Monday, May 2, 2011



IN the last decades of the 19th century, Karl May (1842-1912) was the most successful author in Germany. His books sold like pancakes topped by wild blueberries and heavy cream. For 30 years he turned out 40 pages a day, constructing a staggering body of kitsch adventure-fiction that may originally have owed a certain debt to James Fenimore Cooper but that, finally, created a mythology quintessentially German.

In his most popular stories, written in the first person, May recalled his adventures in the American West with his idealized white blood-brother, Old Shatterhand, and the equally idealized Indian warrier, Winnetou. Seeking a change of locale, May also wrote similar first-person tales about adventures in the Near and Far East.
As he entered his old age, May was beloved and rich. He was also ripe for attack by jealous publishers and all sorts of opportunists seeking to make their own reputations at the expense of his. Unfortunately for him, Karl May was exceedingly vulnerable.
As his fame had become virtually self-perpetuating, he'd allowed the public to believe that his tales were basically true, though he'd never set foot in America or any of the other exotic lands about which he wrote with such conviction. He manufactured fake degrees for himself and, most shocking to his fans, he'd somehow failed to mention that, as a young man, he'd been imprisoned for a total of more than seven years for various offenses, including thievery.
May spent most of the last decade of his life in and out of the courts, defending himself against a series of lawsuits that had as their goal the destruction of his reputation and formidable popularity.
It is this period of May's extraordinary career that is the center of Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's lengthy cinema meditation ''Karl May,'' which opens today at the Film Forum 1. The film, which was made in 1974, is the second in Mr. Syberberg's huge, impressionistic trilogy that opens with ''Ludwig, Requiem for a Virgin King'' (1972) and ends with the 7 1/2-hour ''Our Hitler'' (1977), both released here in 1980.
''Karl May,'' which runs a bit over three hours, is - stylistically - the least insistently Brechtian film in the trilogy. However, like ''Ludwig'' and ''Hitler,'' it makes no concessions to those members of the great, unwashed audience who can't make sense of references that would be immediately clear in Germany. Chronology and documented fact are beside the point.
The film is structured like a piece of music, with themes introduced, explored, dropped and then recalled in variations - which sounds somewhat better than it plays when one is so busy reading English subtitles that one hasn't much leisure for cinematic subtleties.
The conflict, as in ''Ludwig,'' is between the romantic and the rational. May is seen as the last great mystic and the creator of legends that, beginning with Ludwig, reached their inevitable end in Hitler. Whether one believes this or not, Mr. Syberberg couldn't care less. It's what he's telling us in each of the three films, concluding with what seems to be the principal point of ''Our Hitler.'' That film's final question is not ''Where would we be without Hitler?,'' but ''Where would Hitler have been without us?''
Thus he's saying that all of us created Hitler. He seems to be contemplating collective guilt, spreading responsibility so thinly that no one need suffer.
Though May was a pacifist at the end of his career (at a time when Germany was attempting to build up its own colonial empire), his early works were, reportedly, much favored by Hitler, who thought they would instill the right thoughts in his soldiers.
The moral points of these films are ambiguous. There's something infinitely romantic about the manner in which Mr. Syberberg pursues his own obsessions with the fate of modern Germany. It's certainly not that he's an apologist but that, by treating it so poetically (and prettily), he seems to be avoiding the true horrors of history.
Among other problems I have with ''Karl May,'' I've no idea what we're to make of Mr. Syberberg's decision to cast it with stars associated with the old UFA studio, and to have May played by Helmut Kautner, who was a prominent film director in the Third Reich and himself made a film about Ludwig in 1953. Is this a whim or a statement? Only Mr. Syberberg knows.
''Karl May'' is the least characteristic film in the Syberberg trilogy in that it's mostly shot in realistic settings, without the use of bizarre special effects such as puppets, dry-ice fumes and multiple representations of a single person. It's not especially informative in any documentary way, but old Karl May emerges as a most interesting, complex and possibly divine fraud.
Most of the time Mr. Syberberg avoids the use of rear-projection backgrounds that were so ubiquitous in ''Our Hitler,'' and he only occasionally uses scale models that are intended to call attention to the movie's artifice. At one point, we see a model of a German village, which seems to have been made out of clay, in the midst of a snowstorm of what could be granulated sugar, the chimneys periodically releasing perfect little smoke rings. Again, I've no idea whether those smoke rings are a whim or a statement.
FABULOUS FRAUD - KARL MAY, produced, written (in German with English subtitles) and directed by Hans-Jurgen Syberberg; photographed by Dietrich Lohmann; edited by Ingrid Brozat; music by Mahler, Chopin and Liszt; presented in association with Goethe House. Running time: 187 minutes. This film has no rating. At Film Forum 1, 57 Watts Street: Karl May...Helmut Kautner; Klara...Kathe Gold; Emma...Kristina Soderbaum; Pauline Munchmeyer...Mady Rahl; Berta v. Suttner...Lil Dagover.

Publicado en el New York Times, Junio 25, 1986

Imagen: Afiche del filme

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