“Pull up a swastika and sit down,” invites Errol Flynn as he and Ronald Reagan hurtle through Nazi Germany in a boxcar bedecked with the twisted cross. This comes midway through Raoul Walsh‘s rip-snorting Desperate Journey — a two-fisted wartime actioner from 1942 — but if Flynn was joking, Kino Video actually means it. In a bold move, the company sails American viewers into completely uncharted seas with its DVD launch of three key films from the Nazi period, none of which ever played in U.S. theaters: Douglas Sirk’s La Habañera (1937), Herbert Selpin’s Titanic (1942), and Josef von Baky’s Münchhausen (1943), the last an Agfacolor extravaganza made to celebrate the silver anniversary of the great UFA studio system that produced world-class directors like Lubitsch, Murnau, and Fritz Lang.
There was a time when all films produced in the Third Reich’s studios were not just scorned but actually prohibited from public showing in the U.S., even beyond the epic Hitler hagiography of Leni Riefenstahl‘s Triumph of the Will. Each title here, then, serves as a memento mori of a period of cinematic history that has been virtually closed until now. Of course, given how western fears have been refocused onto Third World insurrectionists, the architects of the Holocaust no longer function as definitive villains, though the Germans themselves have revived their crimes in recent films like Olivier Hirschbiegel’s The Downfall (Der Untergang) which depicts Goebbels’ wife poisoning their six children.
During its dozen years in power, the Thousand Year Reich consciously treated the film industry as an extension of the state, centralizing its management in the propaganda ministry (and its head, Joseph Goebbels) while clandestinely increasing the government’s control though the extent was not officially revealed until 1942. Goebbels understood the need to control consumption of art one way (book burning, for example) or another (commissioning images that transmit or at least favor the ideology), a dual strategy of either suppression or seduction.
Only certain works of the era — like 1933’s Hitlerjunge Quex (right), which depicted the Hitler Youth movement as virtuous blond Boy Scouts — pushed a frankly partisan agenda, yet even Kino’s trio cannot help but reveal underlying attitudes, both oblique and direct. The messages that promote the cult of the homeland and the culture of warfare are predictable, perhaps more than the emphasis on maintaining traditional gender roles. Still, it is not completely fair to tar these three titles equally with the Nazi brush.
Meant as much for export as local consumption, Nazi cinema was mounted as an economic challenge to Hollywood, attempting to counter the success of American blockbusters with massively scaled UFA productions. Of course, as it turned out, that thinking was as delusional as National Socialist ideology itself and the Nazis themselves wrecked the once-great industry that crafted film landmarks like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, Pandora’s Box, and The Blue Angel. (Heil, Hollywood!).
While Kino’s three selections are not masterworks of that order, they are high examples of how Nazi cinema treated melodrama, spectacle, and fantasy, and each has a story shaped rather differently from Hollywood’s efforts. La Habañera, for one, plunges its heroine from tropical heaven straight to melodrama hell, skipping the customary transitional connectors. Even the Titanic disaster — a predetermined narrative arc if ever there was one — serves as the exoskeleton for a rant against British and American tycoons, while all the naughty romping in Münchhausen only leads to a reaffirmation of family values Nazi style.
Sirk’s luminous La Habañera, a brooding triangle of grand emotions from the auteur of All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life, opens and closes on the surging ocean, suggesting the untamable and chaotic depths of eros. Clearly representing the director’s familiar theme of romantic illusions in conflict with stifling social conventions, the story here makes a steamy mating of the personal and the subtly political, opposing North to South and Nordic to Latin.
It’s also the first American DVD to display Swedish-born Zarah Leander, the regime’s sole international diva and its top-earning star, and the centerpiece of the era’s most financially successful film, Rolf Hansen’s Die Grosse Liebe (1943). After Marlene Dietrich refused Goebbels’ offer in 1936 to anchor the Reich’s film industry, Berlin needed a diva to connect with the mass audience, so Leander’s shaky command of the German language was overlooked and the regime even consented to pay Leander in stable Swedish kronor deposited directly into her Stockholm bank.
Sirk made her an overnight hit in a very effective period melodrama, showcasing Leander’s throaty contralto singing voice, in Zu neuen Ufern (To New Shores, 1937), shortly before La Habañera. Playing an English musical comedy star who takes the rap for a murder to protect her unworthy lover, she finds herself shipped in chains to a women’s prison in Australia. All her characters were women living a life of the senses, one that according to Eric Rentschler “challenged Nazi prudery; her frank eroticism brought German women a sexual self-understanding beyond that of domestic slave and deferent spouse,” qualities which equally appealed to gay fans, who have led a revival of her films in Germany in the last decade.
