Friday, October 14, 2022

Karl May: German Westerns, Winnetou and Old Shatterhand (Part 2 of 2)


[An evening performance at the Kalkberg open-air theater during the Karl-May-Spiele in Bad Segeberg, Germany. PHOTO: Claas Augner (Wikimedia Commons)]

Considering that Karl May died in 1912, it’s remarkable that his Western novels and fictional characters are still a part of German popular culture today. While the German movies based on his tales of the Old West were mostly made in the the 1960s, the Karl May Festival (Karl-May-Spiele) performances in Bad Segeberg (Schleswig-Holstein) still attract thousands of fans from all over Germany to the open-air theater at the Kalkberg arena. (There are other similar pageants in various locations in Austria and Germany.) In 2022, May’s The Oil Prince (Der Ölprinz) is being presented in Bad Segeberg from 25 June until 4 September. Loosely based on May’s novel of the same name, the Bad Segeberg stage production is part of an amusement park attraction that includes an Indian Village and a “fan shop.” The shows are presented twice daily at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm from Thursday through Saturday. On Sundays there is only a 3:00 pm show. Monday through Wednesday there are no performances. Each year, a fairly famous actor plays the role of the Apache chief Winnetou or his paleface blood brother Old Shatterhand. This all began in 1952 and has been running ever since then – except during the recent Covid-19 pandemic.

[Karl May as Old Shatterhand in a photo from 1896. The author was known for dressing up as some of his fictional characters. Some say he WAS Old Shatterhand, whose first name was Karl. May also named his house in Radebeul “Villa Shatterhand.” It is difficult to separate May’s alter egos from the man himself. PHOTO: Alois Schiesser (1866–1945; Wikimedia Commons)]

Another, more modest, more recent Karl May festival (since 1992) takes place in May’s adopted hometown of Radebeul, close to Dresden in Saxony. Karl May was already living in the area when he bought the two-story house in Radebeul that now serves as the Karl May Museum. In 1896 he moved into his new house with his first wife Emma, and promptly named it “Villa Shatterhand,” spelled out in large letters on the street-facing facade of the building. The three-day event known as the Karl-May-Festtage (“festival days”) takes place annually in Radebeul at Villa Shatterhand and in the area known as the Lößnitzgrund, a shallow valley along the Lößnitz River where open-air events take place. The 29th edition ran from the 27th to the 29th of May 2022. Highlights included a “Westerncamp” and a “Westernstadt” (town), a Santa Fe train robbery reenactment, horse stunt performances, various other attractions for young and old, plus local country music performers. Past festival days have attracted up to 30,000 visitors.

Another remarkable aspect is the fact that Karl May never personally visited the American West before or after he wrote his Western tales. He did travel to the United States in 1908, long after he had become a successful author, but he and his second wife, Klara, never ventured farther west than Niagara Falls during their six-week Amerikareise. But he did extensive research on the American West and American Indians before writing his Westerns.

May also wrote adventure novels set in Latin America, China, Germany and the “Orient” – meaning the Middle East (Egypt) and other “exotic” locales. But as with his Western stories, he visited those places only after he had written about them. In 1899/1900 May traveled to Asia and Sumatra for about nine months, accompanied only by his servant Sejd Hassan. In December 1899 he joined his first wife, Emma, and their mutual friends, Richard and Klara Plöhn, in Egypt before returning to their home in Radebeul near Dresden. (May divorced Emma in 1903. The former Klara Plöhn would become May’s second wife.) Klara claimed that May suffered two separate nervous breakdowns during his travels, but he managed to recover without medical intervention.

May wrote many “travel tales” (Reiseerzählungen) between 1892 and 1910, most of which were later published in a 33-volume collection by Friedrich Ernst Fehsenfeld. The best known of these are the Orient Cycle (volumes 1–6, including Durch die Wüste/In the Desert, Durchs wilde Kurdistan/Through Wild Kurdistan and Old Surehand I, II, III), and the Winnetou Trilogy (volumes 7–9).

 [This 2001 German movie was a parody of the Karl May films made in the 1960s. The musical version played at Berlin’s Theater des Westens from December 2008 to May 2010. PHOTO: herbX Medienproduktion GmbH, Constantin Film.]

May’s many works have been copied and parodied, even during his lifetime. One notable modern example is the 2001 Michael “Bully” Herbig film Der Schuh des Manitu (“The Shoe of the Manitou”), a parody of the many Karl May Western films produced in the 1960s. It became a box office hit in Germany. It featured popular German actors such as Christian Tramitz (as Ranger), Sky du Mont (as Santa Maria), and Herbig himself in three different roles. The film was also partly a sendup of Spaghetti Westerns from the same period.

May was beset with detractors throughout his life, with people trying to exploit him, denigrate him for personal gain, and just plain steal from him. Late in his life, due to weak copyright laws, his works were edited and published without his permission. Even his own last wife, after his death, destroyed works that she felt might cause problems for his legacy.

 [A poster for the 2022 Bad Segeberg Karl-May-Spiele. PHOTO:]

Ironically, in his early days May spent time in prison, mostly for minor offenses. May was born into a very poor family. Although some of his problems were caused by the social and class discrimination common in Germany at the time, May was something of a con-artist. His reform and turn towards a more productive life came at the hands of a sympathetic Catholic catechist during his four years of incarceration (1870-1874) in Waldheim, Saxony. But his reform came only after he had returned to a life of crime following a previous long-term prison stay in Zwickau, where May did a lot of reading in the prison library and discovered his talent for storytelling. Eventually, he was able to make a living from his writing. By 1878 May had become a freelance writer and editor. Although he suffered some setbacks, in 1892 the publication of Karl May’s Gesammelte Reiseromane (Collected Travel Novels) brought him financial security and recognition. But when he died in 1912 he was still being unjustly hounded by detractors.

Today in the German-speaking world, the name of Karl May still conjures up visions of travel and adventure in faraway, exotic places. His success during a time when there were no movies or television, much less the internet, has carried on to this day. Yes, Karl May is perhaps slightly less relevant in our modern world, but Winnetou and Old Shatterhand are still very much present in German culture.

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