Welcome to Monsoon-a-day.
Where I watch and review a movie a day. Or whenever I fucking feel like it.
Karel Zemen is one of the most influential figures in stop motion animation and a pioneer in the art of matte painting. In Czechoslovakia, he’s referred to as “the Czech Méliès” and the “Czech Harryhausen” and has inspired everyone from Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam to Wes Anderson and Jan Svankmajer.
The Czech people might be terrible at nicknames but sometimes an on-the-nose comparison is all you need. He’s one of the most imaginative directors who’s ever lived and his talents are equal to those he’s frequently compared to and yet he’s still all but unknown to the rest of the world.
Brian Eno once famously said of The Velvet Underground:
“The Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band.”
One could easily reconfigure that quote to apply to Zemen. Not many people have seen one of Zemen’s films but everyone who has, became a director. There’s no other filmmaker like him. He’s compared to Harryhausen on the strength of his stop motion abilities and Méliès because of their mutual affinity for in camera trickery and their whimsical natures but neither are as strong as he is at storytelling.
He was more than his technical prowess. He used his considerable skills to create unique worlds that are visually unlike anything else that has existed before him. The way he incorporates live action with matte paintings taps into the imagination in a way animation never could. Seeing something that’s tangibly, visibly real, interact with things that clearly are not, creates an almost dreamlike logic that is uniquely surreal.
Everyone who deals in surrealism, has their own distinct stamp that is undeniably theirs. Argento deals in nightmare logic, Lynch tries to recreate nightmares and Buñuel depicts the worst nightmares of all– the bourgeoisie.
But Zemen is one of the only directors to use surrealism to connect to the imagination. Instead of nightmare (take a shot) logic, he’s dealing in Dr. Seuss-like child logic. Where anything is believable as long as the characters in the story believe it.
That brings us to The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. Baron Munchausen was a real life soldier that fought in Russo-Turkish war of 1735-1739 and was such an absurd braggart, that an author actually turned his stories–as well as others that were equally over the top– into a novel and the rest is history.
He’s been a fixture of Russian folklore for centuries and there have been countless cinematic depictions of him throughout the years but the best, for my money, is obviously the 1962 Zemen film.
While I really love the Gilliam version that came out in the late 80’s (I know you were all expecting me to maybe throw y’all a curve ball by picking the more well known Gilliam film but you’re going to have to go to Shyamalan for them twists, baby.), Zemen’s is wall-to-wall fun.
Utilizing every camera trick and illusion of the time, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen is a technical marvel as well as being one of the most enjoyable fantasy films ever made. If Méliès and Lewis Carroll hopped into a time machine and landed in Czechoslovakia in the 1960’s, they might’ve made a film almost as imaginative as this one. Almost.