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Karl May (1974)

This ethereal, three-hour biopic is the middle film in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's "German Trilogy" on the mythological foundations of the Third Reich.
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Cast overview, first billed only:
Helmut Käutner ... Karl May
Kristina Söderbaum ... Emma May
Käthe Gold Käthe Gold ... Klara May
Attila Hörbiger ... Max Dittrich
William Trenk William Trenk ... Rodolf Lebius (as Willy Trenk-Trebitsch)
Heinz Moog Heinz Moog ... Dr. Gerlach
Mady Rahl ... Pauline Münchmeyer
Rainer von Artenfels Rainer von Artenfels ... Adolf Hitler
Leon Askin ... Klotz-Sello
Marquard Bohm ... Überhorst
Peter Branoff Peter Branoff ... Dr. Hermann
Wolfgang Büttner Wolfgang Büttner ... Ehrecke von Moabit
Peter Chatel ... Horace Herzfelder
Erwin Faber Erwin Faber ... Napoleon Krügel
Rudolf Fernau ... Bredereck


This ethereal, three-hour biopic is the middle film in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's "German Trilogy" on the mythological foundations of the Third Reich.

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis




West Germany



Release Date:

25 June 1986 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Karl May, à la recherche du paradis perdu See more »

Filming Locations:

Murcia, Spain See more »


Box Office


DEM 1,100,000 (estimated)
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Company Credits

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Technical Specs


(2 parts) | (short)

Sound Mix:




Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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Did You Know?


Second part of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's trilogy on German history, also including Ludwig - Requiem for a Virgin King (1972) and Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland (1977). See more »


Follows Ludwig - Requiem for a Virgin King (1972) See more »


Symphony No. 2 in C minor
Composed by Gustav Mahler
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User Reviews

The genesis of Nazism
26 January 2017 | by hof-4See all my reviews

Karl May (1842-1912) was the most popular of all German writers; his novels, translated to dozens of languages sold more than 200 million copies worldwide. They are still in print, and still selling in Germany and abroad. Every summer his works are put on stage at the Karl May festival in Bad Segeberg in Germany, and there are web sites devoted to his writing.

May was a pulp writer, but one of some size. Many of his novels are set in an Aryanized American Southwest, centering on the blood brotherhood of Old Shatterhand, a German surveyor, and Winnetou, an honorable Apache. Others are set in (real and imagined) Oriental countries. "Natives" are depicted as noble, but irrevocably doomed by encroaching civilization. May's novels were devoured by German readers from one end of the political spectrum to the other and exerted a strong influence on Adolf Hitler, who saw the "colonization" of Eastern Europe in May's terms. When Nazi troops were being decimated by Soviet resistance, Hitler sent 300,000 copies of May's novels to Eastern Front to be distributed among the soldiers. In Hitler's words, "The struggle we are waging there against the partisans resembles very much the struggle in North America against the Red Indians. Victory will go to the strong, and strength is on our side."

Although all filmmakers of the New German Cinema in the seventies and eighties (Fassbinder, Schlöndorff,…) were obsessed in various degrees with Nazism, Syberberg was the most systematic on the subject. In his movies he explores the various currents in German culture, both highbrow (Wagner, in the movie Parsifal, 1982) and kitsch (May) that contributed, unwittingly and in unexpected ways to the state of the German psyche that accepted and followed massively an ideology as monstrous as Nazism.

As for the film itself, it concentrates on May's last years, apparently spent in legal actions against ex-wives, ex-editors, detractors and combinations thereof. It turns out that May was somewhat of a scoundrel, had serious brushes with the law and served time in his youth. He claimed later, falsely, that his novels were the product of actual experience (he seems not to have even visited any of his scenarios). The film is not very explicit on his influence on Nazism except for one passage where Adolf Hitler, then a young man living in a Vienna flophouse borrows a pair of shoes to go and hear May speak.

I believe that this film can only be appreciated fully by someone who was exposed in his/her youth to May's writing. As Syberberg has said, "Anyone that knows the significance of Karl May for the German people, how every schoolboy grows up with his works, also knows how close we are here to a history of German sentiment, to its adventures of the soul and its myths of the Good Man, the German who fights and conquers for all that is noble."

Syberberg's casting is somewhat perverse; several of his actors had flourishing careers in the cinema of the Third Reich, careers that continued smoothly in the postwar West German cinema. Surely there is a message here.

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