Old Shatterhand in Chinatown: German friends revisit their childhoods on a rooftop under the stars

Old Shatterhand strides across the American West a stranger to my cinematic history. He is white but does not speak English, he is a leader of pioneer charges – one who sees beyond questions of competing rights among peoples to the possibility for justice and shared responsibility and opportunity for all. Old Shatterhand is a blood brother to Apache Chief Winnetou, and together they fight banditry in all its forms, and Shatterhand inspires legions of his contemporaries back home in Germany to become real pioneers in the comparatively free land of the West. He really did these things over the last century, and in a way he still does. I am a witness!

Karl May’s romantic Western-themed novels have been informing German culture since the turn of the last century, and the series of films based on them have been a part of German life since 1962. The Germans’ fascination with and their belief in these exhilarating stories goes much deeper, I think, than any similar US film does in this country. I witnessed this devotion last night, when on a roof terrace in Chinatown I watched as a little Swabian boy called Alex appeared in the form of grown-up and married Alexander Wolff and he (both of them) curled up in blankets with Alexander’s wife, Allie, and, along with a brilliant and significant portion of LA’s Deutsch contingent, watched Part 1 and later Part 2 from the film series. I have not seen adult faces glow so sweetly in forever. It felt not so much sentimental as essential – but nostalgia was present, too – and each person seemed connected as though to a source of memory and of identity, and also they were connected as individuals to each other. In that moment I was a believer surrounded by souls fearlessly exposed.

The evening was a nice combination of childhood memories, a shared  experience that invited strangers to join, an idiosyncratic critique of cultural norms and a beautiful and thrilling movie. A film that is very difficult to find in this country and that our presenter, Alexander Wolff, has wanted to screen here for some time. If this doesn’t make art, then I don’t know what does.

Alex tacked low on an outside wall an impromptu screen, made from one of his large drop cloth paintings as yet unpainted, and we sat on scattered milk crates and fluffy blankets and drank red wine and ate popcorn (of the white cheddar variety). “Oh! It’s not salty!” Alex observed to Allie, “Yes it is. It’s in the cheese.” she assured him.

Alexander pointed out to me these movies’ use of epic, rather than anecdotal storytelling, and he’s right. Shatterhand and Winnetou are certainly heroes, but rather than having personal struggles and character development the two exist to serve the needs of larger groups. As Chief, and as a leader among that class, Winnetou cannot pursue his own desires. A hoped for marriage is put aside when his bride-to-be is wed to a US soldier in an effort to bring unity to the competing peoples. And Shatterhand remains a cypher outside his singular activities of resolving wars and fighting on the behalf of out-gunned Natives who had preceded our law and were denied it as retribution for their precedence.

Visually the films drive home this communitarian impulse, too. A shot of railroad workers in near unison dropping their tools and turning from their shared task to move, like an athletic wave of hardened and sweaty men toward the chuck wagon becomes a balletic scene that looked to me the way I felt reading in Tolstoy of troops sweeping across Europe, and the scene illustrated the power of a community over circumstances. Nowhere was the individual highlighted. Another beautiful moment came at a crisis when tribes people – women and children – took refuge in a cave and were trapped by bandits. Through a narrow, hidden passage warriors dressed in beautiful suede suits of clothing entered single file and one by one silently dove into an underground lake, barely breaking the surface with a ripple. They reminded me of pictures I have seen from the caves at Lascaux, where a row of deer appear to fly across the cavern wall to disappear into a defile.

To complete this sequence, the aforementioned evil oil thief Forrester was tricked into an underground box canyon, Panicked, he scanned the crowd of arrows facing him then glanced up to the cavern’s roof at a tempting but out of reach escape hole that showed blue sky. Suddenly a rope ladder descended through the hole, and he climbed. Reaching his goal, he crawled through, tossed back the ladder defiantly and turned and began his climb down the mountain. Warriors appeared, and slowly, shot by shot, Forrester was pierced with many arrows, and was forced to continue to live long enough to squeal with each strike as he slid down the hillside looking for all the world like Saint Sebastian in some Medieval illustration.

No irony, no cynicism, just beauty.

American films do similar things with allegory, but they tend to stress the individual within a group of pioneers or range cowboys. An American hero is brave, silent, driven, often he has been betrayed by his fellows, or is seeking revenge for some mysterious past wrong. Again, the individual takes priority in American tales. And Natives in most US films were presented as caricatures. I suppose the moral dilemma we felt and feel must be present in the creative act and either guilt or anger has guided our stories. For the Germans who came here to settle, the “Indians” were no more other than the English speaking population and, at least in books and films, the division stressed was between good and bad acts, and good acts necessarily benefited a community as well as any single individual.

While charmingly corny and having a wacky sense of historical correctness the films do present the Natives in their own language. As a sort of grace note the languages they speak are subtitled with transliterations of the language, instead of being in English, which is the case for all the dialogue in German. The given names, too, sound real – or at least they make an attempt to copy the sounds of Native Americans. No one is called Tonto.

Like much of the fictive boosterism that brought people to Los Angeles, these novels by May lured many of the millions of Germans who came here and the films also seem to have given to all Germans a comfortable place to reserve… suspension of disbelief I suppose is the thing. I guess we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear and they last best when the fictions continue to reassure our myths.

After Part 1 we retired to the gallery for a while and talked about art and stuff and we finished the wine. People left in ones and twos as the clock moved farther past midnight. Rejoining a small group still outside, now listening to music, Alex (or Alexander) implored us, “Can we watch Part 2? Will you watch it Geoff?” There was a general flight and declarations of “Good-bye Alexander, we really must go,” as Allie, Alexander and I settled down in the early morning to watch.



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