Film Notes: The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962) by Karel Zeman

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962) (original title: Baron Prásil) shows a swordfish with a hanger on its bill. That is enough a reason to fall in love with this great Czech adventure comedy film.

4 out of 4 stars

if you were from Earth, I would have known you!

Baron Munchausen is a legendary literary figure. But I had no clue about him, and I am guessing a lot of the general public are like me. That is precisely the point the film makes. It begins with an astronaut landing on the moon. Suddenly he encounters a giant Columbiad with the name Jules Verne written on it. The conflict becomes clear. It is us, the modern man driven by technology, against the past, driven by relationships and imaginations. The astronaut is further surprised when he sees some people walking around the moon. They are having fun as they drink wine and enjoy each other’s company. It is to our discredit that at first sight, these people appear alien to us. When in fact, they are people we know, people we have read about. It shows how much the modern man has segregated himself from his past.

The leader of this club is Baron Munchausen. He cannot believe that the astronaut is from Earth. He says, “if you were from Earth, I would have known you!”. Do we know who lives next door? Are we even curious? The electronic screen in front is definitely more interesting. Baron Munchausen decides to take the astronaut a tour to Earth, or what his version of Earth is. And so begins an exciting comic adventure that is both familiar and strange.

a great Czech Adventure comedy film

Once the adventures begin do we realize how weirdly funny this film is. It is filled with modest effects that their budget could provide. But the simplistic animated creatures we come across evoke in us a sense of wonder. It is the same way the reader must have felt when the first Jules Verne book was released. The film is disinterested in impressing us with effects. Instead, it wants us to relive the time when imagination was everything.

And imagination it is. The film never gives us a dull moment, engaging us with things we never could have imagined. A man riding a cannonball, gunpowder used to launch castles into space, clothes hanger on the bill of a swordfish, are just a few of the film’s pleasures. But unlike modern effect-stuffed products, this film is equally concerned with its characters. It successfully creates a highly interesting person out of Baron Munchausen, avoiding literary highbrows and instead focusing on comic edges. The Baron, an old man (naturally), pits himself against the astronaut, a young man (obviously), to draw the attention of a lovely lady. He fails in the most hilarious way.

But it is what each person stands for matters here. The lady is “White Bianca in Black Castle”, a direct taunt to the racial prejudices extant in many literary classics. As such, it looks both inward and outward as it ruthlessly attacks pre-established notions.

Filmmaker Karel Zeman has often been compared with another legend Georges Méliès. But what makes Zeman unique is his ability to prove into social layers and interpret them comically. It is precisely this touch that makes The Fabulous Baron Munchausen a great Czech adventure comedy film.

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