The 1943 German extravaganza “Münchhausen” is not, by any measure, a great film, but it is a fascinating curio which offers unusual insight regarding how the Nazi officialdom viewed cinema.
“Münchhausen” was designed to be the showcase celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Ufa Studios, Germany’s most prominent film production facility. It was also meant to challenge and trump the classic fantasy films produced by Hollywood (most notably “The Wizard of Oz”) and the British film industry (especially “The Thief of Bagdad”). Shot in the Agfacolor process and incorporating a wealth of special effects plus an extended on-location sequence at the Grand Canal in Venice, “Münchhausen” presented Nazi cinema production skills at its no-expense-spared apex.
But not unlike the rest of the Nazi-era cinema, “Münchhausen” is an emotionally cold and intellectually dishonest production. The wacky adventures of the 18th century aristocrat are presented without the slightest hint of whimsy. Whether Baron Münchhausen is riding a cannonball into battle (a feat achieved with clearly visible wires) or liberating the ladies of a Turkish harem or even flying a balloon to the moon (another trick with wires), each sequence is played with complete and utter seriousness. It is not a fun movie, but a vacuous pantomime of what people without a sense of humor believe fun should be. Whereas “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Thief of Bagdad” touched audiences with its plucky heroes and larger-than-life villains, “Münchhausen” is pretty much limited to the stiff and uncharismatic title character (played by Hans Alers, a Nazi matinee idol) confronting dull opponents who never match him for wit or style.
“Münchhausen” never received a commercial release in America after the war, and its availability in the U.S. had been limited for many years to faded 16mm non-theatrical prints and bootleg videos. The DVD restoration of “Münchhausen” offers a long-overdue chance to appreciate the film. For any student of German cinema, “Münchhausen” must be seen. But truth be told, it is a good-looking film without a soul.