Saturday 6 October 2007

Münchhausen (1943) Josef von Báky

A grand fantasy lavishly produced in colour and with expensively gorgeous sets and costumes, this was commissioned to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the UFA studios, it is strange mostly because of the circumstance of its creation: the time was 1943 Nazi Germany and the commissioner was Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels. The tide was turning in the war and the Germans had just lost at Stalingrad, but this film is remarkably free of actual propaganda, though there are inevitable mentions of taking Poland. It was more of a response to the fantasy films becoming so successful in other countries and it delights.

We're bookended by more modern scenes but we're soon back in a fantastic world of the past where miracles were believable and obtainable, by science or sorcery or whatever. Baron Hieronymus von Münchhausen and his valet, Christian Kuchenreutter travel around and enjoy life to the fullest, meeting famous or infamous names from Madame Pompadour to Count Cagliostro and discovering no end of marvels. Once we're back in the past, it doesn't take long for us to see cream that instigates immediate hair growth, a gun that shoots over huge distances, notes that get frozen inside a horn and wine that travels from decanter to glass without traversing the space in between.

Soon he finds his way to St Petersburg, where the Empress Katharina is holding an opulent dinner but which the Baron misses to keep a date with a beautiful young farmgirl, who of course turns out to be the empress herself. While the guests pick out pigeon sized gems for dessert, he gets to disappear back stage to the Czarina's bedroom for illicit liaisons. This is the level of believability we're working with but then that's entirely the point in a Münchhausen story.

He was always the greatest teller of tall tales and watching such a lavish rendition is joyous. Münchhausen also knew how to make a wish. Count Cagliostro, just before putting on his ring of invisibility to avoid arrest, grants him a wish and he chooses to stay as young as he was at that point until he himself chose to grow old. That's the wish I'd make if someone like Cagliostro owed me a favour!

I could go on about the little stories that make up the larger story but you ought to enjoy them for yourself. Suffice it to say that many of those I remembered from reading about Münchhausen back in junior school made it in. I could talk about the acting, from people like Hans Albers as the Baron and the delightful Brigitte Horney as Catherine the Great. Albers is certainly as memorable as John Neville in Terry Gilliam's 1988 version, if not more so.

What deserves mention more than anything is that the film looks awesome. Words like 'lavish', 'opulent' and 'extravagant' are entirely appropriate and while I hardly want to praise Nazi Germany, this benefits no end from not being a Hollywood film. There's plenty here that wouldn't have been allowed under the code, from the provocative belly dancer to the gorgeous semi-nude painting of Cagliostro's that comes to life, let alone the attitudes to race, religion and even alcohol. Then there's the harem, for which a Hollywood filmmaker would probably have been stoned: after all, how could a Sultan's harem possibly contain topless young ladies frolicking around in a pool? Shameless!

Mostly though it's the money. The sheer amounts of money spent on the film were outrageous and makes the piece reasonably unrepeatable. Certainly Gilliam tried but ran out of finance in the process. I don't think I've ever seen costumes that trump these and the sets are amazing. In particular, fantastic cities viewed from afar put Oz to shame. Even the animation and effects are top notch. The invisibility scenes are seamless and the cannonball flight is spot on. The whole thing is a feast for the eyes and the only down sides are a few slow scenes and a little lack of focus at points. Visually it's nigh on unsurpassed.

It's always interesting to wander around the credits at IMDb and discover connections. It seems that Ilse Werner, Princess Isabella here who the Baron rescues from a Turkish harem, was renowned as a whistler and it's her whistling that appears at the opening of Winds of Change, the Scorpions' theme for glasnost. I've never seen Leo Slezak before, an opera singer who plays the Sultan here, but I know his son well: Walter Slezak. In 1943 while his father was appearing in this film for Josef Goebbels, he was appearing in an anti-Nazi drama of note, Jean Renoir's wonderful This Land is Mine.

A number of the cast also appeared in one of the most notorious Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda films, Jud Süß, some, like lead actor Ferdinand Marian who plays Cagliostro here, apparently with the assistance of some outside incentives from the Nazi powers that be. As yet I've only seen Nazi propaganda of a more elegant and artful variety, such as the famed work of Leni Riefenstahl, but there are far more unsavoury pieces out there. In particular I'm looking forward to seeing Der Ewige Jude to see just how the Nazis managed to twist things so far as to take Peter Lorre's fictional depiction of the child killer in Fritz Lang's M into evidence of the subhumanity of the Jews. In the meantime it's refreshing to see that there are Nazi films like this that don't stoop to such levels and keep politics and philosophy out of it.

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