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The Good, the Bad, and the Movies

September 1st, 2003 (05:23 pm)
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© 2003 D. Gordon. First posted September 1, 2003 on MilkPlus.

In 1941, Joseph Goebbels, Reichminister for Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment, commissioned a movie to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the famed Ufa film studios. This movie was meant to be a wonder: the fourth color film in German history, a big budget extravaganza with a five million Reichmark budget, starring forty-five of Ufa's stars. It also served as a Nazi challenge to Hollywood - which became more important as the Third Reich suffered serious millitary reversals over the two-year course of production.

The movie is Josef von Báky's Münchhausen. It was Báky, not Goebbels, who chose the subject: apparently Erich Kästner (a writer who had been banned by the Nazis, but allowed to write for the movie under a pseudonym) suggested that, since he had a commission from the world's greatest liar (Goebbels), Báky should make a film about Goebbels's greatest competitor, Baron Münchhausen. Whatever the motivation, no one in the regime noticed the slight and the movie went on to become a huge commercial and technical hit, sometimes described as "Nazi Germany's finest cinematic moment."

In late August of this year, Eureka Video released a restored version of Münchhausen on DVD. Despite feeling vaguely like I was about to watch a car wreck, I tracked down a copy.

So how was it?

The movie itself is very good. There are a number of Baron Münchhausen books; my guess is that the book behind this version predates Terry Gilliam's version (or Gilliam added quite a bit of his own material). Whatever happened, Báky's version just works better. The framing device - a 1940s costume ball and a meeting afterward - plays out more smoothly than Gilliam's acting troupe. (The ball sets the mood for what's to come: we're at a 17th-century ball, then Münchhausen flips a light switch, the orchestra starts playing a foxtrot, and a character drives away in a Mercedes. It's pretty clear that reality here will be a little bent.) The Báky plot is tighter and more linear, focusing more on the "fantabulous" aspects of the original tale without the detours into cute kids, lessons on human nature and star turns (hey, Ray Di Tutto - I'm talkin' to you). Even Hans Albers, described as the most popular German actor of his generation, seems a more believable Baron than the very British John Neville.

The technical elements are far ahead of most other films released at the time, and could give some current movies a run for their money. There's the color: it's slightly washed out (don't know much about film stock properties, but this was originally shot on nitrate), but still vivid. The use of color greatly boosts the fantastic aspect of the narrative - it would have been hard to create the feeling of an adventure tale without it. The Turkish Pasha's harem, for example, is sumptuous: guards in colorful livery, parrots with rainbow plumage, a princess in a glittering gown, concubines in dazzling and diaphanous costumes. (Forget the kiddies, though - some of those concubines are stitchless.) Color makes the grand gondola parade through Venice an eee-vent, and meetings with the sinister Count Cagliostro cold and forbidding. If the purpose of the movie was to impress, the way color is used more than succeeds.

The movie also uses special effects successfully to enhance those fanciful aspects. A closet full of clothes contracts rabies, and the coats jump around the room. The Baron, dueling with an adversary, shreds the man's clothing in a flash of swordplay without nicking him. (This scene also includes an early and creative use of handheld cameras.) The talking head of the daughter of the Man on the Moon (made up in glitter and various shades of vivid red) converses with Münchhausen while perched on a flower. The Baron flies through the air on a cannonball, crashes into a Turkish tower, and emerges from the destruction with a "salaam alekum" and a little soot on his face. We get to see The Runner (who can cover 2,000 miles in an hour when he's out of shape) both up close and from a distance as he makes his trips; the Six Million Dollar Man could have directly lifted this effect. It's not CGI, but it works just as well - and, in some cases, better. This movie is a fantasy adventure in the best sense of the word.

BUT... what about the Nazi part?

The movie is not a propaganda piece for the Third Reich. I do believe that the main point was to demonstrate Nazi accomplishments in wartime, rather than to promote philosophy. You will find bits of Nazi thinking - depictions of barbaric Russians and politically dangerous Poles, incredibly tow-headed children, and one line that Münchhausen solemnly utters when invited by the Pasha to stay in Turkey: "Everyone has one homeland just as they have one mother." But I have seen similarly objectionable bits from Harold Lloyd (among others). It would be much easier to condemn if the purpose was a clear National Socialist message.

The thing to keep in mind may be just how gray gray areas can be. There is one imperial banquet scene which uses SS men (many of the props were authentic and on loan from castles, and it was felt that SS men would be less likely to steal them); these are clearly The Bad Guys. But it's not so clear how many of the actors were collaborationists vs. unable to leave Germany and/or trying to get their families through the war. From all indications, director Báky and writer Kästner were not sympathizers.

This brings up an interesting question. Münchhausen is far from being the first or last movie with questionable roots: see, for example, Eisenstein and Stalinist Russia, Ozu and imperial Japan, The Gods Must Be Crazy and apartheid South Africa, D. W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation, even Leni Riefenstahl and her technically perfect but morally suspect films. Is it really possible to watch and appreciate a movie separate from its subject matter and/or social context? I'm sure that most people have a personal line defining what they will watch; part of my hope is to start some discussion on this. I know generally what my line is (and I spent some time mulling over moral aspects before tracking down the DVD, coming to the conclusion that it was a part of history and the Third Reich wasn't getting my money). But in the end, boycotting an old film and avoiding the topic wouldn't accomplish anything. In this case, it was best to view the movie, know its background, and understand its good and bad aspects before passing judgment - and to accept that pure good and evil are just as fanciful as the Baron.

Watch the movie, and decide for yourself.