Rest in Peace, Pierre Brice a.k.a. Winnetou

French actor Pierre Brice died today at age 86.

If you grew up in (West) Germany between 1962 and approx. 2001, this news will come as a shock to you, because Pierre Brice in his star role as the noble Apache chief Winnetou was very much part of your childhood. Barbara Moeller’s obituary from Die Welt expresses it perfectly: The hero of our collective childhood is dead.

Winnetou and his white blood brother Old Shatterhand were created in the 1870s by Karl May, one of the most popular German language writers. Karl May’s Wild West adventures starring Winnetou and Old Shatterhand as well as his Middle Eastern adventures starring Kara Ben Nemsi and Hadschi Halef Omar Ben Hadschi Abul Abbas Ibn Hadschi Dawud al Gossarah (I could once recite the whole name without looking it up) were read by generations of young Germans and the classic Karl May editions in their iconic dark green jacket, unchanged since the late 19th century, were a common sight on German bookshelves. Albert Einstein was a fan, as was Adolf Hitler. Too bad he did not take May’s lessons about pacifism and tolerance to heart.

When I was a kid in the 1980s, Karl May was still a childhood reading staple, even though those novels were more than a hundred years old by that point. My then best friend was a hardcore Karl May fan and was planning to marry Winnetou someday. I was not quite that huge a fan, but I still read the novels – in slightly mouldy editions inherited from my Dad, because my Mom had lost her set – and besides, I was going to marry Old Shatterhand. And then we’d live happily ever after in the American West.

By the time I read Karl May’s novels, the face of Winnetou was already irrevocably that of Pierre Brice, the actor who played the character in a series of highly successful film adaptations between 1962 and 1968. The face of Old Shatterhand and Kara Ben Nemsi for that matter (but then, it was always pretty obvious that they were the same person) was irrevocably that of Lex Barker. The Winnetou movies were true blockbusters and later television staples. Der Schatz im Silbersee (The Treasure of the Silver Lake), the first film in the series, was watched by more than 3 million people and grossed a then stunning 6.4 million Deutschmarks. The subsequent movies were similarly successful and when Winnetou died in Old Shatterhand’s arms at the end of Winnetou III in 1965, there was not a dry eye in the movie theatre. Sadly, the death scene is no longer on YouTube, where all of the Winnetou films could be found until fairly recently. Coincidentally, Rik Battaglia, the Italian actor who played Winnetou’s killer, died earlier this year. Supposedly, he never lived that particular role down and kept getting snarls and ugly remarks even decades later.

I belonged to the last generation of German kids for whom Karl May’s novels and their film adaptations were a childhood staple. For soon after I grew up, kids simply stopped reading Karl May and the Winnetou movies were no longer event programming in the vastly expanded TV landscape of the 1990s and beyond.

In retrospect, it’s not difficult to see why Karl May eventually fell out of favour. His novels are massive Victorian tomes, heavy on the description and Christian lecturing and low on the accuracy, since Karl May had never actually visited all the places he wrote about, a fact that was becoming increasingly notable as time went on. What is more, the chronology is an unholy mess. Come to think of it, the books were sometimes tough going even by the time I read them and I totally understand why modern teens wouldn’t want to read them.

The books are problematic in other ways as well. Winnetou is very much a “noble savage” stereotype, while Old Shatterhand is a complete Mary Sue to the point that Old Shatterhand (and Kara Ben Nemsi for that matter) share notable features of Karl May’s own biography such as the fact that they hail from Saxony (which shocked me as a kid, for how could someone as cool as Old Shatterhand possibly be East German) and spent some time in jail, May for fraud and theft and Old Shatterhand, because the cruel world misunderstood him, as he puts it. The novels are very male focussed as well. Women play only minor roles and often get fridged for their troubles. And though the movies expanded the roles of the female characters and cast roles such as Ribanna, Apanatschi, Ellen Patterson and Winnetou’s sister Nscho-tschi with big female stars of the period, the women’s roles were still limited to damsel-in-distress. Their final fate was inevitably either death (Nscho-tschi most notably) or getting married off to someone who was neither Winnetou nor Old Shatterhand (Ribanna and Apanatschi, though the latter at least nabbed a young Götz George). For no woman could ever disturb the sheer and overwhelming slashiness of the Winnetou/Old Shatterhand relationship.

Rewatching the Winnetou movies today, the slashiness is so striking that it’s stunning that 1960s audiences apparently didn’t notice the homoerotic undertones at all. And indeed the currently highest grossing German movie of all time (all time meaning since 1968, since calculations for earlier movies were made differently), Der Schuh des Manitu (The shoe of Manitou) is a Winnetou parody, which is basically Winnetou/Old Shatterhand slash, proving that even in 2001, Winnetou and Old Shatterhand were still iconic enough that a parody of the 1960s movies could break box office records.

The (apparently unintentional) slashiness isn’t the only issue with the 1960s Winnetou movies. For starters, it’s kind of obvious that the Croatian landscape where the movies were shot – though beautiful – bears zero resemblance to the American West. The fact that all Native Americans in the film are played by white actors is another huge issue, though the practice of casting white actors as Native American continues in the Karl May Festivals in Bad Segeberg, Elspe and Radebeul, actual Native Americans being kind of rare in Germany.

Nonetheless, the Winnetou movies still make for surprisingly entertaining viewing on a lazy Saturday night in summer. What is more, early exposure to Winnetou completely ruined Hollywood westerns for me, because after the focus on brotherhood, cooperation and pacifism of the Winnetou stories, the macho antics of US western heroes were hard to take, as was the fact that Native Americans were inevitably villains. I still remember watching a random Hollywood western as a kid and being outraged at the white heroes fighting the Apaches, because to me the Apaches were Winnetou’s tribe and therefore the good guys. Not too mention that the stars of Hollywood westerns were inevitably craggy-faced old men, whereas Pierre Brice and Lex Barker were both strikingly handsome. Coincidentally, I can watch Italian westerns just fine – even though they are more violent and cynical than Hollywood westerns. But then, nobody in an Italian western is under the illusion that they are the good guys and their macho bullshit is usually revealed exactly for what it is. And once again, the actors are a lot more handsome than their US counterparts.

As an adult, it is obvious to me that the “noble savage” stereotype promoted by Winnetou is just as problematic as the “red devil” stereotype pushed by Hollywood westerns. Nonetheless, it is notable that Native Americans have always been viewed positively in Germany, largely due to the lingering influence of Winnetou and his spiritual heirs like Zeerookah, the Native American FBI agent from the long-running German pulp series G-Man Jerry Cotton. When playing “Cowboys and Indians”, every German kid always wanted to be the Indian.

As for Pierre Brice, he never quite lived down the Winnetou role and returned to the part several times, for the last time in 1998 for a TV two-parter entitled Winnetou’s Rückkehr (Winnetou’s Return). He also continued to remain a lot more popular in Germany than in his native France.

Coincidentally, Pierre Brice did make one foray into the science fiction genre in the execrable TV series Star Maidens in 1976, where he plays one of the poor widdle white men who escape the matriarchical tyranny of a planet ruled by women. It’s just as offensive as it sounds, though Pierre Brice was certainly one of the better looking domestic slaves.

So rest in peace, Pierre Brice, hero of my childhood. My you forever ride through those great hunting grounds in the sky side by side with Lex Barker and the rest of the Winnetou cast who has gone before you.

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9 Responses to Rest in Peace, Pierre Brice a.k.a. Winnetou

  1. So this, with all the background. I still have a lot of the books, although my parents co-opted them for their library shelves. Our church library had ALL of them and I read them all. Even the penny dreadful ones ^^.

    • Cora says:

      I think mine are in a box in my parents’ attic at the moment. Though we never had all of them.

      The Karl May penny dreadfuls like Waldröschen are great fun BTW.

      Coincidentally, did you know that May’s first published work was a sex manual, which has been added somewhat belatedly to the collected work edition? I always wonder about the reaction of enthusiastic Karl May fans, when stumbling over that one.

  2. readingsff says:

    I wondered whether you would write an article on Winnetou when I read the news. I was very surprised by my reaction: it really hit me and made me sad.

    It’s interesting that you read the novels. I did not. I tried, though, and was bored out of my mind. I learned to read in 89, so maybe I am too young. I frequently watched the movies on television, owned lots of winnetou cassettes and I even saw Pierre Brice as Winnetou in Bad Segeberg once. Or at least I believe to remember that it was the real Winnetou. My reaction to none Winnetou westerns was just like yours: the indians are the good guys! This is all wrong!

    I tried to read Winnetou I a couple of years ago, but I gave up half way through. There’s so much wrong with that novel. Now, I am anxiously awaiting the time when my kids are old enough to watch the movies.

    • Cora says:

      You’re way ahead of me, because I never got to see Winnetou (any of them) at Bad Segeberg.

      I think the age difference between us (I started primary school in 1979 and read Karl May in the early to mid 1980s) is the point where Karl May faded away from his position as the ubiquitous German language childhood/teen read along with other near ubiquitous childhood reads like Nesthäkchen, Trotzkopf, Pucki, etc… I think the reason is that by the 1990s, YA was really beginning to take off with a lot of high quality YA available, whereas in the 1980s and before, YA was a wasteland of bad problem novels about drugs and poor children in developing countries, which hardly anybody wanted to read, so we instead reached for the Karl May and Nesthäkchen tomes we inherited from our parents, because those were at least entertaining, even if they were hopelessly old-fashioned. By the 1990s, however, you had a lot of high-quality YA, so no German teen had to turn to Victorian or early 20th century lit anymore for their entertainment.

      By comparison, it’s interesting that the films, though also old-fashioned, still hold up so well after 50+ years.

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