Everyone has their own opinion concerning how much they want to know about a movie, both before seeing it and afterwards. Some prefer going in cold, so to speak, viewing a film while knowing as little as possible about it; afterwards, those same people may prefer to preserve the memory of their unmediated experience of the film to anything that they might learn about it. Others like to know everything they can, both before and after—not just about an individual film, but also about its historical and cultural context. I’m in the latter camp, particularly when a film comes from a time and place quite different from my own—such as Nazi Germany. Even if you’re in the former camp, however, you will probably get more out of Josef von Báky’s 1943 Münchhausen if you know something about where it comes from, why it was made, and the world into which it was released.
In 1943, the storied German film studio UFA was celebrating its 25th anniversary. At the same time, the tide was turning against Germany in World War II (the defeat at Stalingrad came in February of that year). What better way to distract the public from this reversal of fortune than by releasing a real circus of a film, an extravaganza meant to rival the likes of The Wizard of Oz and The Thief of Baghdad? The film in question, of course, was Münchhausen, which cost 6.5 million Reichsmarks, starred the handsome and popular actor Hans Albers, and was based on a popular fantasy novel about a nobleman whose purported exploits include riding on a cannonball, fighting a gigantic crocodile, getting swallowed by a giant fish, and travelling to the moon. You may be familiar with the name “Münchhausen “from Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen or from the mental health diagnoses “Munchausen syndrome” and “Munchausen syndrome by proxy” (the latter two of which are not at all jolly, but share the concept of invention and exaggeration with the fictional Baron).
The story apparently begins in the 18th century, among the bewigged and bejeweled nobility, who are enjoying a stately dance designed to not dislodge the women’s enormous panniers. The beautiful Sophie (Marina von Ditmar) is already engaged, but takes a liking to Baron Münchhausen (Albers), who is much too noble to act on her offer. Spurned, she departs angrily—in her automobile. This Münchhausen, it seems, is a descendant of the one about whom the tall tales were told, and soon we’re firmly in the modern day, with Albers (looking rather like Lord Peter Wimsey with his monocle and tweed suit) narrating the adventures of his famous ancestor while also playing him in the flashbacks. And such adventures! Among other things, the Baron dallies with Catherine the Great (Brigitte Horney), is enslaved in Turkey, and escapes first to Venice and then to the moon. He also has some dealings with the sorcerer Cagliostro (Ferdinand Marian), more about which will be revealed at the film’s conclusion.
Báky and his UFA crew, including cinematographers Konstantin Irmen-Tschet and Werner Krien, production designers Otto Guelstorr and Emil Hasler, costume designer Manon Hahn, special effects artists Gerhard Huttula, Irmen-Tschet, Ernst Kunstmann, and Theo Nischwitzand art director Werner Klein, put their budget up on the screen—Münchhausen is a feast of spectacle and special effects, although of course one that must be viewed with an understanding of when it was made and the efforts made to restore it. The F. W. Murnau Foundation’s efforts in this regard are briefly explained in a title card in the Kino Lorber release, and in more detail in the supplements. Münchhausen was one of the first films shot in Agfacolor, a rival to the American color processes, and looks pretty good considering what the film has been through. As with many period films, you also have to be willing to look past some ethnic stereotyping that would not be considered acceptable today, and I’m sure there’s a fascinating article to be written about how this film reflects the values of the Nazi regime and its Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (UFA was under state control at the time this film was made). | Sarah Boslaugh
Münchhausen is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include a documentary about the film (17 min.), the 1944 animated film “Die Abenteuer des Freiherr von Münchhausen—eine Winterreise)” (7 min.), examples of Agfa color restoration, and the original theatrical trailer. Münchhausen is in German with English subtitles.