Sunday, February 11, 2024

The Treasure of the Silver Lake (1962)

Karl May became a pop culture phenomenon in Germany in the late 19th century and is best remembered for his westerns. When he started writing westerns May had never set foot in North America. His books deal not with the Wild West of reality or even with the Wild West of the American imagination, but with the Wild West of the German imagination. I think that’s cool and interesting.

I also like the fact that The Treasure of the Silver Lake (Der Schatz im Silbersee), the first movie in Rialto’s very successful 1960s Karl May film franchise, was made by a German director, written by a German screenwriter and shot on location in what is now Croatia. This is a western with practically no American connection whatsoever. So again it’s the Wild West of the German imagination.

Karl May’s westerns deal most famously with the friendship between a German immigrant trapper known as Old Shatterhand and an Apache chief, Winnetou.

I’ve only read one of Karl May’s westerns and I have to say it was heavy going. The Treasure of the Silver Lake is much much better. It’s much less stodgy. In fact it isn’t really stodgy at all.

The Old Shatterhand of the novels is a very devout Christian and that aspect gets a lot of emphasis. The film makes no mention at all of religion. The film also dispenses with the slight mystical overtones of the books.

The movie begins with a gang of bandits holding up a stagecoach. The gang is led by a man known as the Colonel and he’s played by Herbert Lom. Herbert Lom as the chief villain is a promising start. The bandits don’t appear to have stolen anything but they did kill a man named Engel. Their reasons for staging the holdup become clear later - the Colonel wanted a map in Engel’s possession. It’s actually half of a map. The map shows the location of the famous fabulous treasure hidden somewhere in the vicinity of the Silver Lake.

Engel’s son Fred (Götz George) wants to avenge his father’s death single-handedly. Old Shatterhand, famous for his wisdom and honesty and courage, persuades him that he will need help. Old Shatterhand will provide that help.

Fred, Old Shatterhand, Old Shatterhand’s blood brother Winnetou (Pierre Brice) and a few trusted friends set off to hunt down the Colonel’s gang.

The Colonel is now after the other half of the map, in the possession of a man named Patterson and hidden at Butler’s Farm. He will stop at nothing to obtain it. For no particular reason he slaughters an entire village of Utes. The Utes blame Old Shatterhand, so now Old Shatterhand and his friends are the hunted as well as the hunters.

Lots of action follows including some full-scale battle scenes, among which are an all-out assault by about a hundred of the Colonel’s bandits on the heavily fortified Butler’s Farm. Our heroes encounter other hazards, they are put on trial by the chief of the Ute people, there are more battles. The Colonel holds Patterson’s beautiful daughter Ellen (Karin Dor) hostage, which upsets Fred since Ellen is his lady love. There are narrow escapes from danger.

It becomes a race to find the treasure.

This movie does not have the feel of a Hollywood western, nor does it feel like a spaghetti western. It’s a genre on its own (I have heard the term sauerkraut western used). To me it feels more like an old-fashioned adventure movie than a western. It’s closer in feel to movies like King Solomon’s Mines than to a conventional western.

Lex Barker is reasonably good as Old Shatterhand. Casting Herbert Lom as an outlaw gang leader in a western was nothing if not interesting. Karin Dor is very good, as she usually was. I liked Götz George as the brave well-meaning but over-impulsive Fred.

Eddi Arent provides comic relief as a pith-helmeted big game hunter. The game he is hunting is - butterflies!

This is a very impressive movie visually. If the objective was to prove that a German studio could match Hollywood when it came to spectacle then that objective was certainly achieved.

A fairly entertaining adventure saga. Recommended.

The German Tobis DVD (part of a Karl May boxed set) provides a superb anamorphic transfer. Options are provided to watch The Treasure of the Silver Lake in English or in German with English subtitles.

I’ve reviewed the first of Karl May’s Winnetou novels, Winnetou I.


  1. These are great movies, if you're not expecting realism - this and the second one, Winnetou (actually a prequel) are probably the best.

    They do look amazing. Gotz George crops up in a couple more, and he's always watchable (he didn't do any krimis, but one of his films is included in Rialto's krimi collection on DVD, for some reason).

    I've not seen them, as they don't have English subs, but the studio also made a few other films based on Karl May's books, set in Central America, a couple with Barker

    1. Those Central American films sound like fun, Pty they're not available in English-friendly editions. It seems that May wrote a lot of books!

    2. I found a couple on Youtube, with Romanian subtitles. I didn't know this before, but YT now has a function that automatically translates pre-existing subtitles into lots of other languages. The videos are low quality, but I'll watch them anyway!

  2. I can put up with low quality if it's an interesting hard-to-find movie. The subtitling translating sounds worth checking out.

    1. The problem was, the original subtitles were pretty poor (I guess AI), although there was enough to follow the plot.

      I watched 'Mercenaries of the Rio Grande' and 'Pyramid of the Sun God', which is actually one 3-hour film split into two parts - it's largely the same plot as Treasure of Silver Lake, but with Mexicans and melodrama. The Aztecs are basically like the Winnetou Indians, although there's a great pyramid set, complete with torture chamber!

      They were made by CCC, rather than Rialto - Rialto made films that were often OTT and tongue in cheek, whereas CCC made serious films, with great cinematography, and with one or two comic relief characters.

      Technically well-made, directed by Robert Siodmak, but badly paced at times - has a great villain (who gets more close-ups and screen time than Barker in the 2nd film). Also, if you watch it on a small TV or monitor screen from a few feet away, the picture quality is perfectly fine.

      Glad I watched it, but not as good as Treasure of Silver Lake or the other early Winnetou movies. It does look good, though, at times.