Munchausen serves as an example of just how hard it can sometimes be to separate a film from its context. Like it or hate it, you simply can’t discuss it without addressing its role as a sort of cinematic show pony for the Third Reich. Joseph Goebbels commissioned the film to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Germany’s UFA studio, and decreed that no expense be spared in making it a dazzling spectacle competitive with the likes of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, as well as a shining example of everything that the German film industry was capable of. Given that, it’s tempting to see Munchausen’s every frame as dripping with malevolence, despite its positioning itself as a lighthearted crowd pleaser, and to regard its every instance of sentimentality as egregiously grotesque.
However, there are a couple of things that make it difficult to bag and tag Munchausen quite so handily, and these in addition to its undeniable technical excellence. For one, it was written by Erich Kastner, the author most known outside Germany for Emil and the Detectives, who a decade earlier had seen his books burned by the Nazis for his alleged leftist leanings. Goebbels gave Kastner (who is rumored to have been part Jewish) a special dispensation in this case due to the simple fact that he was one of the only qualified authors who had not long since fled Germany. With this knowledge in hand, it’s easy to see within the finished product possible instances of Kastner taking veiled potshots at the regime. One example of this is a scene in which the sorcerer Cagliostro petitions the titular Baron Munchausen’s aid in conquering Poland, only to be rebuffed by the hero, who replies that his interests lie with living rather than ruling.
On top of this, Kastner’s take on the oft told tale of Baron Munchausen is for the most part an adult one, lacking the faux naiveté that, were it strictly a children’s film, would make for an unbearable dissonance with its political origins. In fact, I don’t recall any other version of the story being quite so concerned with the Baron’s cocksmanship. (Granted, I found Terry Gilliam’s adaptation too boring to even finish, and only remember Karel Zeman’s version vaguely, if fondly, from watching it when I was a kid.) Over the course of the movie, Munchausen (Hans Albers) successfully woos both Catherine the Great (Brigitte Horney) and a beautiful Italian princess, leaving even Casanova himself in awe, while all the while having frequent mention made of his many conquests. To further drive home this randy subtext, director Josef von Baky even provides the audience with a surprising eyeful of female nudity, most notably in a scene involving a bevy of topless harem girls.
Elsewhere, Munchausen focuses less on its protagonist as a teller of tall tales than as a swashbuckling adventurer, whisking him briskly from one exotic intrigue to the next. Of course, the staple fantasy elements -- the ride on the cannonball, the preternaturally swift footed messenger, a scene in which the clothes in Munchausen’s closet come to life and must be subdued by gunfire -- are all ticked off, providing a whimsical backdrop for all of this more straightforward action to take place against. But it’s not until the film’s final act, when Munchausen and crew find themselves transported by balloon to the surface of the Moon, that production designers Emil Hasler and Otto Golsttorff and special effects director Konstantin Irmen-Tschet really pull out all the stops. Shot on fastidiously inorganic looking interior sets, this is a hyperreal vision of the cosmos as hallucinogen inspired theme park ride, far more Disneyland than Disney.
Lest I come across as making excuses for Munchausen, I will say that it often struck me as being obscene in its opulence. Obviously, few restrictions were put upon it being as lavish as possible and, as a result, its frames at times appear stuffed to bursting, the overly ornate sets -- captured in an explosion of rich pastels by the recently developed Agfacolor process – threatening to crowd the actors off the screen. It’s an over indulgence that would in different circumstances merely be laughably gaudy, but given the wartime realities of the time leaves a particularly bitter taste. Of course, one feels obligated to say such things -- nagged all the while by the temptation to simply engage Munchausen on its innocuous and pleasantly kitschy surface. It feels pretentious to lay the onus of history upon something that, divorced from that history, appears to be an agreeable trifle, yet to not do so would be to deny the larger story that Munchausen has been forged by both circumstances and design to tell.
True to that design, Munchausen became a huge hit upon its release, offering the German populace a momentary distraction from a war that was increasingly seeming like it might not have the hoped for fairytale ending. One might wonder if Goebbels could have seen in that success a tribute to himself, a celebration that extended from one great fabulist to another. Whatever the case, his subsequent ignominy insures that today Munchausen has evolved into the antithesis of the propagandist’s typical intention; a piece of candy that one takes like medicine.