Is it possible to love a gorgeous painting if you know the painter is a drunk, a thief, a scoundrel and a hypocrite? I'd say yes. We all have many faults we can learn to live with. But what if you know the painter sexually abuses children, tortures small animals or is addicted to publicly humiliating the old and the disabled. I could still appreciate the power and the skill behind the painting, but I wouldn't want it hanging in my home. I couldn't look at it without being reminded of the kind of person who produced it.
I feel that way toward Munchhausen, a gorgeous, witty and, at times, ironic fantasy...which was commissioned by Josef Goebbels in late 1941, filmed in 1942 and released in early 1943. No matter how excellent the film is -- and it is in many ways an excellent film -- for me it has the smell of the death camps about it. Goebbels wanted a huge extravaganza of a film for two reasons. Ostensibly, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of UFI, the famous German film company which by then was under the control of Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda. Goebbels really wanted a major full-color film which would demonstrate the glories of German -- read Nazi -- culture and technical artistry, one which would surpass films like The Thief of Bagdad and The Wizard of Oz. He settled on the story of Baron Munchhausen, gave the producers an unlimited budget, approved the hiring of a gifted screenwriter whose works he had banned and whose books he had burned, and saw to it that leading actors and actresses took part. Goebbels was given a hit by the moviemakers. When it was released he had already made his famous speech about all-out war now being essential. Bombing attacks on Germany were happening with regularity. The Wehrmacht was being ground into hamburger at the outskirts of Stalingrad. Germans flocked to this make-believe world of Munchhausen where they could forget what was beginning to dawn on them, that terrible times could be right ahead.
Baron Hieronymous Munchhausen might have been a great adventurer, might have been an avid and gracious womanizer, but was certainly a master teller of tales. At a sumptuous party given at his estate, the current Baron Munchhausen encounters a bickering young couple and agrees to tell them the story of his famous ancestor. And what a tale it is, told with wit and philosophical irony, with luscious princesses and topless harem girls, of exotic costumes and magical encounters...and all in Agfacolor, as vibrant as Technicolor. Munchhausen beds Catherine the Great (he calls her Cathy), befriends the sinister magician Cagliostro, flies on a cannonball into the palace of the great Caliph and meets Casanova in Venice, where he fights a flashing duel, reducing his opponent to standing in his underwear amidst the tatters of his clothes, and all without inflicting a scratch. He takes a balloon to the moon, where time is broken, where humans will age a year for every moon day, where the moon people can take off their heads and leave them to entertain guests. He finds horns whose notes freeze in the Russian cold and blare out when they melt, a piano that sounds like a violin, a rifle that can shoot a bullet a hundred miles, a runner who can run from Constantinople to Vienna and back in 60 minutes, a ring that gives invisibility for an hour and a wish fulfilled "to stay as young as I am now, until I myself decide to grow old."
The movie features a wonderful performance by Hans Albers as Munchhausen. Albers somewhat resembles George C. Scott, but with blond hair and green eyes. He can command a scene the same way Scott could. The dialogue is witty and thoughtful, and well translated for the subtitles. "Where other women have a heart," Munchhausen says of an actress, "she has only cleavage." "I no longer enjoy charging through the world," an aging Casanova tells Munchhausen. "The eyes grow sated, but the heart remains empty. Life is short and death chases us off before the game is over."
We started Munchhausen's story by having him tell the tale of his ancestor to a young couple, while his wife sits with him. According to his story, his ancestor was given immortality as long as he wanted it. But is the Munchhausen who is telling the story really the Munchhausen of the adventures? Does our story-teller finally realize the truth of Casanova's words? I wouldn't put it past him to renounce immortality so that he does not stay young while the woman he has come to love grows old, and after he and his wife see the young couple off, to walk hand and hand with her back to their mansion, to grow old happily together. Is this just a story, too?
This is a movie I enjoyed watching, and will enjoy watching again. It is extraordinarily sumptuous. The scenes in Venice were shot there, with beautiful views of the Grand Canal. The music score is, there is no better word, lovely. The movie is one great big adventure after another. There is no obvious Nazi propaganda that I could detect. Unfortunately, I still can't forget the man who wanted the movie made or the wretched lives he and his fellow thugs ensured for millions of people.
The DVD transfer looks very good. The movie has been painstakingly restored.