August 2001. Stefan Ernsting is sitting in a Berlin beer garden with a group of East German friends. The conversation turns to Dean Reed -- how nobody had seemed to care when he died. Thoughtful nods around the table.
Except for Ernsting. "Who?" he asks, confused.
His friends are incredulous. You know, Dean Reed. The most famous American in the world! The guy who made all the cowboy movies! Come on, he's like Michael Jackson!
Ernsting's curiosity was piqued. How come he had never heard of this guy? He went home and started his research, thinking he might be able to write a magazine article about the obscure pop star. Three years later, the article had turned into a book, "The Red Elvis."
Meanwhile Ernsting's friend Leopold Grün, who was at the beer garden that day, had started work on a documentary. The film, likewise called "The Red Elvis," premiered this week at the Berlin International Film Festival. Indeed, interest in Reed has almost never been higher -- Tom Hanks has even optioned the story of his life for a possible film.
Big in the Warsaw Pact
Dean Reed might not have been Michael Jackson, but he was certainly big in the communist world. The New York Times in 1984 described him as "the Johnny Cash of Communism." The Russians loved him. He was friends with Chilean president Salvador Allende and Yasser Arafat -- the film shows him hanging out with Palestinian freedom fighters in Lebanon, Kalashnikov in one hand, guitar in the other.
But how did a kid from Denver, Colorado end up being a socialist star? It was a circuitous route. After a stint in Hollywood, a record contract with Capitol and a few minor hits, Reed went to South America where he went through a dramatic conversion to left-wing causes. His views got him into trouble, though, and he was deported from Argentina in 1966 before finally settling in East Germany in 1972 -- after another few years of travel and a spell making spaghetti westerns in Italy, including one with Yul Brynner.
The GDR adopted him as one of its own, clearly recognizing his usefulness as a propaganda tool. Reed made a series of suitably socialist records and movies and appeared at party events. In the new documentary, Egon Krenz, the last leader of East Germany, frankly admits: "We used him. We told him what to do."
A complex character
"The Red Elvis" paints a picture of a complex man who was hugely attractive to women but shied away from commitment; who took advantage of his freedom to travel while supporting the restrictive East German regime; who sang of undying love but had many mistresses.
"I wanted to see what I could discover about this life which was so paradoxical," says director Leopold Grün. "I was struck by the fact he had so many facets, so many things which did not fit at all with the image of Dean Reed, the beautiful singing cowboy."
The archive footage of Reed in the GDR comes perilously close to kitsch as he addresses crowds at a communist youth meeting in his heavily-accented German, or passionately explains on East German television how proud he is of his 62-year-old mother who has just got her degree from Honolulu University. But it is difficult to judge him too harshly.
"On the one hand, you can see him as an opportunist in the way he put his political beliefs into practice," says Grün. "By going to the GDR he chose the path of least resistance. He could have got involved with the communists in the US, which would have been significantly more difficult.
"But on the other hand he really meant it, even if he was naïve. Someone who goes to Chile and learns the language so he can join Allende's movement is not being opportunistic, because there was nothing to be gained in Chile at the time."
The end of the road
Perhaps befitting a 1960s rock star, Reed died relatively young at the age of 48 -- his body was found in a lake on the outskirts of East Berlin in 1986. And there are a number of conspiracy theories surrounding his death. The GDR passed his death off as an accident while some think he was murdered. Still others believe -- à la Elvis Presley -- that he is still alive.
But Ernsting, having done the research, knows otherwise. "He committed suicide, I'm quite sure about that," he says.
Why? Times were changing, and the new generation in the communist East weren't interested in an old-school freedom fighter like Reed. And the singer couldn't go back to the US, where he had burned his bridges by comparing Ronald Reagan to Stalin in a "60 Minutes" interview -- a comment that prompted a flood of hate mail from Americans. "He was like something from the 1950s, the guy with the cowboy hat," says Ernsting. "He became a joke, and at some point he understood that people were laughing at him behind his back."
Grün, who grew up in the 1980s, agrees: "My generation kept a distance to such people who stuck to the party line. It was clear to us that he was being used by the government to represent the politics of the country, and we couldn't stand that."
And his legacy? It seems like his music is unlikely to stand the test of time. "What he did in the 60s has a certain charm, and some of his performances really have power," says Grün. "But the music got worse the older he got. The easy listening stuff he made in the last years of his life I find appalling."
But he was genuinely popular. The film shows a Russian woman who was obsessed with Reed and who moved to Denver to be close to his grave.
"He was a good-looking guy and the girls liked him," Ernsting says. "He went to show business school in Hollywood, he learnt how to put on sunglasses and how to say 'I love you' to a woman.
"Elvis was sex, Frank Sinatra was promising sex, and Dean Reed was somewhere in between," he says.