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The new Winnetou

Vilma Filaj-Ballvora / Nikolas Fischer / ad
September 4, 2015

How convincing will Albanian actor Nik Xhelilaj be as the new Winnetou? DW has spoken to him about his role, and also about refugees streaming into Germany from his native Albania.

Nik Xhelilaj, the new Winnetou, Copyright: RTL/Nikola Predovic
Image: RTL/Nikola Predovic, RatPack

Winnetou movies from the sixties - starring Pierre Brice as Apache chief Winnetou, and Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand, have been extremely popular among Germans.

In the new RTL-production directed by Philipp Stölzl, German actor Wotan Wilke Möhring will play the lead role of Old Shatterhand, joined by Milan Peschel (as Sam Hawkens), Jürgen Vogel (as Rattler) and Mario Adorf (as Santer Senior).

The iconic figure of Winnetou will be depicted by an actor who is rather unknown in Germany, Albanian actor Nik Xhelilaj, aged 32. The film director Stölzl told the daily "Bild am Sonntag," that he sent his casting team through "more or less the entire world" to find a suitable actor for the famous Apache chief, as he knew that "Pierre Brice's moccasins are very big to fill."

Currently being filmed

Does Nik Xhelilaj stand a real chance to compete with the "Winnetou monument" Pierre Brice? The shooting of the TV production in three parts, to be broadcast at the end 2016, is already underway in Croatia.

Winnetou-fan Niko Fischer has examined the cult factor of the two candidates. Scroll through the top pictures to make you own choice.

In addition, we interviewed the new chief of the Apaches on his role and on the large number of refugees coming from his native Albania to Germany.

Nik Xhelilaj, the new Winnetou, Copyright: Joerg Carstensen/dpa
As Winnetou, Nik Xhelilaj steps into the moccasins of Pierre BriceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Carstensen

DW: Did you know about Winnetou before you went to the casting?

Nik Xhelilaj: No, the stories from Germany and the world of Westerns were not familiar to me. When I received the invitation to the casting from my agency, I was dazzled at first, as I could not see any relation between me and the character. But after the casting, all this became quite clear to me.

Could you explain why? What attracted you to the role of Winnetou?

I felt drawn to this magical world of Westerns. And it is a great challenge for an actor to put himself into this era - no matter what character he is playing.

After familiarizing myself with the role, I have come to understand how important Winnetou is to the German audience. He is a very complex figure - maybe not real, but still very magical. Getting the opportunity to play the chief of a people threatened to disappear carries a lot of responsibility. And he's a chief, I find this interesting too.

Did the fact that you did not know the character work to your disadvantage during the casting?

No, because in our screenplay, the character was so well portrayed and the story so well written that not having known them before did not pose any problems - quite the opposite: I could focus on the script instead of getting distracted by other information. Once I found out that I would be getting the role, I started doing my own research - which included watching the old Winnetou films.

Nik Xhelilaj, the new Winnetou, Copyright: RTL/Nikola Predovic
Nik Xhelilaj as Winnetou: Is his long hair real?Image: RTL/Nikola Predovic, RatPack

We've seen pictures from the Winnetou set in Croatia: Is that your real hair?

(Laughs) I want you to believe that this is my real hair. That's why it's better if I tell you, yes, it's my own hair.

When you were a child, did you prefer being a cowboy or an American Indian?

I honestly don't remember seeing many Westerns as a child. Back then, those films were censored in Albania. Nevertheless, I do remember some films by Sergio Leone - and in those, the cowboy always seemed to be the preferable character to me.

A role full of challenges

Were you already able to ride a horse or did you have to learn that?

No, I was not able to ride well. For this role, I needed to learn how to ride, and that was a major challenge. If there is one thing that I particularly like about this project, it's that I've developed a good relationship with horses and horse riding. I see this at the top benefit I got from this film.

Before working on this film, I had always been terrified of riding. In another movie about three years ago, I had a bad riding accident. Since then, I was convinced I would never again mount a horse. But now, I can even ride freely, without a saddle - just like Winnetou.

And what about the weapons in the Wild West?

I had to learn how to shoot, not only with a gun, but also with special weapons: Winnetou uses a bow and arrow, and the tomahawk. Here on the set, we have specialists assisting us in this regard.

Winnetou is not that talkative... Did you still have to learn German in spite of that?

Of course! He may not speak much, but when he does, his words carry a lot of weight. I will not be synchronized, but will speak German and Lakhota, which is an American Indian dialect.

Pierre Brice turned into a cult. How do you deal with that?

It is impossible to imitate his performances. It wouldn't be very respectful or professional to do so either. That's why we went for a completely different interpretation of the script, even of history. These are the scriptwriter's and film director's important contributions in the film.

Filming will take place in Croatia, where the famous old Winnetou movies were also shot in the 60s. Are there any similarities between the new and the old movies?

There might be similarities when it comes to certain aspects that cannot be avoided. That's why it was decided to shoot our production here. But there's a whole new vision in the current films.

Nik Xhelilaj and Wotan Wilke Möhring as Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, Copyright: RTL/Nikola Predovic
Actors Nik Xhelilaj and Wotan Wilke Möhring, who plays Old ShatterhandImage: RTL/Nikola Predovic, RatPack

How does it feel to work with German actors such as Wotan Wilke Möhring or Fahri Yardim, Jürgen Vogel, Mario Adorf and Milan Peschel?

So far, I have worked only with Wotan and Jürgen. It's great fun, especially with Wotan. We have become very good friends, just as the characters that we play. So far, I have not yet met the other actors.

Kreshnik, your full first name, means "hero." As Winnetou, you are now playing one, and when you were 14, you heroically fled from a Turkish military school your parents wanted you to attend...

I think that running away from the military school was the right decision at the right time. I do not know what my life would have been like if I had stayed at that school.

Are you a real life hero?

That's a nice metaphor - but in real life, I just want to live normally, without metaphors. But in my roles - why not?

Scene from "Der Albaner," Copyright: max-ophuels-preis.de
Scene from "Der Albaner"Image: Max-Ophüls-Preis

In Germany, people might know you from your movie "Der Albaner" (2010), in which you played Arben, an Albanian who illegally immigrates to Germany where he works as a human smuggler...

He gives the money he earned this way to the father of his pregnant lover, so that he can pay the required dowry and allow Arben to marry his mistress. It's all about keeping the promise he made to his mistress. That's what makes this film so special.

The refugee situation in Europe is a big issue at the moment. Why do so many Albanians leave their country?

This is an issue which exists now, has always existed, and will always keep on existing. Unfortunately, many people in Albania are still very dissatisfied with their lives, especially in economic and financial terms. That is the main reason why they go away.

I would obviously prefer a different situation, where Albanians are allowed to travel around the world while exploring it just for fun. If Europe cannot solve the problem, then who will?

I could make a connection between that problem and the Winnetou character: Europe must successfully tackle this challenge - just as Winnetou has tackled the challenge of saving his people.

To me, this is a very clear message: we are all citizens of this one planet. And we all need to share it with one another. Today Albanians want to go to Germany, but who knows - maybe one day, Germans will want to immigrate to Albania.

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