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Film became a double-edged sword in WW2, serving as a propaganda medium and also as a signifier of national strength. While Germany was expending every drop of manpower and blood to keep Hitler's war going, Joseph Goebbels must have been infuriated to see captured film prints demonstrate that Hollywood film production was at full force. Right about the time that the Nazi onslaught was stopped in Russia, the propaganda minister commissioned this grandiose epic, a light-hearted movie to cheer up the Reich and let everyone know that there was no defeatism in Berlin.
Münchhausen is an amusing comedy of manners made much more complex by its historical context. If anything, it's interesting to know that the fanatic Nazi idea of quality entertainment wasn't much different than anybody else's. But it is rather chilling to know that Goebbels personally oversaw this project in his position as head of all arts and culture in Nazi Germany.
As anyone who has seen the wonderful Terry Gilliam version knows, Baron Münchhausen is a fantastic gentleman, a great lover, soldier and tall-tale teller. This retelling also makes him immortal, choosing as its starting point the (1943) present where the 175 year-old Baron, still a handsome man in his prime, elects to tell his story. It's an oddly complacent Germany of rich mansions and no signs of war - no uniforms, no bombing.
The Baron's story is a delightful series of tall tales. Not content to seduce every available frau and fraulein in sight, Münchhausen becomes the consort of the eccentrically libidinous Catherine the Great, and runs off to war, where he rides a cannonball into the minaret of the Turkish enemy. Thanks to faithful allies and a magic ring given him by a sinister but friendly sorcerer named Cagliostro, Münchausen is able to win his freedom from the Sultan and flee to Venice with another prisoner, a beautiful. Escaping by balloon from treacherous agents of the Inquisition, he and his loyal companion drift to the moon, where every day is like a year on Earth.
Although a tad on the slow side, Münchhausen has many clever tricks up its sleeve. The movie starts at an eighteenth-century formal dance, nicely interrupted when a pretty character reaches for an electric light switch, revealing the setting to be a 1943 costume party. Special effects do good work with fanciful material, like the blunderbuss with a telescopic sight that can see hundreds of miles, and Münchhausen's friend who can run from Turkey to Austria and be back within the hour, with time left over for a short nap. Simple effects work the best, as when Münchhausen's eyes tilt in separate directions to track two objects at once. Multiple exposures turn an important duel into a blur of flashing blades, and an invisible Baron carries a lady out of a harem with the most convincing use of overhead wires I've ever seen - he even carries her through a doorway.
Compared to American adventure fantasies, Münchhausen is a decidedly adult affair. The Baron sleeps with every available female and is kept by the Tsarina for months as her steady bed partner. The Sultan has a harem filled with beauties, many of them cavorting topless in a private pool. Thanks to location filming in Fascist Venice, Münchhausen is able to enjoy a romantic interlude with his Italian princess Isabella (Ilse Werner). Sly sex jokes abound, including ripe one-liners about a squeaky-voiced eunuch in the Sultan's employ.
Münchhausen wanders the globe but always remains a loyal German, refusing to convert to Islam even though the Sultan offers him a kingdom of his own. He's the friend of all, including hot-blooded Russians and an elderly Casanova. He also befriends Cagliostro, a despised wizard and political troublemaker.
The surprise is that Cagliostro is pictured as a Jewish stereotype, a crook/alchemist possessed of secrets of cabalistic magic. He has a spell that allows Münchhausen to voluntarily stop aging, allowing him to survive to 1943 to tell his story. He gives the Baron a magic ring that grants invisibility for one hour. Riding cannonballs is fanciful nonsense but this Nazi movie suggests that Münchhausen's friendship with all sorts of people, even Jews, is a good thing. Is it too big a stretch to wonder if Goebbels was trying to influence Hitler not to dismiss atomic weaponry as "Jewish science"?
Even if the designs can't compete with the magical The Thief of Bagdad, Münchhausen is a visual delight, with remarkably lavish sets for practically every scene. The vision of the moon has a fanciful Méliès quality, with musical instruments growing on trees and moon people who can leave their bodies working at home while their heads go off in search of entertainment.
Considering its aim was to brighten spirits, this UfA super-production ends on a somber note, with the Baron renouncing his claim to immortality to live out his life with the wife he married in 1900. What the conclusion is supposed to be saying about Germany is unclear, as the fiancées who listen to the Baron's story are a pair of dullards who can't be expected to represent the National Socialist aim for the future of the country. Münchhausen has outlived his era and his friends by 150 years, and knows it's time to let go of eternal youth.
Top German star Hans Albers is a jolly protagonist, looking like a smiling Curt Jurgens when at rest and George C. Scott when in the midst of a swordfight. The rest of the cast are charming in their own way, with Brigitte Horney's Catherine a feisty monarch and Ferdinand Marian an oily Cagliostro. The Sultan is played by Leo Slezak, an ex-opera star who became a film comedian. His son Walter was in Hollywood at about this time, acting in anti-Nazi films.
Kino Video's DVD of Münchhausen is a pleasant surprise from the German archivists, who have done a good job restoring the film to its muted Agfacolor hues. The copy here is in fine shape, with only three or four angles in the Sultan's palace showing signs of color misalignment.
The extras come from Germany as well. The director of the F.W. Murnau Foundation hosts a leisurely interview docu on the making of the film. There are clips from some other Agfacolor features, including a brief look at a 1944 version of Der Fledermaus. More focused on the Münchhausen issue is a curious 1944 cartoon illustrating several of the Baron's famous episodes in a winter setting. There is also an original trailer, and galleries of stills and images showing how Münchhausen has been pictured in book illustrations, etc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Münchhausen rates:
Supplements: trailer, interview docu, Münchhausen cartoon, stills, examples of other Agfacolor films
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 24, 2004