced Ostern commemorating the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, is by and large a clear-cut Soviet war propaganda film. Osterns such as White Sun of the Desert are less forthright, however, opting for a more implicit, less-glorified approach.
Moscow's Mosfilm studio produced many Osterns that fall under the "Eastern" subgenre. Osterns produced by Mosfilm include Miles of Fire, The Elusive Avengers, White Sun of the Desert and more. Other Soviet studios that produced Ostern films include Gorky Film Studio, Tajikfilm, Uzbekfilm and more.
Many of the non-Soviet examples of the genre were international co-productions akin to the Spaghetti Westerns. The Sons of the Great Bear for example was a co-production between East Germany and Czechoslovakia, starring a Yugoslav, scripted in German, and shot in a number of different Eastern Bloc countries and used a variety of locations including Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Mongolia and Czechoslovakia. The Oil, the Baby and the Transylvanians is a Romanian film, which features emigrant Romanians heavily in the storyline.
"Gibanica Western" was a short-lived term for the Yugoslav equivalent of the Ostern, more commonly known as partisan film and, sometimes, the Partisan western. They were made in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and were about the partisans in World War II. The term "Gibanica" refers to a traditional Balkan pastry dish.
The Goulash Westerns are the Easterns of Hungarian director György Szomjas. He directed two films (The Wind Blows Under Your Feet and Wrong-Doers) in the 1970s.