Movies depicting America’s “Old West” are enduring hits with German audiences. Photo: Greg NewingtonThe great and noble Pierre Brice died in a hospital near Paris last week. He succumbed to pneumonia, aged 86. This rated a paragraph in the French newspapers, where he was barely known, but it brought Germany to tears. Brice was Germany’s favourite Apache in a series of 11 “spaetzle” (dumpling) westerns made in the 1960s, playing a noble and handsome red man named Winnetou. It is no exaggeration to say he is partly responsible for Germany’s particular and sentimental love of mythical Injuns and anything to do with the Old West. The adoration comes in the form of comics, films, plays, serious literature – even annual festivals where people dress up as Winnetou and his white blood brother Old Shatterhand, who was played in seven of those movies by Lex Barker.
Barker died in 1973, but he was at least American and could ride a horse (and swim a river and swing on a vine – he played Tarzan in Hollywood before the vine ran out and he moved to Europe seeking work). Brice had to take riding lessons when he was offered the part of Winnetou during a visit to the Berlin Film Festival in 1962. He was about as Indian as I am, but he had the kind of classical Mount Rushmore features that Germans wanted in an Apache chief, albeit one raised in Brittany. The western was always an ahistorical genre, but these films redefined fakery, just as spaghetti westerns were getting started. They were shot in Croatia, where the craggy mountains stood in (barely) for the American west. It would be hard to overstate their popularity in Germany and its near neighbours – Austria and Czechoslovakia, in particular. East Germany took a dim view, because they were based on the books of Karl May, a 19th-century German writer who was out of communist favour.
May was as prolific as he was controversial. It’s hard to think of another writer in any culture who has had such a prolonged impact – from the 1880s to the present. His sales are incredible. Wikipedia claims 200 million books were printed, about half of them in German, the rest in every language from Afrikaans to Yiddish. This last one is curious, given that some of his work has been labelled anti-Semitic and that Hitler was one of his greatest fans – but so too was Albert Einstein.
May was born in 1842 and was a petty criminal who served two long stretches in jail before he discovered his true path – writing adventure novels about romantic heroes he had never known, set in places he had never been. His work was a triumph of imagination over experience. The titles are resonant: Der Sohn des Bahrenjagers sounds better as Sons of the Bear Hunter; Der Schatz im Silbersee becomes The Treasure of the Silver Lake – the first of the films in which Brice played Winnetou. The plot had Winnetou and Old Shatterhand (Barker) hunting down a gang of cut-throats who seek Indian treasure. Production values were surprisingly high in these movies, especially after the first one attracted 3 million ticket-buyers. Indeed, Winnetou went down in Germany like James Bond in Britain, but for different reasons. Karl May’s books had established a huge market: generations of German children had grown up reading stories of Winnetou’s heroism and nobility, set in a pure and romantic wilderness. The bad men were usually white trash from outside, coming to taint this Indian Garden of Eden.
The Nazis left Karl May’s books unbanned, because the Fuhrer loved them. When news of May’s early criminal life came out in the early 1900s, Hitler defended him against the taunts of his peers. Karl May may not have known much about the American west, but he knew a lot about the German love of stories of pure characters facing hardship in wild places.
The most bizarre aspect of Karl May’s legacy is not the films, but the wild west shows that take place each year across Germany. The first Karl-May-Spiele (festival) ran from 1938 until 1941 in Rethen, Saxony. It reappeared in 1952 in Bad Segeberg, in Schleswig-Holstein. It has been staged every year since, in an open-air stadium beneath a 91-metre rocky outcrop that dominates the town. Each festival features a spectacular new show adapted from the books, with burning stagecoaches, dancing Indian maidens and, of course, Winnetou and Old Shatterhand fighting the bad guys. Last year’s event attracted a staggering 329,393 visitors through the summer – many of them wearing Indian feathers in their hair.
This year’s show opens on June 27, with a big budget dramatisation of Im Tal des Todes – or In the Valley of Death. Both Brice and Barker appeared often in these shows in the 1960s and ’70s. There is nothing quite like them, even in the US. They would encounter opposition there, where Native American sensitivities might be offended by all the idealisation and fantasy. In Germany, there are no such qualms. To the Germans, Winnetou is as mythical as Siegfried, wandering the dark forests in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Indeed, Bad Segeberg is a bit like the Bayreuth of westerns, without the fat ladies, and with a lot more bang.
So farewell Pierre Brice, the French Apache beloved of the Germans. We shall not see his like again, except on YouTube, where you can see him dubbed in Polish. And why not?
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