SAWF News 26.08.2007
Documentary spotlights American cowboy in wild East Germany
"Red Elvis," a new documentary about a rugged maverick who quit the American West for communist East Germany, has hit the screens, shedding light on Dean Reed's unlikely stardom and mysterious demise.
BERLIN (AFP) - Reed was a US country singer and actor who emigrated to East Germany for love in 1972. In 1986 he was found face down in the knee-deep water of an East Berlin lake. In those 14 years, Reed became a Cold War icon.
In "Red Elvis," director Leopold Gruen presents a portrait of the artist swept up in tumultuous times, "this American with a raised fist and a toothpaste smile."
With a mop of wavy brown hair under his black Stetson and celestial blue-grey eyes, the Colorado native was a dashing political idealist active in the pacifist movement, fighting military regimes and social injustice.
The documentary, which has won critical praise here, tells his story from the 1960s when Reed sold millions of records from Santiago to Siberia and earned his nickname for a crooning style that mimicked that of the King.
He spent most of the decade touring Argentina and Chile, where he later rallied support for then socialist president Salvador Allende.
Allende's daughter, the novelist Isabel, speaks warmly of Reed in the film.
In 1971, he accepted an invitation to a short film festival organised by the communist authorities in Leipzig, East Germany.
It was there that Reed met a star-struck young teacher named Wiebke, who mustered the courage to tell the dashing American in shaky English: "You are the best looking man of the world."
A torrid love affair began that led Reed within a year to stop his South American swashbuckling, move to East Berlin, learn German and take Wiebke as his bride.
His career slowed at first and a daughter was born. But after seven years of marriage, Reed began to chafe from quiet family life and moved on. A decade later he married another East German, actress Renate Blume.
"Dean taught me to broaden my East German horizons," his ex-wife Wiebke told SuperIllu magazine this month in an interview about the film.
"I learned something about the big wide world out there."
The communist authorities quickly recognised the propaganda value of the handsome American who turned his back on his country and commandeered him for concerts.
In the film, East Germany's last communist ruler Egon Krenz tells how Reed became a poster child for the corruption of the West and the glories of the Stalinist state.
The documentary shows him posing with Palestinian guerrillas, brandishing a Kalashnikov and patrolling a hillside during the civil war in Lebanon in 1977. He is later seen dancing with his friend, PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
In the 1980s, Reed made an infamous appearance on the popular American news programme "60 Minutes" in which he described Ronald Reagan as a "state terrorist" and defended the Berlin Wall, provoking death threats.
But with his career waning, Reed had grown increasingly depressed and actually dreamed of returning home and entering politics.
On June 17, 1986, his body was dragged out of Zeuthener Lake in Berlin, just a few days before he was to start filming "Bloody Heart," a Western that he was to direct and star in.
East German authorities first described his death as a tragic accident, then as the suicide of a broken man.
Veteran leader Erich Honecker kept Reed's suicide note in his files for years. In it, Reed blamed his third and last wife Renate for his decision to kill himself.
"I wanted to live with Renate till death do us part but she killed me -- day after day... she screamed at me again and again that I was just a bad American showman," the letter said.
His widow Renate and friends still tell another story, claiming he was murdered by the Stasi secret police because his disillusionment with socialism and desire to return home were deeply embarrassing to the state.
West German mass-market newspaper Bild stoked the suspicion, asking in a front-page headline "American pop star drowned by East German intelligence?"
Reed's mother reportedly had the suicide note analysed by handwriting specialists to quash such rumours. His ex-wife Wiebke dismisses the murder accusations as the stuff of a cloak-and-dagger novel.
"It was written by Dean," Wiebke said of the note. "There were personal things in the letter that only he would know."
The documentary offers rarely seen footage of Reed's films and concerts and interviews with two of his three wives, his mistress, fellow artists, disgraced politicians and other witnesses to his larger-than-life career.
Berlin audiences said the documentary revived old memories of one of the most fascinating personalities of the defunct communist state.
"I always asked myself why he stayed," said Margit Kervin, a 70-year-old native of east Germany who saw the film on opening night.
She said his heady rise and abrupt fall reminded her of a Kennedy family tragedy.
"He was too idealistic and naive."