After overindulging in food and wine with friends, the famous Baron Münchhausen is plagued by vivid nightmares…
An 11-minute trick film from French pioneer Georges Méliès. The marriage of his flair for bizarre and magical imagery with the tales of the notorious fantasist would seem to be the perfect fit. However, it was an opportunity largely squandered.
A night in for legendary storyteller Baron Münchhausen means good wine, good food and good company. Unfortunately, he gets too much of all three and can barely stand when the party’s over. Two servants manage to manhandle him to his bed, which lays beneath a large wall mirror. As the Baron sleeps, he begins to dream.
At first, he imagines a pleasant scene, with two couples dancing to a smiling fiddler, but the scene quickly changes to the inside of an Egyptian temple where he is violently attacked. Another switch finds him back in pleasant surroundings, but the women he admires suddenly transform into demons with animal heads and then soldiers who poke him with halberds. After that, the visions keep coming, each more terrible than the last.
By 1911, Parisian Méliès had been a highly successful filmmaker for about 15 years, getting in on the art form at its very genesis. After witnessing a demonstration of the Cinematograph developed by the Lumière brothers, Méliès built his own camera and began showing film as an accompaniment to his stage act as an illusionist. Quickly realising the new medium’s potential, he began exhibiting short ‘trick’ films that utilised early effect techniques, such as multiple exposures and stop motion substitution. These were highly popular, and the next few years saw Méliès building on his success, even opening a branch of his film company in the United States. However, by 1911, the party was almost over.
Moving pictures had caught the public’s imagination in a way few could have predicted. Still, it was necessary to maintain that early sense of wonder for the industry to survive and grow. Méliès’ flamboyant visions had appealed at first, but audience taste quickly evolved beyond mere spectacle and demanded more substance; in other words, story and drama. Although Méliès eventually attempted to embrace narrative to some extent with films like ‘The Conquest of the Pole/À la conquête du pôle’ (1912), it was too late. Financial problems and unfortunate business decisions forced him into bankruptcy in early 1914.
This film serves as a perfect demonstration of the issues that brought an end to Méliès’ career. Leaving aside its merits when viewed today, contemporary audiences must have found it disappointing. The adoption of Münchhausen as the main character might even have been regarded as false advertising. After all, the German nobleman was famous as a teller of tall tales and extravagant fantasies, so it would have been reasonable to expect some kind of a story. Instead, Méliès provides his usual cavalcade of monsters and demons trotted out via his familiar modus operandi. The protagonist might be any old man, and the story is so thin as to be almost non-existent. It might have been a tried and tested formula, but to the increasingly sophisticated audience of 1911, it probably looked like a worn-out bag of old tricks. In fact, some sources suggest that the film may not have even made it to theatres at all.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t have merit, of course. Over the years, Méliès refined his technique so that the substitution effects and dissolves appear smoother, and there’s plenty of evidence of that here. Using a mirror to frame the action is a neat idea, too, with two actors parroting each other’s moments to establish its presence. The interactions between the old Baron and his fantastic visitors have a more significant impact as a consequence. There are also some fine examples of the Méliès imagination at work. The girl with tentacles in the spider’s web is a particularly striking image, and the dragon puppet from ‘The Witch/La fée Carabosse ou le poignard fatal’ (1906) makes a welcome reappearance. The Frenchman was apparently a great fan of Rudolf Erich Raspe’s stories of the blowhard Baron, but whether it was this that prompted the use of the character or whether more commercial considerations were involved is unrecorded. It’s also worth pointing out that, unlike some of Méliès’s best work, the majority of the film plays out on a single set, which perhaps betrays his increasing financial problems at the time.
It’s a surprise to many to find out that Baron Münchhausen was actually a real German aristocrat, Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr von Münchhausen. After serving in the Russo-Turkish War of 1735–39, he became notorious in high society for his exaggerated reminiscences and tall tales of his military exploits. Fictionalised stories of his adventures began to appear in German magazines and were collected into a book called ‘Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia’. First published in England in 1785, it was a hit all over Europe and translated into several languages, including a German edition which added new material by Gottfried August Bürger. The ridiculous nature of the stories, including a trip to the moon and riding on a cannonball, upset the real-life Baron, who threatened libel action. It appears this never came to fruition but may explain why original author Rudolf Erich Raspe never acknowledged the work as his own.
Some memorable images but an almost complete absence of story leave this as merely a monument to the visual imagination and filmmaking technique of one of the great film pioneers.