Munchhausen Review

Josef von Baky’s glorious 1943 version of the world’s greatest adventurer (or the world’s greatest liar) was commissioned by the Third Reich’s Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, and it was allocated an enormous budget and an all-star UFA cast. Although commissioned by the Nazi government, there is no real propaganda in the film other than to show the glory of a nation that could produce such an extravagant entertainment in the middle of the Second World War.

And what an entertainment! The adventures of the Prince of Brunswick in Lower Saxony, Baron Hieronymus Münchhausen are some of the most imaginative and famous adventures this side of the Arabian Nights. He dines and makes love to Catherine the Great, the beautiful Russian Empress who serves her guests fabulous jewels after dinner; he befriends the great magician Count Cagliostro, who gives him a ring of invisibility and the gift of eternal youth; he flies on a cannonball during a war with the Turks and rescues a beautiful princess to Venice where he meets Casanova and is challenged to a duel by mysterious, masked, costumed men, before flying off to the moon in a hot-air balloon.

Many of the scenes and shots in this 1943 film were more or less replicated by Terry Gilliam in his wonderful folly, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but rarely are they better than von Baky’s original colourful spectacle of marvellous extravagance. Period costumes, sets and décor, colourful harems, elaborate moonscapes, extensive location shooting in Venice – everything adds up to one of the most colourful and entertaining films of the period.

The picture quality is remarkably good considering the age of the material and there has clearly been extensive restoration work done. Marks and scratches remain nevertheless and occasionally lines run through certain reels, but this is really far better than you would imagine. This was the fourth German feature film made in colour and it really made the most of the Agfacolor process. Colours in this restored print can sometimes look a little ‘off’, but the film was actually carefully colour-coded. The framing sequences are yellow and sepia-tinted for example and the Russian sequences have a blue tone, which often makes flesh tones look a little grey. Colour levels fluctuate slightly, which is not unexpected considering the age of the film stock and the amount of restoration that has been done, but overall the colours are full, bright and warm with good contrast and strong blacks. Grain is minimal, reel change marks are sometime visible and there are only one or two missing frames, which isn’t bad at all.

The soundtrack has also doubtlessly been carefully restored and is excellent. Obviously it has limitations, considering the source material, but the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track here more than adequately represents the film. It is fairly clear throughout, but there are some instances of drop-out and wavering sound, but really this is about as good as can be expected.

Essay (14.26)Third Reich Cinema’s Finest Fictional Moment: Josef von Baky’s Münchhausen - Russell Cawthorne narrates an essay by R Dixon Smith (who also provided the excellent notes on Eureka’s Phantom of the Opera Special Edition), covering the origins of the film’s production in Nazi Germany and some information on the different versions of the film - a two and a half-hour version was cut to 133 mins for the premiere and distributed at 118 mins, with two slightly different export versions (I assume material for the longer cuts is no longer in existence). There is also a walk-though of the film itself and some background on the real Baron Münchhausen.

An extensive, though pointless gallery, showing nothing more than shots from the entire film as stills.

Theatrical Trailer (3.45)
A long trailer covers the grandness of the film and has English subtitles. The trailer is presented bizarrely as a 1.85:1 image compressed to 1.33:1, giving the picture an elongated quality. It is of lesser quality than the actual feature and there are lots of artefacting problems here.

The magical and fabulous quality of the original version of Baron Münchhausen is still striking today. There is a reason why 60/70 year old films like Münchhausen, Phantom of the Opera and Metropolis receive extensive restoration and special DVD editions – they were exceptional films when they were made and they are still exceptional films worth seeing today.

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