This double review is entirely inspired by a Fandor video posted a few weeks ago regarding Terry Gilliam and his use of Carl Yung’s theories on dreams. There’s a section on his 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen which I want to explore. It would be unfair to do so without looking at the 1943 original made under the Nazi controlled UFA, a film that is able to shake of the past far easier than most of the propaganda produced under Goebbels. Now lets see how the two films sit together.
Munchausen will probably be the only film of the Third Reich that can still be enjoyed today. A modern equivalent could be Tale of Tales (2015) which combined 3 adult fairy tales to unfold within the same reality. Munchausen is a very different film. Firstly being a product of Goebbels to celebrate 25 years of the UFA production company, at first glance it doesn’t appear to have any real connection to Nazism. Used as pure escapism during the Battle of Stalingrad, becoming a very expensive distraction just before the war was about to take a turn for the worse. Beginning at 4.5 million Reichmarks before increasing to 6.5 million. All of that money is on the screen through the special effects and lavish set design. Seen as a the German The Thief of Baghdad (1940) which at times I was reminded of, special effects that maybe dated but still magical on a first watch. Also made in Agfacolor, a process I’ve only just heard off.
The film is loosely based on 3 texts dating back as far as 1785 to 1920 to become a product of the Third Reich and pure fantasy. A fairy tale for a generation that has been shaken from the defeat of WWI to the rise of Hitler to reshaping the country in his radical ideas, the war that he has then engaged his country in. Whilst behind the worlds back committing some of the worse crimes known to humanity. In the midst of that we have a film that can be seen away from all of that history that has very little in terms of propaganda. Whilst it was re-cut twice due to censorship to promote the Aryan ideals it has become an curious oddity in cinema today.
At first I was confused by the setting, first catching Munchuasen (Hans Albers) dancing in Georgian dress with the first of a string of women – Sophie (Marina von Ditmar) wanting to make his move, is this the tone of the film, a dirty old man wanting to have his way with every woman he meets. She confusingly drives off home, after an exterior light’s switched on. This I came to understand was the present day for the film. Returning the next day with her fiancé to learn of the history of Munchausen from another era. We believe that this man is merely a descendant of the more colourful character. He’s own life’s raised to a legendary stature, no one could possibly understand what happens even if retold. The only way to understand is to be taken there along with him. Even if he’s just in the garden for the day.
We’re taken on a number of tales beginning with his return home with his right hand man and only true friend – Herzog Karl von Braunschweig (Michael Bohnen) that follows him across the film and his antics across Europe. It’s a life that is both eventful and hedonistic. Every opportunity to go into battle, place a wager with the Sultan of Turkey is worth going on with. His long life is ensured after a wish is granted by life long foe Fürst Potemkin (Andrews Engelmann) an almost wizard like figure who uses magic and potions to ensure his own life is secured for own desires.
Munchausen lives in a cinematic world of magic and wonder. The films director Josef von Báky trying to catch up with special effect heavy films as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Thief of Baghdad that swept audiences off to other worlds with effects that we can forgive today for the lack of sophistication. As much as I can see the strings in the more ambitious Munchausen I was blown away by the drive to create this world. Also a nice change to watch a film that relies more on photo-chemical process and the good old fashioned trick of the eye. Other times it’s just plain crazy, the effects reflect the heroes personality, bold and adventurous and full of passion for all he does the women he loves.
It’s definitely an oddity from a very dark period in European cinema that stands apart, with incredible amounts of money thrown at it. Clearly an adult film that has lost most of its edge, becoming more like a Mae West at times. I can forgive all that when I’m enjoying the imaginative worlds that are created purely for a nations distraction when it needed it most, a superhero for his day who ultimately knows when he should return to the small state of us mere mortals. Or are these tales just dreams of a life that’s desired by a man who failed in his own life. Unlike the characters legacy’s far darker where suffers of Munchausen’s embellishing, the very opposite of the syndrome that bares the same name, where the sufferers creates attention for themselves with fictitious medical conditions. The character’s message is obvious, live life to full, dare to be bold and share your life story with all who will listen. Now I’m looking forward I want to see how the most recent version by Python Terry Gilliam compares. His use of special effects and his own unique aesthetic which works well with this material.
Just over a fortnight since I saw the German original, I’ve been patiently waiting to see when I would being catching the Terry Gilliam remake. I hoped it was around the Christmas break if I’m honest, something that this is out of the ordinary to escape with. Well I certainly did escape, more or less back to the original. For a time I was looking for when it would be referenced and when, which is not a good way to spend your time with a film. I think the best thing to do is use the Fandor argument to explore the individuation found in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) in the second half of this double review at some point.
