It would be unwise to approach Josef von Baky’s 1943 Munchhausen expecting anything like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the 1988 Terry Gilliam film adapted from the same material. Despite having a few similarities, this “German Wizard of Oz” is a very different kettle of winged monkeys. It was made in Germany during World War II at the behest of Dr. Goebbels himself, who wanted a German film that would rival the best that Hollywood and Great Britain had to offer, especially the latter, since what Goebbels wanted was a film that would rival the 1940 Alexander Korda production of Thief of Bagdad.
What he got was enormous sets, glorious Agfacolor, beautiful location work (hey, you control Venice, you get the good out of it), and all the epic gloss Nazi money could buy. He also got the most heavy-handed fantasy imaginable — the lightness of tone, the deftness of touch so essential to this type of film was entirely missing. In its place was a lot of Teutonic winking at the audience that was supposed to be whimsical. This doesn’t keep the film from being intriguing.
There’s a certain grim fascination about seeing such a lightweight, non-propaganda-driven work from Nazi Germany. The complete avoidance of the existence of a war or of any aspect of Nazism is strangely compelling, as is the fatalist attitude adopted by Baron Munchhausen (Hans Albers) at the film’s end. As a movie, though, it’s a clunky thing — badly constructed, overly talky and sometimes just plain dull. But as a rarely seen artifact of its time, it’s invaluable and strangely unsettling.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke