Winnetou Revisited

Five years ago, I blogged about Winnetou as a different kind of heritage [1]. Being fully aware of the terrible cultural appropriation and stereotypes of the books and the just plain awful representations of American Indians by white actors in black wigs of the 1960s films, I ended my blog post wondering whether I would ever be able to let go of this part of my German heritage.

Discussions in Germany over the past two weeks about a new Winnetou story have made me revisit that post and think more about my position on Winnetou as (my) German heritage today [2].

First off, I actually wondered in my previous post on Winnetou whether having a significant number of American Indians living in Germany would change my views on Karl May and the 1960s films. This needs clarification: of course the presence or absence of the community being misrepresented changes nothing about the nature of the heritage. It is based on cultural appropriation and racial stereotypes, period.

What I was trying to get at is whether my sense of shame would increase to such levels that it would stop me from cherishing it in the first place. In other words, how would being in a shared space change my sense of this Winnetou heritage?

This points to two things: first, that heritage and culture are a process through which both can evolve and change; and second, that in shared spaces something collaborative can and should happen to facilitate that process.

Five years ago I didn’t make too much of the 2016 remake of the films and their claim that ‘Every generation has its Winnetou’. I have since been part of several projects on the Third Space, and I’ve become more interested in diversity as an organising principle of our societies. And with that learning, my view on the remake of the films has changed too. Today, I’m absolutely certain that no, not every generation needs its Winnetou, at least not in the way that we know him.

Winnetou was an ill-informed, albeit probably well-intentioned (which doesn’t change anything) misrepresentation and appropriation of American Indian culture by a 19th century writer. We might have known better in the 1960s, but apparently we didn’t, thus making films that continued the stereotyping, while also creating something distinctly European and German. The films, and by extension the books, have become part of our childhood memories, interwoven with other aspects of our identities and personal relationships. That is the German Winnetou heritage. Put differently: Winnetou is made of the past.

And in the past he must remain. Yes, as I wrote in 2017, as a German story the 2016 remake couldn’t have been made with a Native American actor. But that is also the very reason why it shouldn’t have been made at all. There is no justification to repeat stereotypes in the way that was done then and is being done now in the current movie ‘Young Chieftain Winnetou’.  

In a space shared with American Indians, perhaps the original Karl May story could be expanded, improved, cleansed of its misrepresentations. Perhaps co-created with an American Indian writer it could be brought into our age, informed by what we now understand, acknowledging colonial histories and truths. Perhaps in that way, a new Winnetou story might emerge, one that inspires both audiences in Germany, if not beyond. A story that becomes new heritage for a new generation.

Or not. Maybe in a shared space, we would come to realise that there is no saving Winnetou from his colonial origins. If I feel too ashamed to watch a Winnetou film with an American Indian friend or colleague, then maybe, for that same reason, over time I will also no longer want to watch that film myself. Heritage changes.

What will remain is a memory. Not of Winnetou, but of watching it with my mother, knowing how much she loved the stories and Pierre Brice as a young girl herself.


[1] Winnetou, you may remember, is the creation of Karl May, a 19th century writer from Saxony who’d never been to the United States at the time of writing his Winnetou books In the 60s, his stories were adapted into vastly popular movies, starring a French actor in the role of Winnetou. The title theme of the movies is iconic.

[2] In August, an entirely new story based on Karl May’s Winnetou theme was released, in a film titled ‘Young chieftain Winnetou’ along with accompanying print merchandise aimed at a children’s market. The books were recalled after a backlash decrying their cultural stereotypes, but the film is still in cinemas around the country. I’ve not seen the film nor will I, but the trailer is enough to give you a good idea of its reproduction of stereotypes. And apparently there is one scene in which the white child asks young Winnetou whether American Indians sweat. And this is just noting the racist undertones, never mind the constructions of masculinity (‘Indians do not feel pain.’).

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