Karl May's Imaginary America

There are Winnetou films and videos, and the hugely profitable pilgrimage to the Bad Segeberg summer festival. In Saxony there are ambitious plans to turn Hohenstein-Ernstthal, the little weaving town outside of Chemnitz where May was born one hundred and fifty years ago in 1842 into a Karl May theme park.

But I think the substance of the Winnetou myth is in fact dying, if not actually dead. The books still sell. But kids today prefer videos and computers. I've yet to find any West German kids who have read more than one of the books. The imagery and the message simply don't appeal to a generation heavily into themselves. I fear that as West Germans go so East Germans will soon follow. And Karl May is basically an author who needs to be read if he's to take hold of a child's imagination for life.

The crisis that faced the Karl May Summer Festival in Bad Segeberg in 1990 is symbolic. Pierre Brice, the actor who had transformed Winnetou into a living legend on screen and in the flesh, wanted to call it quits. After thirty years he'd grown tired of being typecast. In 1990, the first year I attended the Festival, Brice had chosen Winnetou's death as his swansong. This was to be It.

It was a gorgeous production, worthy of Wagnerian opera at Bayreuth. Santer did his evil deed and shot Winnetou. To the Red Indian equivalent of Franz Lizst's Funeral March the body of the slain Apache chief, covered with a horse blanket, was carried solemnly by pallbearers through the audience to a funeral pyre of fresh logs.

Spectators round me sniffled into their hankies. Some cried openly. The Festival organizers had just persuaded Pierre Brice to return for one more year. The 1991 season was saved. But for the vast majority of middle-aged spectators this was it. They'd come to see Winnetou for the last time.

Karl May's Imaginary America

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The American West in the American Imagination

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