Why you should not dismiss “Münchhausen” out of hand

One of the finalists on this year’s Retro Hugo ballot in the Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form category is a German film, namely the 1943 UFA film Münchhausen, at the time one of the most expensive German films ever made. It’s also a very good film and one of the gems of German fantasy cinema, a genre where pickings became slim after 1933.

This post grew out of a comment on Steve J. Wright’s blog (whose Hugo and Retro Hugo reviews you should really read), where Steve expressed that he was unsure whether he should vote for Münchhausen due to its provenance. His is not the only comment along those lines I have seen, so here is a post explaining why you should not dismiss Münchhausen out of hand.

Münchhausen sit firmly at number 1 of my Retro Hugo ballot in its category, because it is the best film on the ballot of those I’ve seen. One of the films, Cabin in the Sky, isn’t easy to find in Germany, because it wasn’t shown here until 1994. The Batman serial also was never shown in Germany, but I was able to find it online. My Mom (Hugo voter) and my Dad (not a Hugo voter) both agree with me regarding Münchhausen BTW and immediately said, “Oh, that’s such a great film.”

However, quite a few Hugo voters have issues with Münchhausen, because it was made in Germany during the Third Reich and they don’t want to vote for “a Nazi film”. This is wrong, because – unlike some of the pretty crass propaganda stuff found elsewhere on the Retro Hugo ballot, particularly in the dramatic presentation and graphic story categories – Münchhausen is not a propaganda film, merely a film that happened to be made during the Third Reich. For while the Nazi propaganda movies are infamous – even though hardly anybody has seen them, because they still cannot be publicly displayed in Germany except for educational purposes* – these propaganda movies (about forty) only make up a small percentage of the total film output of the Nazi era. In fact, it’s a lot more likely to find propaganda in a random Hollywood movie made during WWII than in a random German movie. For the vast majority of the German movies made during the Third Reich were apolitical entertainment: musicals, melodramas, comedies, romances and the like. A lot of them are forgettable, some of them have creepy undertones about the importance of sacrifice and the like and others are timeless classics like Die Feuerzangenbowle (The Punch Bowl), one of the most beloved German movies of all time and still a standby of movie nights at German universities, or Der Mann der Sherlock Holmes War (The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes), a great take on the Holmes and Watson myth and one of the few crime movies made during the Third Reich. Münchhausen clearly belongs in the latter category and it makes me sad that some people dismiss it out of hand because of when and where it was made.

Furthermore, Münchhausen has a higher than usual number of cast and crew members who did not get along too well with the Nazi regime, because UFA people had a certain amount of leverage due to being considered vital for upholding public morale during the war. Star Hans Albers had a Jewish fiancée named Hansi Burg, daughter of his mentor. They pretended to separate and Albers got her to safety in Switzerland, but they remained together for the rest of their lives. Screenwriter Erich Kästner was banned from writing and publishing in Germany (and did not want to emigrate, because he didn’t want to leave his ailing mother behind) and wrote the screenplay under a pseudonym. He even snuck in some subversive lines. Brigitte Horney, who plays Catherine the Great, defied Goebbels’ orders attended the funeral of Joachim Gottschalk, fellow actor and a good friend of Horney’s, who had committed suicide with his family, when his Jewish wife and son were due to be deported. And talking of Catherine the Great, it is notable that a German movie made in the middle of WWII, has several scenes set in Russia and does not portray the Russians negatively in any way. Try to find any Hollywood movie made during WWII which does not portray Germans or Japanese negatively. Hubertus von Meyenrinck, who plays Prince Anton Ulrich, was gay and fairly open about it, even though homosexuality was illegal. He accompanied gay friends to police interviews when they were arrested. And on November 9, 1938, i.e. Reichskristallnacht (though we no longer use the Nazi term and call it Reichsprogromnacht), Hubertus von Meyenrinck strolled along Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, picked up Jewish people caught outside and took them to his home to sit out the rioting. Eduard von Winterstein, who plays Münchhausen’s father, was a veteran actor whose career spanned four different German regimes. In spite of his aristocratic background, he was a closeted Communist and deliberately chose to live in East Germany after WWII. Also seen in a small role is Marie Nejar, stage name Leila Negra, a black German woman who survived the Nazi regime. She is the only cast member still alive (now 89) and I think the only person involved with any of the Retro Hugo finalists who is still alive.

