Director: Karel Zeman
Production: Ceskoslovensky Statni Film; AGFA colour, 35mm; running time: 81 minutes.
Screenplay: Karel Zeman and Josef Kainar, from the original novel by Gottfried Burger; assistant directors: Zdenek Rozkopal and Jan Mimra; photography: Jiri Tarantik; art director: Karel Zeman; set design: Zdenek Rozkopal; music: Zdenek Liska.
Milos Kopecky (
); Jana Brejchova (
); Rudolf Jelinek (
); Jan Werich (
Captain of Dutch ship
); Rudolf Hrusinsky (
); Eduard Kohout (
Commander of the fortress
); Karel Hoger (
Cyrano de Bergerac
); Karel Effa (
Officer of the guard
); Bohus Zahorsky (
Captain of the pirate ship
); Nadezda Blazickova (
); Bohus Zahorsky (
Stephenson, Ralph, Animation in the Cinema (London), 1967.
Halas, John, Masters of Animation (London), 1987.
Konradva, Libuse, "Putting on a Style," in Films and Filming (London), June 1961.
Benesova, Marie, "A New Approach to Baron Munchausen," in Czechoslovak Film (Prague), no. 1, 1962.
Benesova, Marie, "Munchausens heitere wiedergeburt," in Deutsche Film Kunst (Berlin), no. 5, 1962.
Phillipe, Pierre, "Le Baron de Crac," in Cinéma (Paris) and Variety (New York), 18 July 1962.
Cinema Nuovo (Milano), July/August 1964.
Monthly Film Bulletin (London), November 1967.
Thonen, John, "The Fabulous Adventures of Baron Munchhausen," in Filmfax (Evanston, Illinois), no. 26, April-May 1991.
* * *
Once named National Artist of Czechoslovakia, director, designer, artist, and animator, Karel Zemen, co-founded the Gottwaldov Studio in 1943, allying the traditional puppet entertainment long enjoyed in Czechoslovakia since the seventeenth century, and new experimental approaches to film. Zemen established his reputation with films like Inspiration (1944), in which he animated solid and blown glass, an apparently unyielding, if plentiful material in Czechoslovakia. The Mr. Prokouk cartoon series (1947) followed, and established a character who became a national hero in illustrating the shortfalls of a bureaucratic system. Zemen extended his interest in combining the material world with the conditions of the animated form in longer films like Journey into Prehistory (1955) and The Invention of Destruction (1958) which foregrounded apocalyptic warnings amidst the humour and anarchy of fantastic fiction.
Zemen's Baron Munchhausen (1961) is a tour de force exercise in how film form can properly illustrate the conceit of its subject. Combining live action, animation, and numerous theatrical devices and special effects, Zemen simultaneously creates modes of "illusion" while directly illustrating the romantic "delusion" of his eponymous hero. Deliberately referencing the "magical" aspects of Melies' films and the thematic concerns of his great literary hero, Jules Verne, Zemen deconstructs the notion of a romantic flight of fancy, literally using "flight" as the central motivating force in his quasi-picaresque narrative. "Flight" here, is simultaneously the soaring ambition of freedom, the desperate need to escape, and a mode of scientific achievement.
Emerging from the credit sequence pages of an illustrated children's book, the story commences with a storm, and the creation of an uncertain and strange world where footprints in the sand lead nowhere and a frog perches on a jug in a pool of water. The next sequence anticipates the celebrated jump-cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) where a bone is tossed in the air by prehistoric man and becomes a spacecraft thousands of years in the future. Zemen, like Kubrick, also makes comment on the passing of time and the notion of progress by treating the sky as if it were a scroll. As each part of "the scroll" is pulled down into the frame it reveals an element in the history of aviation, from a bird to a flying man to an early aircraft through to a jet and finally, a rocket. In the rocket is the astronaut, Tonik, who lands on the moon, and is surprisingly greeted by his romantic forbears of science fiction, Cyrano de Bergerac, Barbican, and Captain Nichol from Verne's novels, and eventually, Baron Munchhausen himself. The film immediately foregrounds its interest in the tension between scientific achievement and heroic aspiration, and sustains this theme by pairing Tonik and the Baron in the adventures that follow. Tonik has been mistaken by the Baron as a "moondweller," and therefore, as an alien. This serves as a convenient metaphor for the Baron's distanciation from the astronaut, and a clear indication that for him, "the moon" may only be colonised by dreamers and romantics, and not by literally travelling there. Throughout the course of the film though, it is the Baron who must come to terms with the fact that it is the astronaut who represents a contemporary romantic hero.
