In 1943 it was becoming very clear to a lot of German citizens that perhaps this war wouldn’t be won so decisively and it was starting to become more apparent that there was a very real danger that the war could work its way back to German soil. Their army had just lost the grueling battle of Stalingrad, meanwhile the Axis were losing control of North Africa, and all the while British and American bombing raids in Germany began to grow and intensify.
Joseph Goebbels and his Propaganda machine saw that the people needed a welcome distraction and a reminder of past German heroics, all be it fictional ones, and as such he pumped millions of Reichsmarks into supporting the Universum Film AG (UFA) production of Münchhausen; a film telling the iconic folklore tale of the aristocratic German adventurer Baron Münchhausen. It was also a fine opportunity to celebrate 25 years of the UFA studio.
Now maybe I shouldn’t say this about a film that was funded by the Nazis but I think there is certainly a lot of charm to this film, it is quite fun to watch, well aside from the rather uncomfortable references to slavery. Hans Albers is also brilliant in the titular role and brings with him a very warm humour and a great theatricality to the role. I think it’s also very fair to say that the film had an influence on Terry Gilliam’s great 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
It was a full ‘Agfacolour’ production, which was the German answer to ‘Technicolor’, and as such comes with a lot of vibrancy and, although it looks archaic now, did have some clever visual effects for the 1940s. Goebbels saw the huge success of 1940s Wizard of Oz as a challenge to Germany and this film was his retort to show the Germany could do one better.
The film also made clear to avoid any direct references to contemporary politics or the war effort, which is surprising given that Goebbels himself gave it the green light. Perhaps he saw the value in giving their increasingly anxious audience a bit of escapism and fantasy, but I think more likely was that he wanted a film that showed the achievements of German industry to the outside world as if to say, yes we can fight this long war on multiple fronts and still churn out technically marvels that your own audiences can enjoy.
It’s because of this political freedom and extravagant financial backing that this film came with a lot of creative freedom and I can only imagine was a very welcome relief to the artistic freedom-starved film writers and directors of the time; many of whom had been heavily censored or drafted into writing pure propaganda.
On the other hand, this avoidance of political framing was much to Adolf Hitlers great displeasure. Since his party was pumping so much money into the film, money that he would have prefered to pump into ships and planes, he wanted a film that was written to rally his people behind the Nazi banner and march them forward, not distract them with fanciful tales and folklore. As such Munchhausen is believed to be one of the reasons Goebbels’ and Hitler’s relationship became very strained in later years.
So as I hope this fun clip demonstrates Münchhausen was a bright film that came from a very dark place…