(The Emperor of California)
Directed by: Luis Trenker
Produced by: Luis Trenker
Written by: Luis Trenker
Music by: Giuseppe Becce
Cinematography: Albert Benitz
Heinz von Jaworsky
Edited by: Willy Zeyn
Release dates: 1936
Running time: 97 minutes
Luis Trenker: Johann August Sutter
Viktoria von Ballasko: Anna, his wife
Werner Kunig: Rudolf – their son
Karli Zwingmann: Emil – their son
Elise Aulinger: Frau Dübol – Anna’s mother
Bernhard Minetti: The stranger
Hans Zesch-Ballot: Governor Alvaredo
Marcella Albani: His wife
Walter Franck: Castro – his aide
Reinhold Pasch: Marshall (as Reginald Pasch)
August Eichhorn: Harper
Luis Gerold: Ermatinger
Paul Verhoeven: Bartender Billy
Melanie Horeschowsky: Amalie – Sutter’s Sister (as Melanie Horeschovsky)
Berta Drews: Chansonette
The Kaiser of California, better known as “The Emperor of California” (German Der Kaiser von Kalifornien), is a 1936 film that has the distinction of being the first western film made in Nazi Germany. Some exterior scenes were even shot on location in the United States at Sedona and the Grand Canyon in Arizona and at Death Valley in California.
The film follows the life story of Johann Augustus Suter, the owner of Sutter’s Mill, famous as the birthplace of the great California Gold Rush of 1849.
While the basic story of Sutter’s life is retained, the producers inserted some notable changes reflecting the political environment of the film’s creation: though Sutter was a Swiss-German, the film emphasizes his German ethnicity and though he changed his name to John Sutter when he came to the United States, throughout the film he retains the name Johann Suter.
The film opposes the “easy” money of gold-digging with the wealth and values created by hard work, as the Gold Rush eventually destroys Suter’s fortunes and creates social disintegration and the loss of solidarity and companionship.
In the final scene the aged and impoverished Sutter is shown in Washington, where he has a vision of America’s future industrial might, seeing a land full of skyscrapers and factories.
Unlike most American Westerns of the 1930s, The Kaiser of California offers a sympathetic portrait of the Indians, whom Sutter respectfully befriends. In this it follows the Karl May tradition of German Western stories, which often featured noble Indians and German immigrants turned pioneers and gunmen.
The film won the 1936 Mussolini Cup for best foreign film at the Venice Film Festival. It was screened as part of the “Venice Days” series at the 68th Venice International Film Festival in September 2011.
The film was written and directed by Luis Trenker, who also starred as Johann Sutter. Trenker had previously directed Der verlorene Sohn (The Prodigal Son, 1934), the story of an Alpine immigrant in New York, which is the only other film produced in Nazi Germany with scenes photographed on location in the United States.