Tonik and the Baron, like the other characters in the film, are live action figures but they inhabit a world which becomes a mixture of highly textured artificial sets, camera tricks distorting size and scale, colour saturated film-stocks ranging from icy-blue to warm gold, and animated sequences with all manner of flying creatures, sea monsters, and visual jokes. Zemen essentially intervenes in the Baron's telling of the tale, exposing him not merely as a romantic fraud but as a man out of touch with "modern" reality.
Both Tonik and the Baron fall in love with Bianca, a princess sold to a Turkish sultan by pirates, but it is ultimately Tonik who wins her hand despite of the Baron's apparently heroic exploits on her behalf. Zemen is careful to use an array of effects to illustrate these exploits, but simultaneously, such spectacle and exaggeration only casts considerable doubt upon the claims of the Baron as a hero.
While apparently creating a tale composed of heroic adventures, Zemen undermines the authenticity of the heroic gesture.
Incredible set pieces, for example, where the Baron defeats 10,000 Turks amidst a montage of sparking blades, roaring lions, collapsing silhouettes of soldiers, and swirling red clouds, are undermined by the following scene of Tonik merely knocking out the palace guard and winning Bianca's favour by playing several sonorous notes on a gong. This motif re-occurs later as the couple are re-united by notes played on a spider's web and a whistle. Zemen counterpoints the comic failings of the Baron with Tonik's guile and efficiency. Consequently, Zemen can also use the "fantastic" environment as a vehicle for humour. One particular example involves two-dimensional collage animation, where a ship's figurehead removes a pipe and releases the smoke from all the crew smoking within the ship. This is very reminiscent of the style later adopted by Monty Python's animator, Terry Gilliam, who acknowledged the ongoing influence of Zemen's work by re-making The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen in 1988. This joke is extended in Zemen's film by using the crew's smoke to camouflage a ship that the Baron is escaping on. The Turkish fleet, lined up on either side of the ship, inevitably fire over the Baron's ship and destroy each other. This would be amusing enough but Zemen uses bathos to further highlight the eccentricity of the Baron, who says, undaunted, "A few stray balls sank our ship, but that's only to be expected!"
Though the Baron is given the opportunity to impress the princess when they are left alone together travelling the world inside the body of a whale (and Zemen can show us literal versions of the Red, Yellow, and Black Seas), it is Tonik that the Princess ultimately wants. While Tonik imagines how he might escape the conflicts in Europe, the Baron seeks out the enemy, flying on a cannonball and crashing through a window, which in true cartoon fashion, exactly replicates his splayed outline. The more foolish the Baron seems, the more truly heroic Tonik becomes, as he escapes imprisonment, accused of hiding all the army's gunpowder, re-unites with Princess Bianca, and leaves with her, initially hiding in two suits of armour.
The Baron then accidentally throws his match down a well where Tonik has indeed hidden the fortress' gunpowder—the explosive "launches" the fortress, which looks like a rocket, and the two lovers, whose suits of armour conveniently turn into rocket-powered astronaut suits are projected back to the moon. "Success" it seems, is in the hands of intelligent men employing science and technology, and not with heroic daydreamers like the Baron.
This is particularly relevant because in 1959 the Soviet Union had launched the Lunik spaceprobes which had both landed on the moon and provided the first pictures from its far side, while in 1961, the year Baron Munchhausen was released, Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first human being to orbit the earth in Vostok 1. Scientific fact was rapidly catching up with, and over-taking, fantastic fiction. Zemen's film is both a lament for period-style swashbuckling romance and a recognition that "History changes its clock," and as Cyrano de Bergerac says while spinning his hat into space as if it were a flying saucer in the film's elegiac yet hopeful coda, "We are journeying towards the mighty embrace called the universe."