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Wild West Germany

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The northern German town of Bad Segeberg is renowned for two things: a vast cave visited each winter by twenty-two thousand bats, and an annual Karl May Festival visited each summer by three hundred thousand people. Karl May (pronounced “my”) is an adventure writer from the late nineteenth century whom most Americans have never heard of but whose stories of the American West are to this day better known to Germans than the works of Thomas Mann. His books have sold more than a hundred million copies. Though May never visited the American West, he told everyone that he had, and he wore a necklace of bear teeth, as if in proof. All his life, he was a confabulator, even when it was of no benefit to him.

May’s most beloved characters are a noble Apache leader named Winnetou and his blood brother, Old Shatterhand, a German immigrant to the United States. The good friends feature in fifteen of May’s eighty-odd works and are central in a series of films from the nineteen-sixties which were so successful that they are said, with only some exaggeration, to have saved the West German film industry. Most Germans can hum the theme music. In 2002, in a copyright case before the German Federal High Court, it was held that Winnetou was no longer a mere character in a novel; he had become “the name for a certain human type, that of the noble Indian chief.”

In the summer, you can ride a diesel “steam” train from Bad Segeberg’s central square to the Karl May Festspiele grounds, which are up near the Kalkberg, the steep hill that was once home to the town’s castle. There are faux log cabins labelled Pony Express, Sheriff’s Office, Barber Shop, Saloon. One sign reads, in English, “Cold Drinks, Hot Food, and Pretty Girls.” You can buy a buffalo burger,
hang out in a tepee, and watch children play at panning for gold. Antique handcuffs and at least five kinds of toy gun are for sale, as are tomahawks, feathered headdresses, and all of Karl May’s novels and stories, most of which are available in at least seven editions, including green-covered volumes from the century-old Karl May Verlag-a press that prints only books by and about Karl May.

In a vast outdoor amphitheatre atop the bat cave, seven times a week, one finds the festival’s central attraction: the staging of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand stories. In addition to handsome and often bare-chested actors, the spectaculars feature live horses, live chickens, gunfights, flaming-spear fights, and tumbling from roofs. There are thousands of children in the audience, many in face paint and feathers– most come as Indians, though a small number dress up as cowboys– and many with parents and grandparents who attended as children. Not to have fun at the festival-a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk of sorts, with all five senses attended to-would require a real dedication to joylessness.