It’s still necessary to see how the two films differ from one another. Firstly this is very much a piece of entertainment but the very much in the unique style of Gilliam who had long since made a name for himself away from Monty Python. I can see how the earlier film has lends itself to the directors unique style with ease. In some cases it feels like he’s just reworked certain scenes and moments into his version.
Despite the reworking of moments he comes at the material from a very different angle which I admired. A play of his life/stories being performed whilst an invasion is going on by the Turks (not the best depiction 30 years later) of a Belgian semi European walled city that is just about to surrender to the superior forces. When out of nowhere the infamous Munchausen (John Neville) storms in like a gunfighter to seeing his own legend being blurred beyond all recognition of the facts, portraying a string of lies that if not corrected soon would distort his legend forever. Instead of a history lesson for a neighbour, this is a man putting his own account out there for the public to decide whether he is the real thing is just a fraud. At first he is almost laughed off the stage by an audience who came into escape a conflict on their own doorstep. Taking the context of the original films production and work in it into Gilliam’s version who knows his film history. Here he has a larger more captive audience who can decide the fate of his legend.
Taking over the 2nd act that begins in Turkey trying it’s best to rework the drinking bet, when the Baron puts his life on the line, wagering that he can source a better drink than that of his host and enemy the Sultan (Peter Jeffrey) whom he offers his freedom and as much gold as the strongest man can carry. If he fails he’s beheaded. He has only an hour to ensure his life, Hopefully his trusted companion Berthold (Eric Idle playing dual roles of Desmond playing Berthold stage) whose the fastest runner known to man, leaving a trail of dust behind him/ The whole effect is technically more accomplished yet has less heartfelt. There’s a loss of wonder as it’s built up too much. Originally the character’s introduced from a distance in mid motion before we even get to meet him. Like all the other supporting characters we’re thrown in the deep end and expected to know. Maybe it’s my prior knowledge that requires they be set-up in the same way here.
The Turkish bet is the first of a number of scenes that are reworked here to greater technical achievement. The level of special effects is far more sophisticated yet by today’s standards again charming which still very much appreciate. What is however lost is the philandering, wandering eye and gentlemen that Munchausen was in the originally. That aspect of his character is all but confined to one extended sequence that his new to this film. When he arrives with the curiously open-minded Sally (Sarah Polley who follows him to bring back reinforcements) to Mount Etna (not the Italian volcano) land of the fire-some gods lead by Vulcan (Oliver Reed) whose bored and beautiful wife Venus (Uma Thurman) is enthralled by the visitor, dancing into the heavens only to incur the typical wrath of Reed who kicks them into a Pinocchioesque scene. Otherwise the hedonistic side of his personality has all but been suppressed.
Instead we are left with a much older man whose constantly chased by death whose shooed away by Sally who looks up to him as a fatherly figure that has given her hope. The individuation dreaming has kept Munchausen alive for years longer than mere mortals. We meet him much older than the Dorian Gray man of his past has long given up the spell of youth to finally die an old man. The curse of immortality has caught up with him in this film. The dreams that acted as an escape from life have lost their thrill for him. The dreams if youthful adventure have since lost their appeal
What we see is not so much a collection of dreams but one big dream that moves from location to location building up a narrative that brings his supporting band of men together, now also older and tired they eventually wake up and follow him back to the walled city where The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce) who tries to keep him out. The journey is not without fun and the standard Gilliam world logic playing with scale that works perfectly in this 18th century setting of big wigs and pirates. What threw me is the twist that leaves us swept away by the adventure, the reunion of Munchausen and his men is the real journey taking in the weird and wonderful locations that defy logic once more.
I’m left still wanting to see the original more than anything that has far more heart and fun to the film than Gilliam’s that as much as it works in his own language it’s not really his, he’s not made it his own, simply updating it for a new audience. The original will forever stand alone as an oddity that aimed to mimic other film studio’s around the world, the bar was raised and UFA met it and enjoyed the journey set against a time of great conflict around the world.
Since delivering a film talk about A Kind of Loving (1962) I’ve been exploring the kitchen sink dramas of the early-mid 1960’s a purely British genre of films that explored modern life for the average person. Generally set up north and generally involving getting someone pregnant out of wedlock – a big deal back in the day. The backdrop to all of this was the gritty urban back-streets, the factories that were the backbone of modern Britain. Most produced by one studio – Woodfall and three directors who had varying success before moving in different directions. Definitely a collection of films to look out for, drama without the budget and still having an impact.
