Its release on Blu-ray is in some ways a belated victory for the film, whose unsuccessful release in the United States eighty-five years ago was a disappointment to Trenker and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who had hoped the film would find financial success in the American market and pave the way for more German film exports. If American audiences of the time were alienated by the film’s unconventional approach to the Western, by its fusion of American and German generic conventions, viewers today can find much to appreciate in its uniqueness.
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With its Blu-ray release of actor, alpinist, and director Luis Trenker’s The Kaiser of California (Der Kaiser von Kalifornien, 1936), Kino Classics continues to make significant but internationally overlooked works of German cinema available to North American audiences. It is in some ways a belated victory for the film, whose unsuccessful release in the United States eighty-five years ago was a disappointment to Trenker and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who had hoped the film would find financial success in the American market and pave the way for more German film exports. If American audiences of the time were alienated by the film’s unconventional approach to the Western, by its fusion of American and German generic conventions, viewers today can find much to appreciate in its uniqueness.
Shot largely on-site throughout the American West, the film details the real-life story of German-born Swiss adventurer Johann Sutter (played by Trenker), whose revolutionary agitation against Napoleonic foreign rule forces him to flee the Old World for the United States. Once in America, he travels relentlessly westward to the promised land of California, displaying feats of physical prowess typical of the German Bergfilm (“mountain film”) genre as he scales mountain after mountain along the way. Securing a land grant from the Mexican governor of California, Sutter establishes a sprawling agricultural community in the then wilderness near present-day San Francisco. When gold is discovered on his land, however, his burgeoning civilization collapses: his settlement is overrun by prospectors who murder his sons and ultimately burn his estate to the ground. Sutter initiates a lawsuit against the United States in response, but in the film’s final sequence he expires on the steps of the US Capitol before he can reclaim his settlement, broken and dispossessed.
Trenker made his entrée into the cinema in the 1920s, starring in the silent Bergfilme of the genre’s leading auteur, Arnold Fanck. Although all of Trenker’s films are talking pictures, they retain a distinct penchant for the silent cinema: acting is exaggerated and dialogue often sparse, replaced by thrilling action sequences that display a high level of technical and physical prowess. If this style fails in some ways to translate well to sound cinema – at their worst, Kaiser and Trenker’s other films are marked by overwrought and unconvincing acting (most notably by Trenker himself), uninspired dialogue, and largely flat characterization – it also emphasizes some of Trenker’s greatest directorial assets: stunning visuals and virtuoso cinematography. For Kaiser, Trenker worked with his veteran cinematographer Albert Benitz, continuing their art of capturing and superimposing striking images of the natural world with great panache. The film is an exercise in landscape photography worthy of Ansel Adams, interspersing mountain vistas with low-angle shots of dwarfed characters or stunted tree limbs framed against the towering sky. In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, a shaky handheld camera captures the near-physical and mental collapse of Sutter’s party as they wander the desert before an extreme long shot appears to show Sutter being swallowed by a sand dune. When Sutter does eventually collapse, we watch him glide down a mesmerizingly sinuous dune, his body functioning as brush against the abstract sandy canvas.
The fact that Kaiser’s visual artistry failed to win over American audiences in the 1930s might be partially explained by its overall image of the United States. Whereas the film extols the natural beauty of the West, “paradise” as Sutter calls it, this beauty operates as a sort of mirage. Sutter first sees images of America in a vision that comes to him shortly before fleeing Europe. Those images are narrated by “the Stranger,” a visionary figure who describes the world in those images as “beautiful, large, glorious, awe-inspiring, and immeasurably rich.” By the film’s end, however, Sutter has been dispossessed of this promised land and broken by his victimization at the hands of the United States. The visionary prophet turns out to have been a devil in disguise, luring Sutter away from his homeland toward his ultimate doom in America.
In its repurposing of the Western genre to criticize its American homeland, Kaiser operates as a sort of Heimatfilm (“homeland film”), a beloved German film genre that was exceptionally popular during the Nazi era. These films idealized the German homeland, depicting sentimental portraits of rural, often mountainous German towns and their cherished Volk. Inwardly turned to the point of provincialism and xenophobia, the Heimatfilm finds its photographic negative in Trenker’s work. Like the previous film Trenker shot in the United States, The Prodigal Son (Der verlorene Sohn, 1934), in which the protagonist leaves Germany for America only to return having learned home’s true value, Kaiser indirectly warns of the dangers migration and cultural otherness pose to faithful “sons” and daughters of Germany. In both films, America functions as a site where greed and capitalism have run riot, where chilly individualism and self-interest, rather than the joy of Völkisch community, prevail.
