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Winnetou, Old Shatterhand, And Karl May

A scene from "Schatz im Silbersee" with Pierre Brice (left) as Apache chief Winnetou and Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand
A scene from "Schatz im Silbersee" with Pierre Brice (left) as Apache chief Winnetou and Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand
March 30 marks 100 years since the death of German writer Karl May, whose popular novels about an American West (and other exotic locales) he only visited much later in life entertained many in Germany, Central Europe, and beyond.

May (February 25, 1842 -- March 30, 1912) was born to a poor family in Ernstthal, in the eastern German region of Saxony. For the first 30-odd years of his life, May was in and out of jail, even fleeing to Bohemia at one point. But in 1874 he returned home and put his hand to writing.

Publishing in a number of different periodicals -- and under multiple pseudonyms to make more from the same stories -- May began in the 1880s to really find fame with stories such as "Der Sohn des Baerenjaegers" (Sons of the Bear Hunter) and "Der Schatz im Silbersee" (The Treasure of Silver Lake). His books were admired by German-speakers as diverse as Albert Einstein and Adolf Hitler.

But even as he became successful as a writer, it appears he seemed to lose his grip on reality and began to claim that he himself had lived the adventures he had written for characters like Old Shatterhand and Kara Ben Nemsi.

Finally able to travel to the sites of his fantasies, and this changed his writing, as well. He left adventure stories behind and began to pen allegorical novels with a more religious and pacifistic bent. He died on March 30, 1912, and is buried with his wife, Klara, in Radebeul, outside Dresden, Germany.

By 1920, the first of dozens of films based on May's works was made. Then in 1960, capitalizing on a growing demand for home-grown German films, Rialto Films produced the series of films that would gain cult status across Europe. Shot in Europe (Yugoslavia, mostly) and featuring hit soundtracks, the films were the precursors for the Italian-produced "spaghetti westerns" of Sergio Leone and others that would become a worldwide sensation.

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