Münchhausen/The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1943) ***
In 1760, Hieronymus Carl Friedrich von Münchhausen retired to his family estate in Bodenwerder, in the German duchy of Brunswick-Lüneberg, after more than twenty years of service abroad as a cavalry officer in the army of the czars. Not surprisingly, he had a lot of stories to tell about his long sojourn in Russia, which among other things had involved him in two military campaigns against the Ottoman Empire and its allies, the Crimean Tatars. Like most aristocrats of his day, Baron Münchhausen spent a lot of time in his retirement at dinner parties, balls, and other social gatherings, at which his wealth of adventuresome anecdotes made him a significant element of the entertainment in his own right. Now when a person acquires a reputation as an entertaining storyteller, at some point it becomes more important that their stories be entertaining than that they be true, and beyond that, Münchhausen lived at a time when reliable knowledge about the world outside one’s experience was relatively difficult to come by. The baron understood both those points very well, and as his fame as a raconteur grew, so too did the liberties he took with the accuracy of his reminisces. However noteworthy his real experiences in the East, his friends and associates in Bodenwerder could count on hearing versions that were wittier, bawdier, more exciting, and just generally larger than life.
There’s nothing out of the ordinary about that, of course, but subsequent developments were unusual to say the least. Such was the impression that Münchhausen left on his listeners that not only did his stories spread far beyond his own circle of acquaintances, but so too did the central importance of the baron himself as their teller. Münchhausen’s hearers realized that he was having them on to some extent, and just as he embroidered his foreign adventures, the people who retold his stories later embroidered the embroideries. The teller of tall tales thus became a subject for yet taller ones, in which his exaggerations were the very thing that became exaggerated. Indeed, Münchhausen lived to see himself become a character of literature as well as legend, for at some point, his stories found their way to the ears of a German expatriate in London by the name of Rudolph Raspe. In 1785, Raspe published in pamphlet form a collection of stories entitled The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which included a mix of tales supposedly originating with the baron, material of Raspe’s own featuring Münchhausen as the central figure, and old German folktales into which Raspe had inserted him. The following year, an expanded version, translated and much augmented by Gottfried Bürger, appeared in Germany, and sold so well that a second edition came out in 1788. It was reportedly a source of some consternation for Münchhausen to learn that he had a fictional alter ego who was a much bigger liar than he had ever considered being, but immortality is immortality. The real Baron Münchhausen died in 1797; the Raspe-Bürger version, however, lives on.
This is where the story turns a little dark. No, scratch that— it turns a lot dark. You see, by the start of the 20th century, Bürger’s Münchhausen book had taken on the same “literary comfort food” quality as the works of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. No German was unacquainted with it, and most would get the warm fuzzies just hearing the name Münchhausen. Now flash forward to 1939, when Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and MGM’s The Wizard of Oz were released in Germany to great popular success. Adolf Hitler, in his twisted way, was a film buff, and both of those movies strongly impressed him. But like every impressive thing done by foreigners, Snow White and The Wizard of Oz also inflamed Hitler’s chronic case of nationalist penis envy, and left him asking if Germans couldn’t do the same thing at least as well. Josef Goebbels, too, saw much to like in the idea of a properly Aryan escapist spectacular, especially now that the Third Reich was at war in Poland, technically at war with Britain, and soon to be at war in France. Give the public something fun to distract them from the privations necessary for conquering the world, you know? And by a fortuitous coincidence, the 25th anniversary of the famous UFA studio was coming up, offering an obvious excuse to undertake some massive, lavish production in celebration. Goebbels put the full weight of his propaganda ministry behind the project, even to the extent of granting a waiver for banned author Erich Kästner to write the screenplay under a pseudonym. (Always the most pragmatic of the top Nazis, Goebbels believed a good writer was preferable to an ideologically reliable one under the circumstances. Besides, Kästner could always be re-blacklisted after the screenplay was completed.) Money was no object; time was no object; UFA would even enjoy the loan of several hundred Wehrmacht soldiers for the crowd and battle scenes. The result, after three years, was a film that I am extremely uncomfortable enjoying as much as I do. I mean, I’m well accustomed to liking some suspect shit, but a movie whose production was instigated by Josef Fucking Goebbels is on a whole new level of *ick!*.
Baron Hieronymus Münchhausen (Hans Albers, from The Ripper and Gold) has just moved into the Bodenwerder castle once owned by his famous namesake ancestor, and he’s throwing a masquerade to celebrate his homecoming. A few of the guests stick around after the party breaks up, and remarkably enough, none of them are conversant with the legend of their host’s forebear beyond that he was supposed to have been the biggest liar who ever lived. Not so, says the baron, who then gathers everyone into the garden to hear the incredible yet true story of the original Hieronymus Münchhausen’s adventures.