Trenker based Kaiser on a French novel by Blaise Cendrars, Gold: Being the Marvelous History of General John Augustus Sutter (L’or: la merveilleuse histoire du General Johann August Sutter, 1925), and the film’s nationalist energies can be seen in the way Trenker adapted this material. The film elides any mention of its French source material, instead citing historical “records” (Aufzeichnungen) in its opening sequence. The omission is perhaps not surprising given that Trenker has been accused of selling forged copies of Eva Braun’s diaries after World War II, plagiarizing multiple works in the making of his films, and not authoring many of the books attributed to him. In erasing the film’s debt to French culture, however, Trenker not only commits a personal act of plagiarism but also buttresses right-wing nationalism, particularly given German right-wing antipathy toward all things French at the time. Continuing in this vein, Trenker’s adaptation turns Sutter into a model German: it replaces his Americanized name in the novel, “John,” with the original German “Johann,” and it omits the many negative sides of his personality. Cendrars’s Sutter is a “vagabond, thief, and swindler” who “deserts” his wife and four children when he must flee arrest for unpaid debts. While Sutter redeems himself through his exploits in America and turns increasingly virtuous, once his settlement is overrun by prospectors he passes up promising opportunities to remake himself and instead descends into self-pity, becoming “withdrawn, distrustful, sly, avaricious . . . full of scruples.” By the novel’s end, he has joined a German religious cult in Pennsylvania run by a fraudster who deceives him into handing over his remaining fortune in legal fees. By contrast, Trenker’s Sutter is virtuous from the beginning, fleeing Europe because he faces arrest for agitating against French rule in German Switzerland. Ever honest and respectable, Sutter loves his family and strives vigorously to right the injustice committed against him, rather than falling victim to inward-looking inertia and mental decline.
Ultimately, the Sutter of Kaiser reflects a particularly National Socialist vision of German nationhood. In L’or, Sutter is a stout republican, naming his settlement New Helvetia because he “is a Swiss and a republican,” secretly helping the republican United States wrest control of California from Mexico, and presiding over a settlement where the revolutionary Marche de Berne and Marseillaise are proudly played. Nothing of Sutter’s republican credentials, however, make it into Trenker’s film. More Führer than republican, Sutter is a visionary leader who, up until his downfall at the hands of greedy Americans, provides his ever-devoted followers with “work, bread, happiness, and a new Heimat.” Just as Hitler became the supreme leader of Germany – collapsing political and military rule into his singular person – Sutter is appointed both a US senator (unlike in the novel) and no less than “General of the United States Army.” Armed guards stand watch outside his estate much like Hitler’s bodyguards. When he is under attack by prospectors, one of his closest followers, Ermatinger, jumps out in front of him to ward off a fatal blow, ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of his beloved leader. The film also reproduces the visual iconography of the Nazis: as in Triumph of the Will and other Nazi propaganda footage, Sutter frequently is depicted, like Hitler, through low-angle shots that capture him towering over his adoring followers, even going so far as to raise his hand in the characteristic Hitler salute when he is paraded through adoring crowds late in the film. In another scene, Sutter mimics Hitler’s body language as he barks angrily at creditors who want him to sell his farm, defiantly placing his hands on his hips and gesticulating wildly while refusing to pay his debts: an echo of Hitler’s own refusal to pay reparations mandated by the Treaty of Versailles.
Far from a downtrodden immigrant seeking refuge on America’s shores, Sutter is a Hitlerian militant with a zeal for global conquest. In crowning him a “Kaiser” (or “emperor”), the film evokes the violent legacy of imperial Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II, who presided for decades over Germany’s colonial empire. Labeled a “colonizer” (Kolonisator) by the film’s opening title cards, Sutter travels to America to “conquer,” “claim his place,” “serve [his] Volk, and fight everywhere,” as the visionary prophet instructs him. Similarly, his journey is repeatedly punctuated by a German march in which a chorus of men martially declare “the world is wide and waiting for us . . . forward and never backward . . . happiness is worth fighting for.” When Sutter meets with the Mexican governor to request a land grant, he proudly proclaims that “goals can never be big enough” and that he will begin his settlement “just like God when he created the world, totally from the beginning,” echoing Hitler’s own boundless megalomania.
