What does the fate of one individual matter when one is dealing with the vast and lofty issues of the whole of humanity?
Filmmaker Helmut Käutner gives a bone-deep performance as Karl May, the nineteenth-century German author of cowboy stories and exotic adventures, whose extreme popularity came under attack by his insistence on their basis in actual experience, his alleged immorality, and his long-ago imprisonment for theft. May, defending himself against slander, became embroiled in an exhausting series of lawsuits.
Brilliantly written and directed by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Karl May opens with a flourish of artifice: a miniature village poured upon by fake snow; it is an “exterior” moment in a work whose subsequent interiority we must intuit from a series of domestic and public vignettes. Syberberg investigates the tension between the public and private May, who anticipating the modern era applied imagination to make of himself a work of fiction—life as an extension of art.
The film’s second part, “The soul is a vast land into which we all flee,” presides over the disintegration of May’s marriage into a minutely contentious divorce, during which accusations of homosexuality and lesbianism are inflicted. At his final trial May is branded a compulsive liar and criminal, but much more than this draws parallels between him and Adolf Hitler, who himself was inspired by the heroic mold of May’s writings. Syberberg exonerates May, branding Hitler (who appears in a flashforward) as the one who is responsible for Hitler, noting that no artist can bring up anything in any individual that isn’t already there. Here, Syberberg also takes aim at the masses who anointed Hitler their “hero.”
The woman who loves May tells him, “You were at the limits of human endurance . . . in the Rocky Mountains.”
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