DirectorJosef von Baky
Release Date(s)1943 (February 18, 2020)
Studio(s)Universum Film A.G. (Kino Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A
Munchhausen from 1943 was made by German studio UFA just as the tide was turning in World War II and the Nazi regime was collapsing. This huge spectacle was based upon a popular German fantasy novel about a nobleman whose exploits included riding on a cannonball, fighting a giant crocodile, and traveling to the moon. Inspired by color extravaganzas such as England’s The Thief of Bagdad and America’s The Wizard of Oz, the film cost 6.5 million Reichsmarks to produce. It was made to celebrate UFA’s 25th anniversary and was never released in the United States.
The film opens at a ball hosted by a descendent of Baron Munchhausen. As the host (Hans Albers) begins to recount the adventures of his famous ancestor, the scene switches to the baron’s fantastical world, where the impossible is possible and anything can happen. Scenes are set in 18th-century Braunschweig, St. Petersburg, Constantinople, Venice, and on the moon.
Director Josef von Baky attempts to keep the pace brisk by dazzling the eye with color, movement, elaborate costumes, special effects, and the fascinating characters that Munchhausen (also played by Albers) meets during his journey. Baky makes excellent use of extras and tight framing to give the impression that there are more people than actually appear on screen. Interspersed with more traditional, intimate dialogue scenes, the spectacular scenes truly are impressive, especially considering when the film was made.
Special effects are more charming than convincing but add to the magical appeal of the subject matter. Clothing dances out of a wardrobe, a glass fills itself with wine, a horn blows of its own accord, a ring confers invisibility on its wearer, a sword in a duel moves with supersonic speed, exotic vegetation grows on the moon, a disembodied head speaks, a moon creature looks like a clown, and a person who dies turns to smoke.
The pace of Munchhausen is erratic. The film starts slowly before skipping all over the world. The title character, both the modern and ancestral versions, should convey more charm than Albers manages. His scenes with women strike an uncomfortable note and he comes off as a predator. As with many films made over 70 years ago, content that seemed humorous or dashing then conveys an entirely different feeling to contemporary viewers.
Munchhausen is a fascinating part of German cinema’s history and intriguing because it was made under a totalitarian dictatorship. Unfortunately, as an entertainment, the film too often misses the mark.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the Blu-ray release of Munchhausen from Kino Lorber—under their Kino Classics banner—is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The film looks fresh after a long and costly restoration. The look of the film itself is impressive, as if MGM had a hand in its production design. The Agfacolor, a rival of the American color processes with its softer palette compared to Technicolor, provides pleasant, pastel images. The color is especially effective in the various locations Munchhausen visits. The early ballroom scenes have a yellowish hue, but the color really stands out in the Venice and moon sequences. With lush production design and a huge cast of extras, the film beautifully conveys spectacle in a fantastical travelogue. More intimate scenes are done in muted colors. The moon sequence is where the production design is at its wildest. With no earthly basis for comparison, the landscape, vegetation, and creatures of the moon are pure imagination and offer some of the lightest, most fanciful moments of the film—reminiscent of the Munchkinland sets in The Wizard of Oz.
The soundtrack is in German with optional English subtitles. In dialogue scenes, actors are recorded clearly and Albers and the rest of the cast speak distinctly. In the first scene, a supposedly 18th-century costume ball, characters dance slow minuets and gavottes as musicians play. Dialogue is balanced nicely with the music so that we never miss what Munchhausen or other characters are saying. The abrupt sound of a 1940s-era automobile’s engine breaks the mood as it speeds away from the lavish home. A key scene features Munchhausen riding a cannonball, which explodes loudly atop a Constantinople fortress. The moon sequence is quieter than the rest of the film, as characters speak with subdued volume to help create a sense of wonderment.
Bonus materials on the Unrated Blu-ray release include an audio commentary, the theatrical trailer, a documentary on the production and restoration, a 1944 animated short by Hans Held, and samples of the Agfacolor restoration.
Documentary – UFA produced the silent classics Metropolis, Faust, and Nosferatu. Munchhausen was the most expensive film produced by the company. Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels wanted the film to represent the state of the art in the German film industry. Well-known actors were needed to assure box office success. Photography started in the spring of 1942. Most locations were sets constructed in Berlin on a virtually unlimited budget. The shooting schedule was very long. Technical problems arose because of the new color process. The film cost $35 million in today’s dollars. Munchhausen was designed as escapism to boost the morale of the German people following the German army’s defeat at Stalingrad. The film made a profit. The film’s restorers found that many of the original negatives had turned magenta. Finally, a nitrate negative was found with the best color and a minimum of damage. Colors had to be adjusted since interiors were bluish and exteriors reddish. The image also had to be stabilized.
1944 Animated Short – Directed by Hans Held, this Agfacolor animated film depicts some of the remarkable exploits of Baron Munchhausen. He makes his way on horseback through deep snowdrifts, flies across a wide chasm, sails on ice, lifts himself out of deep water by his own braid, and turns a wolf inside out.
Samples of Agfacolor Restoration – Examples are from the film Women Are Better Diplomats (aka Frauen send doc bessemer Diplomaten) produced between 1939 and 1941. The original negative does not survive. All surviving prints were inspected and the best were digitized. The image was stabilized and dirt, scratches, and other visible damage were removed. Original scans are compared with digital restorations of picture and sound.
Audio Commentary – Film historian Samm Deighan notes that Munchhausen was directed by Hungarian filmmaker Josef von Baky, who was known for making films about social problems post-World War II. The character of Munchhausen is a blend of the fictional and historical, positioned in both the past and the present. Munchhausen was an actual nobleman, a larger-than-life character who would tell tall tales of his adventures, which became increasingly exaggerated. The novel was originally published anonymously. The real Munchhausen was upset by the novel’s publication. The book and film contain episodes that defy the laws of logic. The baron has supernatural abilities (never ages, can become invisible) but is not violent or evil. He wants to have affairs with women and experience new and exciting adventures. By spinning the truth, Munchhausen has charm. Like Dracula or Sherlock Holmes, the character grew in the public’s imagination. Films made during the silent period under the Weimar Republic created German expressionism, which influenced American horror films. Under the Nazis, cinema was controlled by the Ministry of Public Entertainment and Propaganda. Its leader, Josef Goebbels, created a total propaganda machine, transforming radio and cinema into a state apparatus. Because of this, German culture was changed within a few months. Goebbels encouraged cinema attendance. Hitler was not pleased with Munchhausen and Jewish screenwriter Erich Kastner was blacklisted and had his books burned. The film’s exaggeration is equated to Nazi propaganda—emphasizing certain things while downplaying others. The film “succeeds because it’s made by thoroughly professional craftsmen.” The film has “unexpectedly adult content,” including love affairs and the non-judgmental attitude toward Catherine the Great’s many lovers. Munchhausen doesn’t want to control anyone or anything. He values freedom and adventure and love. This kind of “emotional generosity” is not evident in other Nazi films. “Characters are given space to explore themselves and explore who they are.”
– Dennis Seuling