Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Baron Munchausen (1961)

The introduction to Baron Munchausen.

The infrequency with which the works of Czech auteur Karel Zeman make their way on to DVD and the difficulty of obtaining those DVDs is a crime against cinema. His 1961 film Baron Munchausen is a perfect example: its most recent release was a limited pressing of about 100 copies in Japan, which was sold out before it hit shelves.

What we end up missing because of it is an incredible love letter to Zeman's muses. as evidenced by the opening sequence above, Zeman's rendition of the life and times of history's most humble compulsive liar is not a simple narrative of the legends surrounding him. Rather, it begins with a time lapse of humanity's striving towards the moon, and when they arrive on the lunar surface, they are greeted by Cyrano de Bergerac and the characters of Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon.

The modern astronaut Tony (and recall that the moon landing was another eight years in the future) is assumed, by his strange dress, to be a true Lunarian. The poets then take it upon themselves to show their new friend the wonders of their own home. For this duty they call upon the incomparable Baron Munchausen.

Their initial conveyance to Earth is a tall ship borne by flying horses. Munchausen assumes that this astonishes the moon man, but for all the wrong reasons. The whole time, the Baron observes, he speaks prosaically of science, engineering and mathematics. Nevertheless, Munchausen is pleased to show him the delicacy of human dreams by taking him to a lush Oriental Sultanate. After all, Tony is from the moon and the symbol of the Turk is the crescent moon.

The pair rescue a captive princess, over whom they will spend the remainder of the film competing. Bianca has but two loves, though. The first is Tony, and the second is the moon. All of Zeman's camera tricks are in prime form as he takes the lovers through countless landscapes inspired by the majesty of Gustave Doré's illustrations. From the opulence of near-Biblical Orientalist palaces to the midnight, moonlit ocean of Coleridge, Doré's engravings come to animated life much like Édouard Riou's did for The Fabulous World of Jules Verne.

In the end, the trio surrealistically arrive back on the surface of the moon. All are bid farewell by a waving Bergerac, who proclaims that to now, the moon was the sole domain of the poet and dreamer. It is becoming the realm of the scientist and explorer. However, it is and will always most truly belong to the lovers. Baron Munchausen is Karel Zeman's great paean to that gleaming silver orb of night.

The difficulty in reviewing Zeman's works is that they are such a feast for the eyes that they leave the mouth parched for words. They really must be seen. But given the lamentable state of DVD releases, it is all too unlikely.


ArtSnark said...

I always discover something new here - thanks again

J.R.D.S. said...

I believe the German DVD is more recent, as it was released in 2009 according to here (and has English but strangely no mention of German subtitles, only a dub in that) and the Japanese is from at least as far back as 2005. They also do one of his first feature Poklad ptačího ostrova as Der Schatz der Vogelinsel, which reportedly doesn't require any translation.