Sunday, November 13, 2016

Baron Prácil, a.k.a. The Fabulous Baron Münchhausen, a.k.a. The Outrageous Baron Münchhausen (Filmové Studio Gottwaldov, Krátký Film Praha, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “Vintage Sci-Fi” film screening in Golden Hill was a tribute to Czech director and animator Karel Zeman, including a 17-minute British TV short about him called The World of Karel Zeman (I’m assuming it was for British TV because it was narrated in British-accented English) and two of his most famous films, Baron Prácil — known in the English-speaking world as The Fabulous Baron Münchhausen or The Outrageous Baron Münchhausen (1962) and The Stolen Airship (1967). The Münchhausen movie was well known enough that Carlos Clarens listed it in his book on horror films (though it’s really more of a light children’s fantasy than a horror film) in 1967 and Terry Gilliam saw it at the British Film Institute in the late 1980’s, which inspired him to do his own Münchhausen movie, which had one of the most troubled production histories of all time (though, as I noted when Charles and I watched Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, it’s hard to think of a Terry Gilliam film that didn’t have a troubled production history!) and finally stumbled its way into release in 1988. Karel Zeman (whose name blessedly has no diacriticals, rare in a Czech name) was a Czech artist, film director and animator who lived from 1910 to 1989 (which means that he was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, lived most of his adult life in Czechoslovakia and died in the Czech Republic), and judging from the clips shown in The World of Karel Zeman, he began in much the same way as his fellow Eastern European George Pal (a native Hungarian who emigrated to the U.S.), making films with puppets animated with stop-motion. Once he began making features, however, he decided that all the humans in his movies would be played by live actors while the fantastic elements of his stories would be realized in a dazzling array of techniques, including drawn animation, cut-out animation, stop-motion animation and various types of process work to integrate his animations into scenes with live humans. Zeman also used the alternation between black-and-white and color quite extensively, to the point where sometimes watching one of his films you can’t be sure whether they’re in black-and-white or color (and the relatively poor quality of the DVD’s we were watching may have blurred the distinction because not only were we getting low-resolution images — though I think Zeman wouldn’t have wanted his films in too high a resolution because that might have enabled viewers to pick apart his complex shots and figure out how they were done — but the colors were so badly faded it’s hard to tell whether Zeman wanted the color sections of his films to look this anemic or he wanted them bright and vivid to contrast with the black-and-white portions).

Münchhausen is of course based on a series of fantasy stories by Rudolf Erich Raspe, a German writer, in his 1785 book Baron Münchhausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia. According to the character’s Wikipedia page, there was a real Baron Münchhausen who fought for Russia in a war against Turkey from 1735 to 1739, and Raspe heard some of his stories and started spinning tales of a fictional — and supernatural — Münchhausen, including a famous one in which Baron Münchhausen goes to the moon in a fantastical airship drawn through the cosmos by flying horses. That’s been the anecdote most Münchhausen filmmakers haven’t been able to resist, and the “spin” Zeman and his writers, Jirí Brdecka and Josef Keinar, put on it is that Münchhausen (Milos Kopecky) gets to the moon, greets the three astronauts from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (even though in Verne’s novel they merely orbited the moon and didn’t actually set foot on it) and Cyrano de Bergerac, and then meets an astronaut called Tony (“Tonik” in the original Czech) (Rudolf Jelínek) who has gone to the moon, albeit in a more prosaic and scientifically possible fashion involving rockets and the like. Münchhausen is convinced that Tony is an actual moon person, not an earthling who is dressed in a spacesuit because he had to go there in a scientifically possible way instead of Münchhausen’s fantastic one, and Münchhausen decides to bring Tony back to Earth as proof he actually got to the moon. The two land in Turkey (remember that Turkey was the enemy the real Baron Münchhausen was fighting in his war) and Tony spies an imprisoned princess, Bianca (Jana Brejchová), whom he determines to rescue from the evil Sultan (Rudolf Hrusínsky) who’s holding her prisoner. He gets her out, then she gets recaptured, he gets her out again, she gets recaptured again, and that’s about all the plot this movie has until the very end, when Tony and Bianca finally get back together and kiss, but Münchhausen insists that a relationship between a moon man and a human female is unworkable and takes Tony “back” to the moon.

Münchhausen is a quite clever and engaging movie, and as a 45-minute short it might have been a masterpiece, but as the film drones on and on and on to twice that length it just gets duller and duller, and as spectacular as Zeman’s gags are, they’re also awfully cute and not particularly funny (though there’s one great scene — in which Tony discovers the pedal that makes knives surround the Sultan in case anyone gets too close to the throne, and at the end the Sultan himself departs and in his place emerges a giant cannon in a scene that reminded me of Buster Keaton’s great business with the cannon in The General), and Münchhausen just sort of goes along like a lot of other fantasies in which the writers make the big mistake that because they’re working in a genre in which literally anything can happen, they make whatever they want to have happen happen without maintaining internal consistency or playing by an overall set of story rules. (One fantasy writer who didn’t do that was J. R. R. Tolkien, though arguably he erred in the other direction, creating so elaborate a backstory and set of rules for Middle-Earth he put the reader through the challenge of remembering them all.) It’s an engaging movie but also a surprisingly dull one, and though I’ve never seen Gilliam’s Münchhausen I have seen the German version from 1943, mounted on a lavish scale with a big production budget (at a time when Germany was losing World War II and one would have thought they’d be cutting back on expensive entertainments instead of shooting the works on them!), and it has everything this one doesn’t: a script (by Emil and the Detectives author Erich Kästner) and direction (by Josef von Báky) that has everything this version doesn’t: story coherence, glorious and vivid color (the beautiful Agfacolor process Germans invented during the Nazi era and the Soviet Union later appropriated), superb acting (Münchhausen was played by Hans Albers, one of the few stars of Nazi-era German filmmaking who was rehabilitated and allowed to continue his career after the war) and an ending with real emotion and pathos instead of Zeman’s, in which the film just seems to peter out once his imagination and/or his budget ran out.