May 24, 2011

Germans plan Winnetou movie

I've discussed Karl May's Winnetou before. For those who don't know the story, here it is:

WinnetouWinnetou is a fictional Native American hero of several novels written by Karl May (1842-1912, with about 200 million copies worldwide one of the best selling German writers of all time) in German, including the sequels Winnetou I through Winnetou IV.

According to Karl May's story, first-person narrator Old Shatterhand encounters Winnetou and after initial dramatic events, a true friendship between Old Shatterhand and the Apache Winnetou arises; on many occasions they give proof of great fighting skill but also of compassion for other human beings. It portrays a belief in an innate "goodness" of mankind, albeit constantly threatened by ill-intentioned enemies.

Karl May's "Winnetou" novels symbolize, to some extent, a romantic desire for a simpler life in close contact with nature. In fact, the popularity of the series is due in large part to the ability of the stories to tantalize fantasies many Europeans had and have for this more untamed environment.

May's heroes drew on archetypes of Germanic culture and had little to do with actual Native American cultures. "Winnetou is noble because he combines the highest aspects of otherwise 'decadent' Indian cultures with the natural adoption of the romantic and Christian traits of Karl May's own vision of German civilization. As he is dying, the Apache Winnetou asks some settlers to sing an Ave Maria for him, and his death is sanctified by his quiet conversion to Christianity."
The Germans made a series of Winnetou movies in the 1960s. Recently, a couple of production companies have proposed doing a new Winnetou film. This time, one hopes they'd try harder to make the movies authentic. For instance, to use Native actors rather than white Europeans in wigs.

The latest Winnetou approach

Last week, the second of these groups posted their plans on the NativeCelebs page in Facebook. They noted the changes in the industry's portrayal of Indians:We build on the original Karl May stories of 1890 and carry on where he left off. Reflecting his basic message, that the Indigenous Indian culture was based on sustainability, an advanced concept and one that is more important than ever in our current times. Through films like "Dances with Wolves" the industry developed a new era of "Cowboys and Indians" films. Far removed from the image of primitive, murderous savages, they showed a cultured race who understand nature and it's [sic] need for sustainability.A couple of bright red flags here. One, talking as if Indians were all members of a single race and culture. Two, talking as if they all respected nature and practiced sustainability equally. Three, projecting these values onto the Apache, one of the more warlike Native cultures.

Needless to say, none of this talk of nature or sustainability was in the 1890 novels. Not in the first one I read, anyway. Unless it's injected into the movie with subtlety and care, it'll stand out like a sore thumb.

The group also talked a bit about how they plan to evolve Old Shatterhand's character. Shatterhandtakes on the Apache's spiritual values, understands true friendship and discovers his inner self.As far as I recall, no one had any "spiritual values" in the first book. So they're talking about imposing a modern, almost New Age sensibility on a series of old-fashioned potboilers full of mistakes and stereotypes.

Can they do it, especially when they think all Indians belong to one touchy-feely culture? I have my doubts, but we'll see.

For more on the subject, see The German Obsession with Winnetou.

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