Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is the movie that made me into a film obsessive after my father dragged me to see it in a rep cinema in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. It’s a film that expanded the imagination and possibilities of cinema, and Karel Zeman’s version of Munchausen from 1961 does exactly the same thing: little did I know its profound influence on Gilliam’s film, and the impact of Zeman’s work on his style at large.
The Fabulous Baron Munchausen is an absolute wonder to behold: decidedly out of step in its time or any other cinematic era, except maybe alongside the phantasmagorias of Georges Méliès in the 1900s. In the outstanding feature-length documentary on Zeman, Terry Gilliam says: “you don’t even need the dialogue, it’s pure visual storytelling”—and that’s really true, it plays like some lost magical relic from a bygone age. It uses cardboard cut-outs as 3D objects, and he is able to able to create the most extraordinary shots of the camera moving through doorways. It’s just pure cinematic magic, very much like the beautifully illustrated pop-up storybook brought to life. Zemen uses real-life actors in this wondrous backgrounds he creates, but the way he incorporates them into his animations makes them feel like a part of the animation. He also expertly chooses different colours to tint the photography, which invokes the silent era even more. It’s a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience, a film more imaginative than you could dream possible.
The film was released in the US in 1964 with an English-language dub, which worked reasonably well, as the dialogue isn’t that important and it is partially an animated feature. Of the few American critics who even discussed the film in print, Harlan Ellison was its champion, calling it a “charming and sweethearted 1961 Czech fantasy filled with loopy special effects.” Gilliam’s own inspiration came from the original stories and the only decent film made in Nazi-era Germany, the 1943 German-language feature by an anti-Nazi director. However, he did finally see the Zeman when BFI showed it in the 1980s, which added to his interest.
For those who don’t know the story, Baron Munchausen was a legendary real character from the mid-18th century who made a name for himself as an infamous (but entertaining) liar. Later used as a character by author Rudolf Erich Raspe, he was in the public consciousness throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th century, resulting in three fine films as well as stage plays, radio shows and other cultural impacts, such as “Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy,” a mental health condition where a parent lies about a healthy child being ill to gain attention.
Due to the fallout from the Gilliam version, it’s unlikely we’ll see another major Munchausen film in the near future, although there was a German TV movie in 2012. The Zeman outing is scaled down by about 40 minutes as compared to Gilliam’s take, and it plays up some of the more science-fictionish elements of the story. Fittingly, almost all of Zeman’s other major feature films were adaptations of Jules Verne novels in one way or another.
Until the recently the film had been almost impossible to get, available only in poor-quality bootleg versions with even worse subtitle translation. The Zeman Museum in Prague is responsible for its very welcome resurrection.
The disc includes a 4K transfer that is absolutely gorgeous. The special features include the aforementioned documentary on Zeman; a new appreciation essay from Michael Brooke, where he talks about Zeman and the history of Munchausen on-screen; along with more featurettes, the trailer and a nice, lengthy booklet.