It’s also notable that most of the Münchhausen cast and crew, including director Josef von Baky, had careers that continued unimpeded in postwar Germany. And considering that both the Allies and the postwar West and East German authorities came down harder on artists who were involved with questionable movies than on Nazi doctors, judges, civil servants, military officers, etc… who were actually responsible for the deaths of many people (cause the latter were deemed important for building up the postwar state, while the former were not), this means that most of the people involved with Münchhausen were not Nazis.

There are issues with Münchhausen, i.e. a cringeworthy blackface performance (not uncommon for the time, though problematic now). And Ferdinand Marian, who plays Count Cagliostro, is infamous for playing the lead in the grossly antisemitic propaganda film Jud Süß** (all the trigger warnings apply for that one, so be warned if you want to watch it). And indeed, some of the complaints that the portrayal of Count Cagliostro is antisemitic, even though the historical Count Cagliostro was not Jewish, are due to the fact that Marian played Cagliostro as the same slimy villain as he played Joseph Süß Oppenheimer in Jud Süß (and come to think of it, Ferdinand Marian mostly played villains). As for Ferdinand Marian himself, according to those who knew him, Marian was an apolitical opportunist who played every part he had to play in order to avoid military service. Ferdinand Marian died in 1946 in a car crash that may have been suicide, so we’ll never know his side of the story.

Besides, there are issues with all movies nominated for the 1943 Retro Hugo Awards and many other nominated works as well. And from a purely technical and artistic POV, Münchhausen stands head and shoulders above the competition, largely because it was a big budget extravaganza, while the movie it competes with are mostly low budget B-movies. The special effects such as the famous ride on the cannonball are remarkable for 1943. The screenplay is great, too, because Erich Kästner was a great writer, so great that the UFA heads persuaded Goebbels they needed him in spite of his being banned from publishing. Oh yes, and Münchhausen features what we would now call a lightsabre fight – 44 years before Star Wars came out. And we know that George Lucas is familiar with the cinema of the Third Reich (he copied some of the good bits of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will), so I wouldn’t be surprised if Münchhausen was one of his inspirations.

But why take my word for it? Thankfully, the whole movie is available at YouTube, with English subtitles even. So why don’t you watch it and form your own opinion?

And if you prefer one of the other Retro Hugo finalists in this category, that’s okay. Cause the Hugos are about voting for what you like best. But don’t dismiss Münchhausen just because it is a German film made during the Third Reich. And if you dismiss Münchhausen out of hand, but have no problems with the actual propaganda works on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot such as Der Führer’s Face or the Batman serial or the Wonder Woman comic (and I only no awarded one of those) – well then sorry, but you’re a hypocrite.

*Speaking as someone who took a film class in order to see some of those banned propaganda movies, most of them are terribly inept, some of them are very boring (those Leni Riefenstahl Reichsparteitag movies are a snooze fest and we fast-forwarded through the endless speeches by rank and file Nazis no one had ever heard of) and a few even manage to undermine their own message, which makes me wonder whether that wasn’t intentional, because it’s hard to imagine anybody being so stupid as to deliberately include modernist Bauhaus furniture and have Heinrich George, one of Germany’s best actors, sing “The International” in Hitlerjunge Quex, a movie supposed to extoll the virtues of the Hitler Youth, or to have some very fine actors of the day discussing at length why concentration camps are bad in Ohm Krüger, a movie about the Boer Wars. Yes really, there is a Nazi propaganda film explaining why concentration camps are evil. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up.

**I really hope that someone will eventually make an accurate adaptation of Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel Jud Süß, because it’s a great novel that tells a fascinating (and true) story and deserves better than to be associated only with an awful movie. Back when I got my copy, the novel was out of print and I had to get a second-hand copy and had to deal with people giving me the side-eye for wanting to buy that book, even though the novel is not antisemitic and was written by a Jewish writer, too.

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