Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Munchausen (Josef Von Baky, 1943)

I've been wanting to see Josef Von Baky's film Munchausen (1943) ever since I saw Karel Zeman's 1961 version at The Egyptian a couple years ago, which made me go back and watch Terry Gilliam's version (much better than I had remembered it being), and in turn got me curious to see the other cinematic interpretations of the Munchausen stories, Baky's being the most well-known (aside from Gilliam's). Wow, I think I just succeeded in writing a sentence more convoluted than Gilliam's movie.

Baky's film is an extravigant fantasy filmed on opulent sets in the sort of painful technicolor that brings to mind The Wizard of Oz. While Baky is not nearly as imaginative a filmmaker as his successors, he does bring out a few cartoonish gags that no doubt served to attract Zeman to the character: Munchausen in a fencing duel goes into fast-motion, slicing up his opponent's clothes, for instance. Zeman's film is clearly more of an influence on Gilliam (and it's probable that an earlier Czech animated version was a greater influence on Zeman), but there are scenes that Gilliam directly lifted from Baky (the Baron's sharpshooter friend shooting an apple on to his runner's head as he naps under a tree on the way back with the bottle of wine for the Sultan), and others (the moon people with removable heads) that must have struck Gilliam with their unrealized comic potential. While Zeman's and Gilliam's Barons both are made up to resemble the classic illustrations as closely as possible, Baky's film stars Hans Albers, an odd actor who resembles George C. Scott with perpetually bulging eyes.

The film was made in Nazi Germany, commissioned by Josef Goebbels, who probably thought of it as one of the Fatherland's great stories. Patrick Ellis writes that "Despite its toxic provenance, Baky’s Munchausen is politically innocuous; indeed, the film would seem unobjectionable coming from Hollywood today, though perhaps this says more about Hollywood than Nazi films." This doesn't go far enough. There are elements in it that are rather surprising for it's time and place. In the first episode, Munchausen faces the villain Cagliostro, who tries to enlist him in a megalomaniacal plot to take over the world. Munchausen rejects such political ambitions, prefering his life of adventure. This seems odd, since Cagliostro's ideas sound very much like those of the Nazi Party. He even plans to start by taking over Poland! Although maybe German viewers interpret this differently, that he is planning to steal Poland from Germany--I don't really know enough European history to be sure. In a later chapter, Munchausen must protect his lover from The Inquisition. Could it really have been possible to make a movie about The Inquisition in Nazi Germany without people making the connection? You certainly couldn't make a movie about the McCarthy hearings in GWB's America without the connection being made, and Bush, as terrible as he is, is no Hitler. The commentary from the Turner Classic Movies host at the end helped clarify things (but easier to quote from their website). "The author of the screenplay, Erich Kaestner (1899-1974), was a poet, novelist and essayist best known today for his children's books. Emil and the Detectives in particular is regarded as a classic of children's literature and has been filmed several times. Another of his books, Lisa and Lottie/Das Doppelte Lottchen, was adapted into the 1961 Disney film The Parent Trap. During the Nazi era, Kaestner's writings were banned and publicly burned due to his opposition to the regime and he had to publish in Switzerland. Despite this, Goebbels agreed to let Kaestner write the screenplay under a pseudonym-thus early sources credited the script to 'Bertold Burger.' " Clearly, he managed to sneak some subtext past Goebbels.


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