Sutter’s motivating interest of acquiring farmland is particularly significant, as it was precisely the need for fertile land that undergirded much of the Nazis’ territorial ambitions. The Nazis’ promotion of Lebensraum (“living space”), an ideology that stated that Germany needed to expand eastward to acquire sufficient farmland for its people, finds expression when Sutter tells the Mexican governor, “I could have a vegetable patch at home, but I traveled 8,000 miles. We need land, land!” Indeed, Sutter views California primarily through an agricultural lens: it is a paradise where “the corn ripens three times a year” and the “earth is like bread.” Sutter’s valorization of farming above all else – even above gold – echoes the Nazis’ Blut und Boden (“blood and soil”) idealization of rural agriculture. “Gold won’t get us bread from this soil,” he declares when gold is found on his settlement, “work is more important than gold.” Unlike in Cendrars’s novel, in which Sutter attempts to prospect on his land, in Trenker’s film the only “gold” (as Sutter puts it) he is interested in is the grain he grows.
Further aligning Kaiser with National Socialist ideology is Sutter’s reaction to the loss of his lands. His relentless sense of aggrievement and ironclad demands for their immediate return echo Nazi Germany’s own grievance over territorial loss in World War I. Whereas Germany initially made large territorial gains in Eastern Europe during the war, formalized by the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Treaty of Versailles reversed those concessions and further reduced Germany’s territory by 13 percent, surrendering German land to neighbors like France and Poland as well as stripping Germany of its colonial possessions. Grievance over Versailles also finds echo in Sutter’s agitation against French rule at the start of the film, a thematic continuation of Trenker’s film The Rebel (Der Rebell, 1932), in which a German-speaking rebel revolts against French foreign rule. Similarly, the revolutionary quote that Sutter prints in defiance of the French at the beginning of the film is taken from Ernst Moritz Arndt, an ardently militaristic nationalist who fought against Napoleonic control over Germany and whose anti-French propaganda (not to mention his anti-Semitism and hatred of Slavic peoples) was championed by the Nazis. In this respect, Kaiser represents a continuation of a rightward turn in Trenker’s work that is evident from The Rebel (made when the Nazis were already in second place nationally) onward, in contrast to the neutral and pacifistic impulses of his earlier films like Son of the White Mountain (Der Sohn der weißen Berge, 1930) and Mountains on Fire (Berge in Flammen, 1931).
Despite Kaiser’s rhetoric of conquest and violence, Sutter is a curiously nonviolent colonizer. Apart from his attempt to defend himself when his estate is overrun, the only time he uses his weapon is when he fires a shot in the desert in the hopes that it will alert others to his presence. Unlike traditional American Westerns, in which gunslingers routinely battle “savage” Native Americans, the only characters who attack Native Americans are a group of malicious thieves that also rob Sutter’s party. Native Americans later come to Sutter’s rescue, befriending his party and even sharing a peace pipe with them against the backdrop of a teepee bearing a swastika (a motif conveniently common to many Native Americans and the Nazis). Sutter repeatedly expresses admiration for Native Americans, declaring them “tough” and vowing to “make friends” with any he encounters. This is in sharp contrast to Cendrars’s novel, in which Sutter is constantly at war with “savage and menacing,” cannibalistic Native Americans who “infest” America and are, according to Sutter’s interpretation, the true beasts and devils alluded to in the Book of Revelation.
On its face an image of German cultural tolerance, Sutter’s treatment of Native Americans in Trenker’s film effectively sanitizes the true legacy of German colonial violence for international audiences. Unlike Sutter, actual German colonists unleashed brutal violence and terror against indigenous populations, most notoriously in their genocide of the Herero and Nama people in German Southwest Africa shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. Given that Germany’s colonial misdeeds were cited as justification for stripping Germany of its colonies after World War I, Trenker’s efforts to rehabilitate Germany’s colonial image extend the film’s polemic against Versailles. Those efforts would be made even more explicit in a subsequent film starring Trenker and directed by Goebbels’s brother-in-law Max Kimmich, Germanin (1942), in which Trenker and his benevolent fellow colonists discover a cure for African sleeping sickness but must fight British obstructionism in order to bring their cure to the native population.
Less explicitly propagandistic than Germanin, Kaiser nevertheless remains a work suffused with Nazi ideology and self-promotion. We can appreciate its cinematographic flair, its technical virtuosity, and its original fusing of American and German genres, but its lure of cross-cultural openness remains, much like Sutter’s vision, merely a mirage.
The Murnau Foundation’s restoration of Kaiser is of generally high quality, with mostly crisp images, somewhat pronounced but evenly distributed grain and sharp contrast. Some shots contain weak detail and flicker damage, and the audio could occasionally be clearer, particularly during the opening song. The audio commentary by film historian Eddy Von Mueller is excellent, providing a thorough look into the film’s production, its cultural and historical contexts, as well as its reception history. Kino Classics’ ongoing effort to make overlooked moments from German film history more widely available is yet again to be commended.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the Blu-ray.