That’s right— it’s flashback time. The 18th-century Baron Münchhausen (also Hans Albers) is entertaining his longtime friend and valet, Christian Kuchenreuter (Hermann Speelmans, from Sherlock Holmes: The Gray Lady and the German-speaking version of F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer), who has a new invention to show off. Both men are avid hunters, so you can understand their enthusiasm for a rifle with a telescopic sight that Galileo would envy and an effective range best measured in leagues. While peering through the miraculous weapon’s scope, Christian observes that Münchhausen is about to have another guest, for ambling down the road to the castle is Karl von Braunschweig, the Duke of Brunswick (Mistress of the World’s Michael Bohnen). Duke Karl, when he finally arrives, has come on business. He just accepted a commission as a cavalry commander from Catherine the Great of Russia (Brigitte Horney, of The Trygon Factor and Rasputin: Demon with Women), and he would be both pleased and honored if Münchhausen would come along as part of his retinue. Never one to turn down an adventure, the baron immediately sets his servants to packing.
Once in Russia, Münchhausen wastes no time in becoming the czarina’s latest lover. He also wastes no time in winning the enmity of Prince Potemkin (Andrews Engelmann, from Fantomas Against Fantomas and Count Cagliostro: Life and Loves of a Great Adventurer), the previous holder of that position. And speaking, as we were in the parentheses, of Count Cagliostro, the man himself (The Tunnel’s Ferdinand Marian) puts in an appearance trying to interest Münchhausen in a conspiracy to conquer Poland. (Given the bad blood between Erich Kästner and the Nazi regime, I find it very interesting that this sinister figure shares one of Hitler’s most cherished foreign policy objectives.) Münchhausen turns Cagliostro down, but later warns him of the danger when it comes to the baron’s attention that friends of the Polish crown have prevailed upon Catherine to have the scheming sorcerer arrested. In gratitude, Cagliostro makes Münchhausen ageless and immortal, and throws in a single-dose invisibility potion as well.
Of course, Karl and Hieronymus came to Russia to fight, and it isn’t long before Yussuf Pasha (Victor Janson, of The Doll and The Earthquake Motor), leader of the Crimean Tatars, furnishes them with an opportunity to do so. On the front lines of the conflict, at the fortress of Ochakov, Münchhausen meets and befriends the fastest runner in the world (Walter Lieck), who is working as a courier between the forts along the Crimean frontier. The film never gives this guy a name, so I propose we call him Walli Westen. The baron also falls victim to a dirty trick by Potemkin, who sneaks up behind him to fire the loaded cannon whose muzzle Münchhausen had been straddling for a better vantage point against the enemy fortifications. The cannonball carries him with it all the way to Yussuf Pasha’s palace, where he falls into the Tatars’ clutches, and is sent off to Istanbul as a gift for Sultan Abdulhamid (Leo Slezak).
In his Turkish captivity, Münchhausen wins the somewhat grudging admiration of the sultan, and thoroughly charms all of his fellow slaves. He also falls in love from afar with the Italian princess Isabella D’Este (Ilse Werner), whom he sees each day pining for freedom at one of the harem’s windows. Münchhausen determines to rescue her somehow, but he’s at a loss for how to do so until another POW caravan reunites him with Kuchenreuter and Westen. In his daily chats with the sultan, Münchhausen has learned that Abdulhamid has a taste for Austrian wines, but finds it difficult to get the good stuff despite even his power, wealth, and connections, thanks to the Sharia ban on alcoholic beverages. The baron makes a bet with his captor that his servants can procure the finest wine in Vienna, and have it back to Topkapi Palace within one hour, if the sultan will release them. Münchhausen will forfeit his head if he loses the wager, but if he wins, he gets not only his freedom, but his pick of the girls from the imperial harem. Naturally Walli Westen performs as advertised, but Abdulhamid attempts to cheat by passing off one of his lesser concubines as Isabella D’Este. At that, Münchhausen quaffs Cagliostro’s potion, and performs a daring raid on the harem. Guards and eunuchs alike are caught flat-footed, and the next thing Isabella knows, she’s on her way to Venice aboard a stolen ship with Münchhausen (who has regained his opacity by that point), Kuchenreuter, and Westen.
