Since its publication last year, the chapter in my book Arizona’s Little Hollywood that’s raised the most eyebrows is the one that revealed that Der Kaiser von Kalifornien, a German-language Nazi Western, was shot on location in Sedona in September 1935. Readers find it incredible that such an off-the-wall film could have been shot in patriotic Red Rock Country; as pop culture pundit Fern Siegel commented in MediaPost, “Like Woody Allen, my Nazi radar is highly attuned, so Der Kaiser von Kalifornien, a 1936 piece of anti-capitalist propaganda, was a surprise.”
I didn’t believe it either until I tracked down a German DVD copy and saw for myself. Sure enough, local landmarks Schnebly Hill, Oak Creek, Munds Mountain Trail, even the dirt trail that is today’s paved State Route 89A are all easily recognizable locations in the movie. There’s even a slow sweeping panorama of the entire area shot from high atop the Mogollon Rim that is probably the best photographic record we have of the Sedona landscape before development.
The question I'm most frequently asked is “How can I see this movie?” It’s not easy. Der Kaiser has never been released on home video in the United States, but pristinely restored DVD special editions (in German and without English subtitles) are available from Amazon.de in Germany, as well as through international dealers on eBay. Thankfully, because the intent of Der Kaiser was strictly to vilify capitalism and twist the story of Sutter’s Mill and America’s 19th-century belief in Manifest Destiny into an analogy for Hitler’s plan for German expansion into foreign territories, there is no anti-Semetic or racist content in the film. But one word of warning before purchasing a DVD: Because the discs are produced in the European PAL video format, you’ll need a multi-region DVD player to watch it.––Joe McNeill