One of those Woodfall films – A Taste of Honey (1961) a comedy drama about a teenage girl Jo (Rita Tushingham) who falls pregnant after a cheeky romance with a black sailor Jimmy (Paul Danquah) whilst on shore-leave. Who was both exploring her burgeoning new adult feelings and giving into these new urges without really considering the consequences of the romance that ultimately left her pregnant and needing to then support herself. Whilst at also struggling to put up with her alcoholic mother Helen (Dora Bryan) who brought real comic timing to the film, both acting as relief and the reality of her home life not being as perfect as films of the time would have you believe. Yes you can find the odd alcoholic parent on film, but not the extent they are seen having an effect on a young daughters life.
So after a year of exploring this brand of British I noticed a more unusual film The Trap (1966) starring Tushingham also and Oliver Reed in a pioneer era Western, and even more unusual it was a British production. Set during the same era as The Revenant (2015), Man in the Wilderness (1971) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972) a pretty much untapped source for Western genre story telling. Instead focusing on post Civil War era. There’s a lot of history pre-civil war to be explored. The Trap is a rare look at British settlers in the undeveloped San-Francisco – the landscape still untouched from the gold mining boom that was probably going on elsewhere in the landscape of this film. Instead we focus on the trappers – namely a French trapper La Bete (The Beast) played by Reed with a confused accent which you learn to live with.
What really drew me to the film was the idea of a mute girl – having seen The Shape of Water (2017) on it’s release, which was a performance more reliant on acting skills than the delivery of dialogue, it allowed Tushingham to really push herself and rely more on reactions to her acting. Playing a young woman once rescued from Crow who rapped and killed her family. The shock of the events left her mute for the rest of her life. You wonder whether she will ever get over the shock and find her voice to speak again. Yet the magic of these mute roles is that a big part of you doesn’t want her to speak, it would just ruin the effect. All the build up to be destroyed with her voice. Probably raspy at best and strained, why inflict an audience with that reveal. Like most mute characters the condition comes from a place of childhood or past truama leaving them mute. The doomed hero of The Great Silence – Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is left with a permanent scar and disability after witnessing his families murder. Whilst more recently Eva Green‘s Madeline in The Salvation (2014) has her tongue cut out by the hands of her captor Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The muteness of these characters does not comes from a natural disability, but one inflicted through a violent past that they must learn to live with.
For Eve (Tushingham) she is forced into a marriage of circumstance to save a family from ruin. When La Bete comes for a large sum of money from the richest man in town – (Rex Sevenoaks) whose more than willing to hand over the money to save his family. Whilst his wife (Barbara Chilcott) taking on the role of the man here uses her questionable inititative and hands over the help – Eve a woman whose unable to question her position or task. Her class does not allow her to. We see other women earlier on being auctioned off to the highest bidder, brought over on a steamboat solely for the wifely property to the local men. However this transaction is free and ensures a families future – not picked up again at the end of the film either. Leaving Eve in the care/custody of La Bete, a brute of a man who knows everything about hunting, trapping and how to survive in the wild and little about women beyond his yearning for a wife. A perfect match for the overly masculine Reed who chews up the part with relish. Life in the wild is not something that comes naturally to Eve, who slowly adapts to life in the wilderness.
Her wits are needed when a traumatic hunting accident leaves La Bete at her mercy and care. Having first to fend off a pack of wolves, before becoming a nurse and ultimately his wife in more than name. It’s a challenge that fills the third act of the film. Being pushed to her own limits to ensure that Le Bete survives the Winter. Coming out in Spring to be closer than before she has still suffering from her past that prevents her from truly being his wife. Sending her out further than she imagined, out in to the arms of her old enemy – The Crow who are more Christian than she would expect. Their depiction may not be the best, however they are shown in a more positive light, as they rescue her and nurse her back to health. Not all Native American’s are the same as the film suggests. Would this be enough to break her self inflicted muteness or will she remain silent forever. A scene near the close of the film shows potential for an outburst from Eve who later realises what she needs to be happy in life.
The Trap is not best Western, let down by it’s budget mainly. It does however allow for a focus on pure acting from a then young Tushingham who is mainly all smiles and frowns. Her face is straining to express emotions at times. Usually these roles really show what a actor is made of, here we can see she’s at the edge of her range. There are times she does rightly carry the scene, however others she’s clearly struggling most of the time opposite the literal giant of Reed whose loving being out in the elements. It’s another take on the woman as victim at the hands of the savage. The savage becomes a white trapper here who understands the land just as well as his Native counterpart. A curio of a Western that has to be seen to see how a foreign country views the American West, instead of focusing the traditional they switch to the Davy Crockett era that’s refreshing for the audience.