The finest deeds of a nation have always emerged from its soul. And however great a writer’s imagination is, he could never force an idea on his people that was not already slumbering in its soul. But beware when the false prophet comes and arouses the wrong forces for these deeds also await the rousing call from the soul of the people to whom I belong.

– Karl May in Syberberg’s Karl May

This is Karl May, musing in a somnolent reverie about killing off one of his fictional characters. But these words can also be sensed as the idea behind Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s massive trilogy on Germany and the German character: Ludwig – Requiem für einen jungfräulichen König (Ludwig – Requiem for a Virgin King, 1972), Karl May and Hitler – ein Film aus Deutschland (Hitler – A Film from Germany, 1977). What are the ideas slumbering in the soul of Germany? How does a nation go from the insularity and excesses of the fairytale-like King Ludwig of Bavaria to the megalomania and excesses of Adolf Hitler? (1)

And where does a writer of escapist “boys’ own” adventures, fraudster and ex-convict fit into this trio of significant Germanic cultural icons. Born in Saxony in 1842, he certainly lived a colourful life. He had to leave teaching when accused of stealing a watch. He also served several years in prison for other frauds, becoming prison librarian. After one prison stretch, he found his forte in writing. This was a time when popular novels and magazine stories could have an impact comparable to blockbuster movies or video games today. And his stories of the noble Indians, Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, or the exotic East did appeal to this young audience.

It is claimed over 200 million copies of his writings have been published. Hitler was reported to have blamed May for his poor school grades, because he read his adventures by candlelight when he should have been studying. Over 40 films have been made directly from his novels – many of these part of a hugely popular cycle of German “Westerns” in the 1960s. A more subtle and more significant influence has been argued for his impact on many of the émigré European film directors such as Fritz Lang. Film scholar David Kalat has argued that many Westerns, including those of Lang, are American counterparts to the old Germanic myths such as the Nibelungenlied, itself the source of two of Fritz Lang’s most famous silent movies: Siegfried (1924) and Kriemhilds Rache (Kriemheld’s Revenge, 1924) (2).

Syberberg’s film on May is not a conventional biopic. It is not a traditional emotive epic, or a work of hagiography or character assassination. The narrative uses his last ten years as a way of exploring the significance of his life, rather than as a way of celebrating or denigrating it. Scenes are more individual tableaux than elements of a continuing narrative, but all have their own richness and particular role. For example, in the opening ten minutes of the film May participates in a rather stagy and pompous lecture presentation while incongruously tricked up in an adventurer’s costume, looking more appropriate for a fancy-dress party than for a trek through the wilderness.

With more than a touch of the braggart, May tells of his adventures with the Apache chief Winnetou. His audience is rapt. But then, it’s full of schoolboys. A reporter questions the veracity of his tales, but the audience of schoolboys finds them hypnotic, the stuff of dreams. There is also an element of nationalism – in references to the superiority of German guns – that adds another level of appeal to May’s sagas. They may be spurious, but they inspire possibilities of adventure and a return to the glory days of the old Teutonic legends. But this is just one scene, with no dramatic causal links to a narrative to come. It effectively positions the viewer in relation to the material that will follow.

Syberberg grounds his film firmly in the social and cultural elements of the time. It is interesting to note that although on one hand the film is so obviously low budget, it still has a richness to its surface. Many scenes are clearly filmed on real locations and in glowing colour. Others take place within stylised tableaux, where a painted backdrop and some items of flamboyant contemporaneous bric-a-brac succeed in reflecting the popular tastes of the day.

The music also reflects the taste of the period, including pianola/piano roll versions of some of the music that would have been heard in the drawing rooms of people like the Mays in the early 20th century, such as Mahler or Chopin transcriptions. The film also features extracts from Georges Méliès’ La fée Carabosse ou le poignard fatal (1906) and Le voyage à travers l’impossible (An Impossible Voyage, 1904).

Syberberg is very interested in the people who were May’s readers, his audience. They are, after all, the people who will embrace Hitler as their leader within a generation of May’s death (1912). This link is stressed in a scene of Hitler as a soldier going to hear May, praising him for his great imagination and acknowledging that he wrote great works in prison, an obvious reference to the instigation of Hitler’s own Mein Kampf (1925-26) while he was incarcerated.

With the film’s action restricted to May final ten years, many of the more cinematic events of his early life are only referred to. Court cases or lawyers’ briefings become forums for further exploration of principles. May’s enormous success also got caught up in numerous legal proceedings, claims he’d plagiarised or falsified his stories, or that he had not honoured contracts with various publishers. Some of these may have been genuine, or the acts of jealous and less successful contemporaries (this story has some parallels with the fate of Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network [2010]).

Syberberg’s style in Karl May is not always engrossing in terms of straightforward narrative, but there are more than enough ideas being explored for a film twice as long.


  1. For more on Syberberg’s Ludwig – Requiem für einen jungfräulichen König, see my article “King Ludwig II of Bavaria: Representations in the Cinema 1920–1986”, Senses of Cinema no. 58, 2011: http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/feature-articles/king-ludwig-ii-of-bavaria-representations-in-the-cinema-1920%E2%80%931986/.
  2. Commentary by David Kalat included as part of the DVD release of Das Indische Grabmal, Masters of Cinema, United Kingdom, 2010.

Karl May (1974 West Germany 187 mins)

Prod Co: Bavaria Film/Goethe House/ TMS Film GmbH/ZDF Prod: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Ingeborg Janiczek Dir, Scr: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg Phot: Dietrich Lohmann Ed: Ingrid Broszat, Annette Dorn Prod Des: Nino Borghi Mus: Nino Borghi

Cast: Helmut Käutner, Kristina Söderbaum, Käthe Gold, Attila Hörbiger, William Trenk, Mady Rahl, Lil Dagover

About The Author

Peter Hourigan has spent many years going to the movies, being involved with film society and film festival bodies, as well as teaching movies with secondary students. He also leads adult discussion groups with Centre for Adult Education (Melbourne).

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