Karl May's Imaginary America

But I think there's an even more basic level of appeal, still deeper within German culture. It took me a long time to put it into words. Maybe I instinctively felt it was investing the books with too much intellectual baggage. The revelation came late one afternoon, in a tiny garden in the heart of Munich where I'd gone to see Hans-Jurgen Sybeberg, famous in this country for his never-ending films "Parsifal" and "Hitler." But at the start of his career Sybeberg had also made a film about Karl May.

May's books are astonishing for their accuracy of physical detail. But Sybeberg felt somehow they didn't really belong in America. "When I was going north in a little plane through the Rocky Mountains from Denver...I thought about Karl May," he said. "But I couldn't imagine his characters in that landscape. I couldn't see them down there. His imagination, his landscapes are quite different from America. His was an America of dreams, but not the real America!"

Sybeberg himself bears a striking physical resemblance to one of Karl May's contemporaries, the composer Richard Wagner. As twilight entered his study, Sybeberg seemed to sense my unspoken thought.

"If I were to make a film of Winnetou I think I would use Wagner's music."

"Why?" I wondered. I was suddenly very much awake, with that sense of excitement when the blinding flash parts the brain's fog and for a moment you see the answer, before the fog regroups and covers the mind. Sybeberg was also thinking out loud.

Karl May's Imaginary America

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The American West in the American Imagination

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