Of all the takes on the oft-filmed debonair teller of outlandish heroic tales introduced to the literary world in Rudolf Erich Raspe’s Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785), Karel Zeman’s remains the most novel, formally and narratively. With its imagery tinted like Victorian postcards and with colour applied with Expressionistic gusto, it’s surely the most beautiful, too, as it melds live-action with cut-out and other forms of animation, rhyming all awhile with a dreamlike Zdeněk Liška score.
Zeman tookGottfried August Bürger and Gustave Doré’s interpretations of Raspe’s Munchausen stories, in text and engravings respectively, as springboards for a febrile re-imagining of the Munchausen mythos in which he populated his film with not one Munchausen figure but, ultimately, two.
A further point of distinction is Zeman’s idea to link the long bygone times of the source material with contemporary events. Avowedly to differentiate his film from the well-known WWII-era, German Münchhausen (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Josef von Báky, 1943), Zeman’s idea was “linking a modern man with the past, using the Moon-flight”. (1) While an actual moon landing would still be several years away, Russian Yuri Gagarin sensationally become the first human to enter outer space contemporaneously with the production of this film.
Further inspiration was drawn from two key figures with whom Zeman is often associated: Georges Méliès and Jules Verne, both no strangers to lunar stories themselves.
Often referred to as the “Czech Méliès”, Zeman was not so much inspired by the French trick film pioneer’s own Munchausen film, Les Hallucinations du baron de Münchausen (Baron Munchausen’s Dream, 1911) as by the illusionistic practices and ingenious special effects across his colossal oeuvre more broadly.
Méliès in turn had drawn heavily on Jules Verne for what remains his most famous work, Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902). Zeman had recently enjoyed tremendous success with his Vernian previous feature, Vynález zkázy (An Invention for Destruction, 1958), in which he demonstrated great ingenuity and virtuosity in stitching together live-action sequences with animation and instances of Méliès-esque trick photography.
It’s in a collision of Méliès and Verne where The Outrageous Baron Munchausen‘s action really begins.
After a beautiful prelude – a masterclass in associative montage describing mankind’s ascent to the Moon in alternating images of airborne creatures of the natural order and real and imaginary vehicles of human design – a cosmonaut lands on the Moon and discovers that he is not alone.
He is greeted by the three astronauts from Jules Verne’s 1865 novel De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon) and Cyrano de Bergerac who, like Baron Munchausen, represents a conflation of a historical figure with mythologised, fictionalised elements. (2) All are dressed as if still Earth- and period-bound.
By his space-suited garb, the bewildered astronaut is taken by the others for a “Moonman” rather than as someone from Earth, whence the others profess to have come.
They are joined by the Baron (Miloš Kopecký), making a grand entry on horseback in finery corresponding to Doré’s illustrations. Matter-of-factly debonair, he proposes to his fellow literary creations that he take the Moonman on an expedition to Earth so that the latter might know how they live. Thus begins the adventuring proper in this particular Munchausen adaptation, as the Moonman joins the Baron on board a vessel powered by several animated pegasi. Jettisoning his spacesuit and putting on some “proper clothes” at the Baron’s behest, he is introduced as Toník (“Tony”), clearly a human being (Rudolf Jelínek), even if this isn’t immediately clear to the Baron.
At first Tony appears a simple naysayer who doesn’t “put much store by the idea of magic”, even as he is conveyed through the heavens on board a ship piloted by flying horses, observing the passage of witches around him.
Yet the Baron is a skeptical figure too who, for all his oft-proclaimed brilliance, cannot countenance that Tony could possibly have come from Earth, as they had never previously met!
Comical oppositions between the two play out for the remainder of the film amidst gloriously depicted variations on the Baron’s familiar adventures, whether on dry land or, later, far beneath the sea. In particular, a rivalry develops between them over a Princess, Bianca (Jana Brejchová), even as they seek together to liberate her from captivity in the palace of a Turkish Sultan.
