Münchhausen was released by the great German studio UFA in 1943 to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary. When you consider how many superb movies UFA had made it’s obvious that a movie was going to have to be very good indeed to serve as a worthy celebration of that anniversary. Fortunately Münchhausen lived up to their expectations. Despite being an unbelievably expensive production it was soon in profit. It was hailed as a masterpiece, which indeed it is.
The circumstances of the production have made it a potentially controversial film and until its restoration by the F. W. Murnau Foundation in 2004 it had been very rarely seen outside of Germany. The potential controversy was of course that the movie was made during the era of the National Socialist regime and under the auspices of Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry which at the time oversaw German film production. It was in fact one of Goebbels’ pet projects, to the extent that the movie was given a (literally) unlimited budget. Despite these circumstances this is in no way a Nazi propaganda movie and it really has no discernible political content or political agenda.
Münchhausen was based on a late 18th century fantasy adventure book that enjoyed enormous popularity in Germany. It has in fact very much the feel of a fairy tale, albeit a sophisticated fairy tale with as much appeal to adults as to children.
Erich Kästner was a popular writer whose works had been banned by the Nazis. In spite of this Goebbels (who personally liked Kästner’s books) was persuaded that Kästner was the only man capable of turning the tale into a successful screenplay and he was given the job. Josef von Báky, who would go on to have a successful postwar career, was assigned to direct. Konstantin Irmen-Tschet would be responsible for the special effects, a sound choice as he had been responsible for the effects in movies like Metropolis.
The movie chronicles the unlikely adventures of Baron Hieronymus Münchhausen. The movie opens in the present day, with the current Baron Hieronymus Münchhausen telling the story of his illustrious if over-imaginative ancestor. At least we assume at first that this man is a descendent of the famous baron although we will later learn that things are not quite what they seem in this framing story.
Münchhausen (Hans Albers), accompanied by his ingenious servant Christian Kuchenreutter (Hermann Speelmans), travels to the court of Catherine the Great of Russia. He receives a warm welcome, to say the least, and quickly becomes the empress’s lover. This affair will involve the baron in a bizarre duel conducted in complete darkness. Münchhausen moves on and becomes involved with the war against the Turks. His arrival at the court of the Sultan is accomplished by means of the most celebrated scene in the movie, with the baron riding a cannonball fired by a heavy artillery piece. The baron’s adventures at the Sultan’s court will, as usual, involve him in romantic entanglements.
In Venice he fights another bizarre duel and he and Christian flee the city by balloon, ending up on the Moon. The Moon turns out to be a strange place in which a day is equivalent to a year on Earth, the inhabitants are able to remove their heads whenever they find it convenient and babies grow on trees.
The baron’s adventures cover a considerable time period, facilitated by the fact that the celebrated and notorious wizard Count Cagliostro has endowed the baron the gift of remaining both alive and young for as long as he chooses.
To succeed this sort of material requires an extreme lightness of touch and that is exactly how it is handled. The bizarre nature of most of Münchhausen’s adventures is treated in a matter-of-fact manner. The baron is not the slightest bit surprised to find himself on the Moon. That is after all the direction in which he headed the balloon. He is equally unsurprised by his cannonball ride. If you are going to sit on the barrel of a cannon you must expect that sort of thing to happen. The story is told in such a manner that the audience will be more than happy to suspend their disbelief.
The story does take on a slightly darker tone towards the end as the baron realises that even the greatest of gifts carries a price tag but his cheerful acceptance of this price allows the ending to seem perfectly upbeat. This is a tale that is intended to delight, and that’s what it does.
The movie was shot using the revolutionary new Agfacolor process which was in some ways superior to Technicolor. It’s certainly very different compared to Technicolor. In place of the bright primary colours of Technicolor the Agfacolor process offered soft pastels. Once you become accustomed to it it has to be admitted that Agfacolor looks quite wonderful and while the colours are pastels they are certainly not bland.
The enormous budget was money very well spent. The aim was to showcase the technical achievements of the German film industry and to show that it could match Hollywood with ease when it came to spectacle. The special effects are stunning, even by today’s standards. The sets are sumptuous, the costumes magnificent, and it all manages to be gloriously over-the-top without ever seeming tacky or giving the impression of cleverness for its own sake.
There are moments of sublime outrageousness, notably the wardrobe afflicted by rabies. There are wondrous gadgets, such as a musket that can hit a target at a range of 100 miles (one of Christian’s inventions). The baron also has the services of another useful servant who can run from St Petersburg to Vienna and back within an hour. The living clock is another lovely touch.
Of course none of this would have worked without the right star. Hans Albers is superb. He plays the role with a twinkle in his eyes but without ever succumbing to the temptations of hamminess and he succeeds in making the baron a hero who is sometimes unscrupulous but never unsympathetic.
Münchhausen is superior in every way to Terry Gilliam’s 1988 version which seems by comparison to be trying much too hard.
The F. W. Murnau Foundation did a great job in restoring this movie and particularly in capturing the unique feel of the Agfacolor process.
Kino’s DVD includes various extras, the most notable being an excellent 15-minute introduction to the film by the director of the F. W. Murnau Foundation.
Josef von Báky’s 1943 Münchhausen gets the balance absolutely right. It is an absolute treat from start to finish, visually extraordinary and always entertaining. A truly wonderful movie. Very highly recommended.