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FEATURING: Miloš Kopecký, Jana Brejchová, Rudolf Jelínek
PLOT: An astronaut, Tonik, discovers that he is not the first man on the Moon, having been beaten there by literary figures Cyrano de Bergerac, Jules Verne’s protagonists of “From the Earth to the Moon,” and Baron Munchausen. Mistaking the astronaut as a native moonman, Munchausen volunteers to take him back to Earth to show him the ways of earthlings. The pair there rescue a princess from a sultan and are swallowed by a fish, among other fantastic adventures.
- The character of Baron Munchausen comes from Rudolf Erich Raspe’s 1785 novel “Baron Munchausen’s narrative of his marvellous travels and campaigns in Russia.” Raspe based Muchausen on a real-life German officer who was notorious for embellishing tales of his own military exploits. Czechs traditionally called the same character “Baron Prásil.”
- Munchausen’s stories have been adapted to film many times, beginning with a short in 1911.
- Karel Zeman’s previous film, the black and white Invention for Destruction [Vynález zkázy], won the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival at Expo 58, and was considered the most successful Czech film of all time. Baron Prásil was even more ambitious, adding a luscious color palette and expanding on the techniques Zeman had pioneered in his previous work.
- Home Cinema Choice named The Fabulous Baron Munchausen‘s 2017 remaster the best restoration of the year.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Red smoke billowing in a yellow sky as the Baron and companions escape on horseback.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Cyrano and pals on the Moon; Pegasus-drawn spaceship
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Baron Prasil is a stunning visual feast combining live-action and animation, the effect far surpassing the modest means (by then-current standards) with which it was made.
Trailer for the restored version of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen
COMMENTS: “If he’s endowed with such imagination, let’s see some grand display of it!” – Baron Munchausen (Miloš Kopecký)
That line could just as easily be spoken by the audience, throwing down the gauntlet to the storyteller to entertain them. That it is spoken by one of the grand storytellers (liars?) in literature, near the end of the film after having witnessed such a grand display, is cheek of the highest order. The success is even more ironic considering that such an imaginative work was made under the auspices of the Communist Government, not an institution noted for embracing imagination.
Baron Munchausen has been a popular figure for adaptations over the years. A 1943 German production and Terry Gilliam’s 1988 version bookend Zeman’s 1962 vision. (Gilliam freely admits he borrowed considerably from Zeman.) The major difference among the three films is the production. The 1943 and 1988 versions were each, for their time and place, big-budget live action spectacles. Zeman worked on a smaller scale using a combination of animation and live action, giving his film a very stylized look; in this case, evoking the artwork of Gustave Doré, who illustrated the Munchausen stories in the 19th century.
Zeman showed an affinity for such romantic fantasy. His previous film, Invention For Destruction, was based on a Jules Verne tale, as were two of his subsequent films, The Stolen Airship and On the Comet. Two of Verne’s characters from “From The Earth To The Moon” make cameo appearances in Baron Prásil. The adventures themselves, which range from the Moon to the Ottoman Empire to under the sea, are the stuff of romantic fantasy; visions which might be in danger of being crowded out by the approaching world of science. Sighting a witch riding a broomstick as they make their way back to Earth, the Baron points out to Tonik that not even the witches take chances anymore: her broom is held aloft by two balloons tied at each end.
In Gilliam’s take on the legend, Munchausen’s adventures are exaggerations of rationality (that turn out to be true—possibly), centered on fantasy vs. reality, and the interdependence between the two. Zeman’s film tackles that theme in a different form. The Baron considers himself to be the “realist” and “moonman” Tonik (who is a scientist) to be the “lunatic fabulist.” Observing Tonik’s attempt to build a steamship (after the company has escaped the belly of a fish that has carried them across the seas), the Baron notes: “such nonsense requires a hefty dose of imagination. No one enjoys a wild ride more than me, but I generally prefer to remain on terra firma.” Upon uttering this declaration, the Baron is suddenly carried off by a huge bird.
The competition between fantasy and science is like the rivalry between The Baron and Tonik for the affections of the Princess. But it proves to be a friendly rivalry; as their adventures progress, the Baron comes to have some respect for this lunatic moonman who, in the end, manages a feat worthy of Munchausen himself. And even though Tonik claims that “the stars will cease to be a mystery to us – there will be no mysteries anymore, except the mystery of love,” the last word is had by Cyrano. He doffs his hat, which spirals into the stars, welcoming “all you brave souls hurtling at breakneck speed into the arms of the Cosmos.” A very romantic thing indeed.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…[Zeman was] a pioneer of the hallucinatory and strange… Zeman depicts these scenes like fever dreams of early silent films, each segment being extravagantly dyed with different color filters while utilizing disorienting forced perspective to summon exotic Turkish cities and besieged European fortresses.”–Nathaniel Hood, The Retro Set (Criterion box set)
OFFICIAL SITE: The Fabulous Baron Muchausen – The Munchausen page at the Karel Zeman Museum’s official site
IMDB LINK: The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Fabulous Baron Munchausen – The Criterion Collection page hosts a clip from the film and a number of stills
Terry Gilliam introduces THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN – Gilliam gushes over Munchausen at a 2017 screening
OFF WITH YOUR NOSE!: A LOOK AT THE LONG, STRANGE, CINEMATIC HISTORY OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN – A history of Muchausen’s three main film adaptations
The Fabulous World of Karel Zeman – Keith Alison surveys Zeman’s entire career for Diabolique
HOME VIDEO INFO: The Fabulous Baron Munchausen is part of the Criterion Collection’s recent Blu-ray box set, “Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman (buy) (see our complete review). It’s an excellent introduction to his work. Munchausen can also be streamed on the Criterion Channel (subscription required).
Zeman’s other features may get Blu-ray releases in the near future, but if you can’t wait: his anti-war satire A Jester’s Tale is also available from Second Run on all-region DVD, and the Karel Zeman Museum offers region-free DVDs of eight Zeman films in all.
(This movie was suggested by Zack Harrison, who wrote “I didn’t see any postings about the work of Karel Zeman. I just watched two of his films and they are great and unique.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)