The Baron, who seldom refrains throughout from promoting himself as a peerless Lothario (who once bedded the Mona Lisa!), declaims “Streams of blood, oaths, fire! Such is the mise-en-scene for the drama of love!” Yet Tony productively ignores this advice in favour of a more lower case-”r” romantic approach to wooing his inamorata.
There is swashbuckling, some of it rendered almost abstractly in a beautiful montage sequence tinted red with the heat of Tony and Bianca’s passions and the fury of those whose clutches they’re escaping, reinforced by almost pyroclastic billowings of red ink into the frame during an ensuing equestrian chase sequence.
Over the course of further adventures, Tony’s understated method of courting continues to prove successful, to the Baron’s uncomprehending chagrin. This is underscored most humorously when the Baron, looking to impress a besieged General with his gunmanship in the theatre of war, tries to fire several cannons. Alas, Tony has emptied them and there is no gunpowder left in them… The film is in fact loaded with many delightful and witty visual gags, with the vainglorious Baron often the butt of them.
Not long after, a picture book of Tony’s own making, which he had been showing the Princess, is humorously mistaken by this same General for an anarchist’s cookbook, because it relates a fantastic tale in which (missing) gunpowder is employed to blow up a castle in order to propel a missile to the Moon. On these grounds he is sentenced to death. The General presents the book as evidence to the Baron who, examining it, comes to understand that his young charge has become a fantasist worthy of his own magnificent self. Thus the story in the book becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the Baron, with a casual lob of a candle into a well behind him filled with gunpowder, ensures an explosive finale which has Tony, the Princess and himself blasted hastily Moonward-bound once more.
Just as Cyrano had declared upon the Baron’s first appearance on-screen, that “The force that pulls him to the stars is pure imagination”, so too, come the film’s conclusion, can it be said of Tony, initially an unpromising, mute young “Moonman” who has returned to the Moon like a proper, admirable lunatic, in the company of a Princess to live with happily ever after.
Cyrano waxes both sage and lyrical in a closing soliloquy. “Luna till now belonged but to the poets, to the dreamers, to daring fantasists and adventurers in powdered wigs. To fantasists in frock coats, and to those in bizarre helmets from the pages of the newest novels. And of course to the lovers, to them Luna was always most dear!” Therein surely lies a lesson for all the meek and incredulous Tonies of our world.
1. Ludmila Zemanová, in an interview in a DVD extra, “Why Zeman Made the Film” on the Karel Zeman Museum DVD edition of The Outrageous Baron Munchausen. Note that this edition substitutes “Fabulous” for “Outrageous”.
2. Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr von Münchhausen (1720 – 1797) was a real life teller of tall tales who was reportedly deeply unimpressed nonetheless at providing inspiration and, in particular, his name to Raspe’s fictional fantasist supreme. Cyrano de Bergerac (1619 – 1655), on the other hand, died more than two centuries before he was revived for Edmond Rostand’s play bearing his name, which premiered in 1897. Notably, Cyrano’s posthumously published L’Autre monde ou les états et empires de la Lune (The Other World: Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon, 1657) is considered the first work of fiction to conceive of a trip by rocket ship to the Moon.
Baron Prášil/The Outrageous Baron Munchausen (1962 Czechoslovakia 83 mins)
Prod Co: Krátký film, Filmové studio Gottwaldov Prod: Josef Ouzký Dir: Karel Zeman Scr: Karel Zeman, Josef Kainar, Jiří Brdečka Phot: Jiří Tarantík Ed: Věra Kutilová Art Dir: Zdeněk Rozkopal Anim: Arnošt Kupčík, Jindřich Liška, František Krčmář Mus: Zdeněk Liška
Cast: Miloš Kopecký, Jana Brejchová, Rudolf Jelínek, Karel Höger, Eduard Kohout, Jan Werich, Bohuš Záhorský, Rudolf Hrušínský