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— Kristen Connolly, The Cabin in the Woods

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Anyone who’s been to the American Southwest and in particular the grand red-rock national parks and monuments like Arches or Monument Valley, has seen the many German tourists there soaking up the John Ford landscapes. I once heard that this was because of an aggressive marketing campaign in Germany by the state of Utah to promote tourism but now I think the real reason they are there is because of Karl May.

May is the subject of the second film in director Hans Jurgen Syberberg’s German trilogy ( Ludwig, Requiem for a Virgin King [1972] , Karl May [1974], Hitler: A Film from Germany [1978], all reviewed elsewhere on Movie Habit). Of the three films, Karl May is both the weakest and the most accessible film.

The weakest link in Syberg's trilogy
The weakest link in Syberg’s trilogy

May is said to be the best-selling German author of all time. In the late 1800’s he wrote novels set in the American West so captivating that there probably wasn’t a German who could read who didn’t know who he was. And May did it all without actually having been there himself. In fact he never went to America until after he was a successful author and even then he didn’t go west of Buffalo, New York.

Yet Karl May remains unknown in the United States. Indeed it would be hard to draw a comparison to any one American author. You would have to roll Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, James Fenimore Cooper, along with the characters of Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill in to one package just to get close. May’s work parallels the dime novel’s popularization of Western myths in the United States but in that case it was the subjects who became legends not the authors.

Most readers actually thought May had lived in the West and returned with tales of daring and adventure. The stories were told by the semi-autobiographical character of Old Shatterhand and his Native American blood brother Winnetou. It was wildly popular and a fiction that was accepted as the truth. Imagine J. K, Rowling as Hermione reporting from Hogwarts and her readers believing that Harry and the rest of the gang really live in England (oops... late spoiler alert!).

The action in Karl May centers around the end of May’s life when he became embroiled in a legal battle over publishing rights to his many books. His enemies called him a fraud and a threat to the morals of the youth (sound familiar?) but the most damning charge was that May had once been in prison for having stolen his roommate’s watch. Not exactly a crime lord but in Victorian Era Germany, it was a deft bit of caricature assassination.

Although he’d never seen or done any of the things he’d written about, the books were still loved by a whole nation. At the height of the scandal and just weeks before his death, May gave a lecture in Austria that drew thousands of enthusiastic listeners. Among them was the young Adolph Hitler and Syberberg is careful to allow Hitler a cameo in the film.

Should we fault May for lying or criticize the Germans for falling for it? Would it have made any difference if May had said it was all a fiction, or did the readers demand that it be true in order to be entertaining? What is important is May’s impact on German culture. Karl May belongs in the Syberberg German trilogy because his romantic and grandiose depiction of the rugged individual living outside the laws and conventions of bourgeois society were so popular with the public and later fit in with the Nazis ideology. He is another thread that leads to Hitler’s Germany.

For Syberberg, this is an unusually straightforward film. Because May is such a universally recognized author in Germany, not much is said directly about his books. It is assumed you already know all about them. So references to his work are tangential and the moments of high drama often escaped me. I thought Karl May bogged down in the courtroom scenes. But the fault is mine because for me May himself is more interesting than this moment in his life. A German audience would see May as old news but the trial would be more interesting.

However there are some typically Syberbergian touches. For instance when May is shown visiting North Africa, it’s represented by an unquestionably artificial background, or when he travels to America, and the voyage is depicted by a toy boat bobbing in a tank. The theatrically staged death scene at the end has stepped right out of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung (Syberberg should apply for a trademark copyright on his trope of Falling Snowflakes). If you’re not familiar with Syberberg’s method, it can be jarring but if you are into his joke, it’s all part of the fun.

I recommend seeing Hitler: A Film from Germany before seeing the other two films in the trilogy. Then if you are ready for more Syberberg, watch Ludwig and round it out with Karl May. This will gently bring you back to Planet Earth and you may resume your normal activities.

DVD Extras

There are none.

Picture and Sound

This is not a restored print, so the image is a bit rough around the edges. It also has moments of a made-for-TV look about it.

How to Use This DVD

Watch Hitler: A Film from Germany first, then Ludwig — Requiem for a Virgin King if you can, before watching Karl May.