Czech master filmmaker Karel Zeman draws liberally from literary and cinematic history to create his sumptuous and whimsical fantasy adventure The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, made with his signature flair. The film is now available once again thanks to Second Run DVD.
The Fabulous Baron Munchausen begins with a virtuoso sequence in which the evolution of flight is traversed by the frame accelerating up towards the stars. Along the way it passes a variety of aeronautical animals and contraptions, both real and imagined, rendered in stop-motion animation. From a final aeroplane, the camera continues into space. Almost a decade before man’s first steps on the moon, Zeman imagines footprints in the dust. In doing so, he homages Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond and Georges Méliès’ Voyage to the Moon. The latter filmmaker is a particularly important reference point, with Zeman often compared to his esteemed French forebear.
Méliès and Lang are just two of many inspirations. Even in the first few moments, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and Cyrano de Bergerac’s Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon are represented when their protagonists, along with the eponymous Baron (Miloš Kopecký) stumble across an astronaut, Tony (Rudolf Jelinek), and take him for a moon-man. The Baron promptly whisks him away on a ship pulled by winged horses for a rollicking introduction to a suitably fairy-tale Earth filled with evil Sultans, giant fish and a romantic interest in the form of Venetian princess, Bianca (Jana Brejchová). Tony claims he doesn’t “put much store by the idea of magic” but by the culmination of this endlessly inventive ode to fabulists, it would be almost impossible for audiences to feel the same way.
In a similar vein to the other Zeman film that has received a release from Second Run DVD, The Jester’s Tale, the filmmaker uses his distinctive animation style to blend live action with stop motion to glorious effect. The narrative plays out fairly unsurprisingly, as the Baron and Tony vie for Bianca’s affections through a series of escapades involving an armada that sinks itself and a journey into a giant fish. The latter is one of many truly memorable images and feels as though it must have been a reference point for the similarly striking image from Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. Even in moments when the narrative sags a little, it is rescued by Zeman’s triumphant direction.
Of particular note are two very different sequences that linger far longer than most modern cinema. The first is a chase on horseback in which otherworldly red smoke billows across the stark yellow plain to consume Tony and Bianca’s pursuers – the effect appears to have been achieved by filming red ink in water. The latter is the frankly spectacular battle sequence that precedes the chase, adopting a Soviet-inspired abstraction full of coloured shapes and repeated movements. It’s the standout in a film brimming with visual flare, from an exotic dancer opposite a bunch of dangling grapes in the hand of the Sultan to the backgrounds based on engravings by French artist Gustav Doré. Fabulous.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson