Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Münchhausen (1943)

Director: Josef von Báky
Starring: Hans Albers

During World War II Nazi Germany not only wanted to prove to the world that they had the most sound army, they wanted to the prove the country produced the finest of all things. Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels was determined to demonstrate Germany’s ability to produce a motion picture of quality that could be called equal to, if not better than Hollywood’s glamorous films. In wishing to attain this form of anticipated excellence he would commission the most expensive and lavish film ever produced in Germany to date. Taking the colorfully popular stories of Germany’s past about a Baron who had experienced and do things so unnatural or even magical, this extravagant Nazi funded film would surprisingly consist of absolutely no means of politics within its story.

Münchhausen is a German fantasy/comedy about a 18th century adventure seeking Baron whose journeys take him to distant lands of danger and romance, seeing and doing the fantastic, while discovering what life truly has to offer a man of his stature. In modern day Germany Hieronymus von Munchhausen (Hans Albers) following a lavish 18th century themed ball entertains two guest with tales his  famous distant relative, Baron Munchhausen. This Germanic nobleman sought no wealth or power, but merely a life of adventure, which lead to him being granted the wish of remaining the same age until the day of his choosing.

His adventures provided him many legends, included affairs with many beautiful women, outwitting great and powerful men by his brain and brawn, and experiencing impossible feats such as flying on a cannonball, wine that appears to pour itself, and even traveling to the moon on a hot air balloon. Upon conclusion of sharing his tales, the 20th Munchhausen reveals he is in fact the same ageless man of his stories. Having learned that love makes being immortal more painful than death, Munchhausen revokes his youthful gift, instantly advancing his age, deciding to live out his remaining mortal life with his wife (Käthe Haack) of 40 years.

The Münchhausen tale, for those not educated on the subject, appears at first as a very disjointed story with inexplicable actions of magic and fantasy that perhaps clashes with the period saga that film appears to want to tell. Dating back to the late 18th century the story of Baron Münchhausen came from the creative mind of German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe, who collected a series of amusing narratives whom he associated with a real live Baron Münchhausen. Years later these stories were compiled and published to become one of the most popular fictional works of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The balloon ride to the moon resembles the Wizard of Oz.

As the German motion picture production company UFA (at this time ran by the Nazi government) neared its 25th anniversary Joseph Goebbels felt it was important for the company, as well as the nation to manifest the strength of Germany’s artistry to both the nation and the world with a splashy major motion picture. Inspired by the colorful fantasies of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, as well as the lavish production quality of Gone with the Wind, Goebbels foresaw a large colorful fantasy motion picture that could equal such films. With German roots the story of Baron Münchhausen was decided to be the source material for this endeavor. To further focus on the artistry of the picture no hints of politics were planned to be buried into the film, letting the fantasy and cinematic arts speak for themselves, an act very uncommon in the Nazi controlled cinema.

With a near limitless budget to work with in this government commissioned motion picture, director Josef Báky would appear to have all sources at his disposal to make this film the finest in German history. Very few German films had the ability to be shot in color to this point. With the lavish period costumes and fanciful locals this picture was determined to be the optimum use of color to date in German cinema to date.

Production had complete control of the Grand Canal for shooting.
To further push for the awe inspiring scope of the picture Báky gained the rights to have full control of the Grand Canal in Venice for his production of the scenes where Münchhausen and his Italian princess return to Italy. This scene serves an unparalleled view of spectacle of this romantic location that no filmmaker perhaps ever had, or ever will have. These precious frames of this scene is filled with thousands of extras all in period costumes, all cheering,  throwing colorful streamers and confetti in the air and fluttering into the canal, as well as dozens of beautiful gondolas rowing through the waters produce incomparable vistas of unadulterated clear views of this extravagant local as never seen before.

Shots like these would be practically unachievable in contemporary days of filmmaking as permits for this large of a location would be massively expensive with control that would call for obedience on nearly an entire major Italian city. Contemporary filmmaker to complete such scenes would likely the recreation of this location through special effects of matte paintings, models, or computer generated imagery. AS Germany and Italy were wartime allies oversaw similarly by dictator control at this time these two nations’ governments had incomparable control. These means allowed for such a location to be used in this nature for such a picture during such an internationally critical time.

Renowned German actor of the period Hans Albers stars in the title role as Baron Münchhausen with a performance that rides a fine line of serious and fantasy. The calm delivery of his performance grabs ahold of the screen as he guides the movie along. No doubt from viewing this film, one can tell that he was considered a major movie star in Germany as he conveys himself with unequalled swagger and confidence above all others on screen.

Albers in many respects can be considered the greatest known German actor of the 30s and early 40s making him the obvious choice for what Goebbels hoped to be the biggest film ever out of Germany. Know widely for his singing as well as being a primary image of masculinity on the German screen, Albers was surprisingly not a supporter of the National Socialist movement in Germany. Harboring a Jewish girlfriend by moving her to England, Albers continued his well-paying profession within his home country in an unspoken deal that gave the impression he supported the Nazi effort in return of government turning an blind eye on his personal life. Sadly after the end of World War II Albers career would sink quickly as the nation was divided and manipulated with shunning individuals once associated with Germany’s Nazi past, despite his never being an official supporter of the party.

Münchhausen was released at an important time for Germany as it premiered shortly after the Nazis took a major lose at the Battle of Stalingrad. It was hoped to raise the spirits of the people of Germany to manifest that the nation was just as strong and powerful as ever, even after a pivotal military loss. The film was well received by the German audiences, with a glaring exception of Adolf Hitler who did not see eye to eye with Goebbels on how this motion picture was used in the respects of propaganda, or lack there of.

The film was massively popular and achieved wide enough success in Germany that is would recuperated its complete substantial budget spent on the project. After the war ended and turmoil in Europe died down the film began to take further root throughout the cinematic world. European and even some American audiences would praise the feature for its production and colorful depiction of the story. It would come to be considered the finest German picture of its time. The fact the feature is completely devoid of any political statements allowed it to be enjoyed for a piece of cinematic art even though it is a product commissioned by the Nazi propaganda movement.

From a contemporary point of view Münchhausen is praised by film scholars for its stronger female roles with the feature as well for all the counterpoints the film makes to Nazi rule. In a way it is the anti-National Socialist movie somehow made under Nazi rule. In any case the film is enjoyed by audiences to this day. By taking a step back from the actions under which the film was produced is can be very amusing, but the picture’s history does add intrigue to the overall interest of the feature.

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