Monday, October 24, 2005

Discovering Karl May

Isn't it a strange thing when a new enthusiasm overtakes you?

I'm experiencing one right now after having viewed the three films that make up Tobis/UFA Home Entertainment's "limited edition" German import KARL MAY DVD COLLECTION I: Harald Reinl's DER SCHATZ IM SILBERSEE (aka THE TREASURE OF SILVER LAKE, 1962), Harald Phillip's WINNETOU UND DAS HALBBLUT APANATSCHI (aka HALF-BREED, 1966) and Alfred Vohrer's WINNETOU UND SEIN FREUND OLD FIREHAND (aka WINNETOU: THUNDER AT THE BORDER, 1966).

These films came about when 11 year-old Mattias Wendlandt -- an ardent reader of the 70-odd Western novels written by the popular German writer Karl May (pronounced "My"), who lived from 1842 to 1912) -- suggested to his father, Rialto Film producer Horst Wendlandt, that a series of May films might prove just as popular as his Edgar Wallace krimis. Indeed, they were an immediate hit with the release of DER SCHATZ IM SILBERSEE, starring Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand and Pierre Brice (MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN) as his Apache friend, Winnetou. The series continued through 1968 and, if you include the three movies based on Karl May's "Orient Travels," exceed a dozen films. The notion of a French actor playing an Apache may seem strange, but Brice gives a superb and non-stereotypical portrayal that he later revived on German television in the 1980s and again as recently as 1998.

The first KARL MAY DVD COLLECTION (there are presently three available, with more due later this year) is a scattershot assortment; it begins at the beginning, but then checker-jumps through the years to offer a representative sampling of the series as a whole. I had seen some of the Karl May films previously on Encore's Western Channel, where they are always pan&scanned and, needless to say, dubbed in English. (If you have the Western Channel, I recommend that you record RAMPAGE AT APACHE WELLS [DER ÖLPRINZ, 1965] the next time it gallops through, because the presentation of this title in KARL MAY DVD COLLECTION II doesn't include an English dub track.)

I was initially interested in these movies because they often feature talent carried over from the Edgar Wallace movies (Eddi Arent plays an eccentric butterfly collector in DER SCHATZ IM SILBERSEE) , and because it was the success of these films that enabled Sergio Leone's Italian Westerns to get made. You can certainly see evidence of the Leone Westerns coming back home to roost in the last of the COLLECTION I films, but the first two are remarkably pure -- they are like classic American Westerns, but like the Leone films, they seem an idealized, rarified dream of life in the Old West. Barker and Brice are fabulous and have faces that wouldn't look out of place carved into the side of Mount Rushmore. Old Shatterhand is like Superman without the super powers, and the Indian (Native American) tribes are depicted only with respect and reverence. I was particularly impressed with Götz George, the romantic lead of the first two films, who is not only a likeable actor but an expert horseman and formidable stunt man. His love interest in DER SCHATZ IM SILBERSEE is played by future Bond girl (and Mrs. Harald Reinl) Karin Dor. Here they are, pictured together, in one of their third act difficulties:

Note the importance in all of these screen grabs of the full breadth of the original widescreen photography. These films are packed with action but their abiding appreciation for the miracle of nature and the majesty of Western landscapes (actually shot in a Yugoslavian national park) is the true hallmark of the series, made all the more captivating by Martin Böttcher's dreamy orchestral music. (They may be unlike the grittier Leone films but clearly influenced them.) It is the beauty and simplicity of these films that make them such a happy refuge, and they have been given extraordinary new life with digitally enhanced, Technicolor-rich hues.

What this set proved to me is that the Karl May Westerns are not just hampered but ruined when they are shown in any other way but in German and in their original aspect ratio. The German language tracks restore their soul, their sincerity. I was never completely won over by the Western Channel showings (where I noticed William "Blacula" Marshall dubbing one of the Indians in THE TREASURE OF SILVER LAKE), but to see these films in German, with English subtitles, and in 5.1 sound is intoxicating.

Now I'm hooked, and I want to see them all. I was even moved to check out some Karl May websites, where I learned that this author (whose sales in Germany were second only to the Bible) has only recently begun to be adequately translated into English. One publishing house specializing in new Karl May translations can be found here. There are also some downloadable texts of a few early, abridged May translations on the Internet, which you can find here.

Of the three titles in Volume 1, only the last -- WINNETOU UND SEIN FREUND OLD FIREHAND (featuring Rod Cameron as the raccoon-hatted Old Firehand) -- fails to offer an English track, but the story is easy enough to follow in the hands of Alfred Vohrer, the greatest of all the Edgar Wallace directors and one of the most visually impressive German directors of the 1960s. Even without dialogue I could follow, this movie proved to me that Vohrer wasn't just a krimi director; he had something to offer other genres as well.

The first three KARL MAY DVD COLLECTIONs are available domestically as a Region 2 import from Xploited Cinema, priced at $49.95 each.

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