Venice, unfortunately, turns out to be a den of vipers, and the worst of the lot is Isabella’s own brother, Francesco (Werner Scharf). Conspiring with the doge (Franz Schlafheitlin, from The Sorcerer and Dead Eyes of London) and an agent of the Papal Inquisition, Prince D’Este has Isabella kidnapped and confined to a convent, and true to the warning of Casanova (Gustav Waldau), there’s nothing that even Münchhausen and his talented retainers can do about it. The baron and Kuchenreuter are lucky to escape with their lives (Walli is not) by helping themselves to Francesco’s own hot air balloon. Thus begins their greatest exploit yet, for the balloon lifts them all the way to the Moon. The detachable-headed Selenites (played most prominently by Wilhelm Bendow, of The Lost Shadow and the first talkie Alraune, and Marianne Simson, from a German live-action Snow White and the Seven Dwarves) are hospitable enough, but the Lunar environment itself is less so. Because the Moon’s orbital period equals its period of rotation, a day and a year there are the same. That’s no problem for the immortal Münchhausen, but his loyal valet is in danger of aging to death if they don’t figure out what’s going on and return to Earth soon.
Grandeur and whimsy do not mix easily. Normally the former overwhelms the latter, or the latter deflates the former. In Münchhausen, though, Kästner and director Josef von Baky create a sort of colloid of the two moods that allows them to coexist in surprising comfort. Look at the cannonball sequence, and you’ll see what I mean. Premises don’t come much more whimsical than “guy grabs onto cannonball that was supposed to kill him, and rides it all the way to a safe crash-landing in the tower of a pasha’s castle,” and the scene is shot with all the live-action cartoonishness you’d expect of such a thing. But in the process, Münchhausen sails over two huge armies of extras, and his final approach to the castle is a special effects tour-de-force by the standards of 1943. With the combined resources of UFA and the Ministry of Propaganda at his disposal, Baky could afford to think bigger than any filmmaker had since the silent era, but the puckish sense of humor in Kästner’s script keeps the movie light and agile on its feet no matter how much pomp it’s carrying around. There’s a thrid, even more unexpected mood blended into Münchhausen, too— an easygoing eroticism that suggests what Hollywood movies might have been like by the 1940’s, had the bluenoses lost the big censorship fights of 1930-1934. My first instinct is that we’re looking at a lingering holdover from the sensibility of Weimar-era Berlin; my second is that this is a case of Goebbels’s notorious libertinism getting one over on Hitler’s equally notorious prudery. The truth, though, is that I can’t explain how this stuff got in here with any degree of confidence. What I can tell you is that Münchhausen takes a remarkably adult approach to sexual matters, in both senses of the term. On the one hand, if you wanted to see stuff like Cagliostro’s animate painting of a reclining nude or the mass topless bathing of the sultan’s concubines on contemporary American movie screens, you had nowhere to turn in most cases but to the adults-only roadshow circuit. And on the other, the openness, honestly, and lack of shame or condemnation with which Münchhausen treats the baron’s affair with Catherine the Great or Kuchenreuter’s various amorous exploits indicate a level of maturity that I’m not sure the US cinema industry has ever attained.
So what we have here is an inventive, impressive, engrossing, witty, sexy, and technically accomplished film that outdoes practically anything else of its time for sheer escapist spectacle— and that’s exactly what makes Münchhausen such creepy, discomfiting viewing. Watching this movie, you experience firsthand how scarily good the Nazis were at manipulating the mass audience, even when they weren’t overtly propagandizing. Münchhausen is like the alien-controlled media in They Live; it looks innocuous and un-ideological, but below the surface, it’s telling you to OBEY, to CONFORM, to MARRY AND REPRODUCE, and above all to STAY ASLEEP. Don’t think about the war. Don’t think about the bombs falling day and night over every industrially significant city in the nation. Don’t think about the neighbors who disappeared without a trace last week. Don’t think about the smells of diesel exhaust and roasting meat wafting down on the wind from that fenced-in compound in the hills. Of course, all that was 70 years ago, and we 21st-century types have no compelling reason to think much about those things anyway. But Münchhausen wants us to STAY ASLEEP, too. It wants us to sit back, to enjoy the ride, and to forget that despite all outward appearances to the contrary, it is a propaganda film. It wants us to forget that its core purpose— indeed, the core purpose of the entire industry that produced it— was to pacify a people while their leaders ran amok. And goddamnit, it works. It works really well. When I finished Münchhausen, thoroughly charmed and entertained, and left marveling at its technical achievements, I could almost hear Goebbels chuckling in satisfaction at his ministry’s latest tiny victory, won from beyond the grave.