"Queues in front of the cinemas"
Again decades passed. It was only with the two "Die Sklavenkarawane" (1958) and "The Lion of Babylon" (1959) filmed in Spain that two May templates were dared, the first being by Georg Marischka, the nephew of the "Sissi" director Ernst Marischka , was staged and at least made it a respectable success, so that the second followed immediately.
However, it flopped - and again the plan to produce serial box office hits from Karl May's novels went wrong. Even when the two films were shown again in the cinemas in the early 1960s, hardly anyone wanted to see them, which was not due to the cast of Georg Thomalla and Theo Lingen, who did their thing very well. But the success of Karl May on the big screen should not be long in coming.
Because it came: 1962. In the same year in which James Bond also began his triumphal march around the world with "Dr. No" and which was followed by five more adventures up to 1970, Karl May also succeeded in turning the cinema into an absolute money printing machine. The initial spark for the success, so to speak the "Dr. No" of Karl May, was Harald Reinl's adaptation of "The Treasure in the Silver Lake", which became a surprise hit. The industry journal "Filmecho / Filmwoche" reported at Christmas 1962: "Queues in front of the box office, as one had only faintly remembered, prove that this film is obviously a pot of gold".
And May followers were much more productive than Bond: in just seven years, 17 films were made that were more or less based on May's books, including the "Winnetou" trilogy (1963-1965), "Old Shatterhand" (1964), "Der Schut" (1964) or "Durchs Wilde Kurdistan" (1965). In 1965 alone, seven Karl May films came out, in which mostly the Yugoslav landscape was used as a backdrop for the USA. That convinced every fan then and now. Up until the 1970s, there were protests by cinema operators against these films being broadcast on TV because they attracted so many audiences every time they were revived. And: It was the time of iconographic heroes in German cinema, with a French and an American at the top of the popularity scale: Pierre Brice gave his Winnetou - faithfully following the woodcut-like omens of the film series - a gentleness and grace, a goodness and a heroism that no actor in US cinema about Native Americans ever brought to the screen. And Lex Barker, the giant and Colt acrobat, as a congenial partner of the Indian, quickly became the hero of every child's room. It can be said that the carnival games of "cowboys and Indians" had their real origin here.
For many actors this film series became a career turbo: Uschi Glas became famous with "Winnetou and the Half-Blood Apanatschi" (1966), and for Götz George, Eddi Arent and Mario Girotti the series also meant an upswing. The latter later became known as Terrence Hill, even a world star, in comedic variations of the Western genre.
The Karl May films were not historically accurate - because they
were primarily intended to fuel German-language entertainment cinema, which was
also achieved splendidly. At the same time, however, a similar trend
developed in the GDR. There the DEFA shot several Indian films in the
1960s, which, however, deal much more precisely with the historical dealings of
capitalist Americans with the subjugated Indians.
May was no stranger to humor
Be that as it may, every trend has an end, and the heyday of the Karl May films passed. 1974 focused the bio-pic "Karl May" - top-class cast with Helmut Käutner (as Karl May), Attila Hörbiger, Lil Dagover, Rudolf Prack and "Reichswasserleiche" Kristina Söderbaum (who appeared in many films of her husband Veit Harlan during the Nazi era and found her death in the water in "Jugend" and "Jud Süss", which earned her this nickname) - for the last 12 years of the Saxon writer's life. A few TV films followed, but the next big movie about Karl May was a parody: "Der Schuh des Manitu" (2001) by Michael "Bully" Herbig was able to call itself the most successful German film of all time.
Karl May was no stranger to humor, and this joke has cult status to this day. Perhaps also because not much has happened since then. Maybe the time is not yet ripe for a new Winnetou. Perhaps some producers are already thinking in secret how "Der Schatz im Silbersee" could look like as a remake: With Elyas M'Barek as Winnetou, Lars Eidinger as Old Shatterhand and Nora Tschirner as Apanatschi. Why not? That would be funny.