Academic journal article Post Script

Nazis on the Ranch? Revisiting the Popular German Western der Kaiser Von Kalifornien (1936) and the International Aspirations of Third Reich Cinema

Academic journal article Post Script

Nazis on the Ranch? Revisiting the Popular German Western der Kaiser Von Kalifornien (1936) and the International Aspirations of Third Reich Cinema

Article excerpt

Der Kaiser von Kalifornien (The Emperor of California) is an excellent example of the ambivalent relationship between the German film industry under Nazi rule and Hollywood.1 It was written, directed and co-produced by Luis Trenker, the enfant terrible of 1930s German cinema. Released in Germany on 21 July 1936 and exported to various countries including the U.S. and Britain, the film shows how Third Reich cinema reacted to the dominant American cinema in a fashion that was both oppositional and pragmatic, seeing Hollywood as a threat as well as a suitable blueprint for its own industry, Like few other German productions of the time, Der Kaiser von Kalifornien was regarded a serious attempt to break into lucrative overseas markets.

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This often-overlooked film is based on an actual historic figure, telling the story of America's western frontier and the California Gold Rush of 1848/49 through the life of the German-Swiss immigrant Johann August Suter (played by Trenker himself). As a major Third Reich feature film, Der Kaiser yon Kalifornien draws on historical events to show the fallacy of the American dream by overemphasizing its transformation into a lawless plutocracy and in turn proposing an anti-modernist volkstumlich (here: folkloristic) German identity. Still, Trenker's film--which was re-issued on DVD in 2005--is not only worthy of close critical attention because of its revisionist anti-capitalist rhetoric but also because of its extraordinary production history. Almost entirely produced by German-speaking personnel and filmed in Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas, Washington D.C., Southern Germany and Italy, Der Kaiser von Kalifornien was the first Western made by a German production company during the Nazi era. It also constitutes one of the first major European films of the genre long before Harald Reinl's post-war Karl May adaptations, the East German Indianerfilme or the Italo-Westerns of the 1960s and 70s.

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Rather than previous readings of the film, which have predominantly focused on the question of whether Trenker's Western should be seen in terms of fascist propaganda or escapist entertainment (see Daviau; Horak), this essay follows Karsten Witte ("Film im Nationalsozialismus") and Sabine Hake in proposing a more dynamic scenario for the study of the popular cinema of the Third Reich; one that includes but goes beyond the questions of ideology. In concentrating on the complex and sometimes contradictory production and reception contexts, this essay seeks to reveal how Der Kaiser yon Kalifornien aimed at appropriating the most American of all genres for its own means. It makes the case that the film self-consciously synthesized the stylistic traditions of Weimar cinema, a spectacle-based dramaturgy, a fully developed star system, classical Hollywood narratives, established generic conventions, and modern marketing practices to further its own international ambitions. The plan to challenge Hollywood's hegemony by adapting Suter's life for the cinema screen, moreover, met with the fierce opposition by Universal Pictures who were simultaneously working on a Western based on the same source material. As such, Der Kaiser yon Kalifornien is not only relevant for those interested in the complex phenomenon of Third Reich cinema but also to study the impact of American popular culture in Europe and 1930s cross-national cinematic relations.

RETELLING THE STORY OF THE WEST FROM A GERMAN PERSPECTIVE

Combining common traits of the biopic and the classic Western, Der Kaiser yon Kalifornien revolves around the life of the "founding father" of California, Johann August Surer (spelt Sutter in some works). Set in the 19th century Germany, the opening sequences show how the typesetter Suter is subject to political persecution and faces financial difficulties. Considering suicide, he has a vision in which a stranger convinces him of a better future in America. …

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