Terry Gilliam’s notoriously costly and underrated 1986 The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, is widely derided but is still the English language focus for the life and lies of the 18th century soldier and adventurer Baron Heironymous Carl Frederick von Münchhausen, and without Gilliam’s obsessive attempts from film to film to recreate the most difficult worlds of fantastic and classical literature, it is doubtful that even the medical condition abbreviated as Münchhausen’s-by-proxy would have been so readily adopted by the masses, either.
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But that film’s infamy has had the effect of eclipsing a previous earnest and epic interpretation, Josef von Baky’s all too rarely seen 1943 jewel Münchhausen, at long last available on DVD, and with the exception of its lightly publicised BBC2 screening ten years ago, normally only seen in this country care of Goethe Institute touring programmes.
Don’t get too jittery now but this was the film commissioned by Josef Goebbels to reassure and raise the spirits of German citizens, particularly at the time of its general release on the 17th June 1943 when the cities were taking a battering. Anyone worried about uncomfortable propaganda dominating the content may be surprised as there really isn’t time to do anything but attend the story, the many adventures, the rich imagination and the amazing characters encountered. In fact, Goebbels gave instruction against direct propagandist practices in the fictional studio subjects. Cinema was light entertainment, normally a minor distraction, yet five million deutschmarks was a lot of money to lavish on a film when the country was in the thick of war. Though officially only one sixth of the 1,150 films produced in the Nazi era under his direction, Goebbels never approved anything without a subsidiary purpose, understanding that through its “production values, cinematography and scale” a film could represent the “power, solidity and vision” of the state that produced it. It was the banned novelist Erich Kästner, his books burned, who proposed Münchhausen as the subject of the film that would representative UFA and Filmkunst in its 25th anniversary celebration, the theme a sly backward stab at the great liar to commission it. Kästner, originator of that classic of literary dissension Emil And The Detectives (I ask you!) was still deemed one of the greatest authors in the land and his name was argued back into the broth, embarrassing if name kept, but a deal kept as long as it was a non-de-plume credit, out of which was born Berthold Bürger.
At their disposal were the greatest technical talent in Germany and a banquet of a cast led by Hans Albers as the roguish Baron, an incorrigible sexist with a fantastic reputation, who’s tales no-one gives full credence to, a man unfazed in circumstances that would be alarming to others. The plot sees him join the court and parlour of the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great (Brigitte Horney), become the prized entertainment of the Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid (Leo Slezak), fall in love and steal from the said Sultan’s harem the Princess Isabella d’Este (Ilse Werner), the romance continue to Venice where it is interrupted by the actions of her disapproving brother (Werner Scharf) and an escape in a Venetian balloon to the moon, a place that ticks to a broken second and is populated by pleasant pod people innocuous to their terribly short and sad lifespan. Along the way great friends are made and kept in Christian Kuchereutter (Herman Speelmans), batman and creator of a shoulder rifle with a magically telescopic lens and the Runner (Walter Leick), who rapidly puts on weight when inactive. There are encounters also with Count Cagliostro (Ferdinand Marian) and Casanova (Gustave Waldau), respectively offering darkly magical or common day assistance. If too much sounds too familiar from the Gilliam film, each adaptation has elements left out of the other. Having said that, it is impossible not to draw a comparison between them. The original 1943 release of Münchhausen was in a 118-minute version while at the premiere two months earlier it had been longer still at 133 minutes. Sadly, nowhere on this disc is any account attempted to establish the content of the removed and amiss footage. Not that the disc is not without extras, R. Dixon Smith’s essay crams a lot of important information into 14 minutes but could someone not have been pressed to have gone a conclusive step further.
Not that supplemental information is altogether important, this disc could have been devoid of it and the film would have stood as substantial enough in content. The adventures are told in flashback by the Baron masquerading as a descendent, having been granted the wish of life in his present youthfulness until a time when he determines himself ready to return to his mortal origin. There is no lagging in this film, not a moment goes by without stirring magic or delightful aphorism. The witticisms queue, come and go with a consistency. “It’s in your mind not your heart,” he declares on the art of living, “all the others are just mammals walking upright.” / “People’s hearts are as little alike as their noses.” / “You should have collected a master who collected snuffboxes not adventures.” And when something deeper is required, on the subject of mortality, noting it still lies in others close to him, “Evening is coming… one could say it is Autumn.” He does not have the monopoly on great lines though, the script is spilling over with them, and on a similar theme to the last an aging Casanova remarks, “Life is short and death snatches us before the fascinating game is over.”
The restoration work softens and builds the colours when necessary. Every frame of von Baky’s film is perfection. Production design and performances cannot be faulted; it is an immaculate, impressive vision. The effects work stands up, is far preferable to the jadedness that comes with today’s CGI, and the wirework as an invisible Münchhausen carries the Princess across the harem floor faultlessly hides its secret operation. There is not one bad performance in the film. As the Princess Isabella, Ilse Werner’s is a sensual Teutonic beauty on whose eyes and lips and nothing necessarily more a man could credibly lose his head over, in that day, very possibly literally. If only Albers was as likely in appearance the handsome womaniser, but status, clothes, bearing and reputation might do it even for a Frank Randle look-a-like. This film should be Christmas Day viewing annually for a straight decade, and make it the coming one. It has all the wonder of MGM’s The Wizard Of Oz, but with a more adult sensibility and humour, what is a bit of topless bathing and clothes infected with rabies in front of a mince pie. As none of the terrestrial channels are likely to do that this DVD would make a great Christmas gift, rescuing the bairns in your household from the pointlessness of Pokemon and so returning to them a true sense of wonder.