In La Habañera, the tropical-flavored follow-up, Leander plays Astrée, a Swedish tourist who succumbs to the charms of Puerto Rico, jumping ship to marry local aristocrat Don Pedro de Avila. Looking sometimes like Claudette Colbert, other times like the darkly glamorous Kay Francis, Leander lacks the impish wit of the Americans (though few Sirk heroines enjoy a sense of humor, as if laughter would distract from working out the melodrama’s hard lessons). Still, the somewhat lugubrious Zarah Leander has the cheekbones to justify her publicity as “the new Garbo.” While Sirk protects her from potentially embarrassing grand-scale emoting, he guides her underplaying to build a character who seems sincere, likable, and straightforward, shunning what were then understood as feminine wiles.
To the opening clack of castanets, Sirk sends his camera swooping up from the open sea, tracking along the sunlit battlements of a stone fortress set amongst tropical palms, as a Spanish dancer performs a seductive song (in German, of course) for pushing crowds of locals, including the enraptured Astrée (Leander sporting a pith helmet) and her snippy, lorgnette-wielding aunt. This is a Puerto Rico where guitars throb and even the taxi driver wears a flower behind his ear and sings. (The film was shot in Tenerife at the height of the Spanish Civil War, while Germany’s Condor Legion was bombing the cities controlled by the elected government of the Spanish Republic, and Sirk himself noted that this Spanish-owned Canary Island already had concentration camps).
Such crude political action gets ignored, however, in this rarified world of melodrama. Sirk introduces the duplicitous Don Pedro on horseback, looking down on the heroine from his position as the proprietor of virtually everything on the island, in league with Yankee fruit companies. This Latin male so incarnates masculine potency that when a matador gets hurt in the clifftop bullring, he takes charge and finishes off the bull himself. Astrée admires his “single thrust to the center of the heart,” which he soon directs at her in a local courtship ritual involving acceptance of an open fan, which signals the woman’s assent to his attentions.
When Astrée accepts the fan, it affirms her refusal to return home to “those cold Swedish minds.” Recognizing her erotic thrall to the tropics, her disapproving aunt dubs her “gone mad” and “a savage” (“I prefer the savages” proclaims the niece). Much like Lauren Bacall’s character in Sirk’s Written on the Wind, Astrée allows herself to get picked up by an attractive, powerful man, which results in a whirlwind marriage that turns to desperation as she discovers the inner demons of jealousy that drive him. Just as he does with Bacall, Sirk keeps Leander curiously passive: even when she jumps ship to avoid returning to Stockholm, we don’t see her action, only her absence.
Don Pedro’s arc moves him from proud hidalgo to magnificent obsessive, an all-macho embodiment of the extremes of empowerment, totally devoid of any self-doubt. From the time of Rudolph Valentino, the cinema had long mined public fascination with the figure of the Latin lover, but few other renditions have so strikingly insisted on his dual nature, unpredictably switching from lothario to oppressor. The charismatic, bearded Ferdinand Marian plays him at both extremes, and also turns up in Münchhausen as the suspiciously swarthy Cagliostro, the semitic-looking villain. Marian remains best known, however, as the star of 1940’s widely banned and still toxic Jud Süss, although he had to be coerced into portraying the nakedly despicable villain. This was the definitive Nazi slandering of the Jew, one who threatens the aggressively blonde icon of Aryan womanhood, Kristina Söderbaum (another Swede!), and gets hanged for his perfidy. (In actuality, the actor committed suicide in 1946, the act at least partly attributed to his guilt about this role).
Unlike Hollywood’s anti-erotic fantasies of romantic love (see Rebecca and Gaslight), Sirk’s tenderness for his heroine heightens our protective concern for her endangered emotional life but without criticizing her erotic urges (La Habañera, it should be stated, contains nothing remotely as flamboyant as Dorothy Malone’s Caribbean-inflected patricidal mambo in Written on the Wind). This film seems to say that it’s understandable that Astrée succumbs to Don Pedro’s sexual magnetism; the mistake is to trust these volatile people of the southern climes.
Though German born and raised, Sirk was credited in his European films as Detlef Sierck, stressing his Danish heritage. Not in the first wave of the German diaspora that sent Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Robert Siodmak to Hollywood in response to the 1933 laws forbidding Jews to work in the film industry, Sirk stayed until 1938. Artists always have to choose sides, but the ostensible charge of collaboration with the enemy can conceal a variety of scenarios and pressures: Sirk’s second wife was Jewish, but he waited to emigrate partly in an attempt to protect his estranged son and namesake, Klaus Detlef Sierck. A child star in a dozen UFA films, the boy perished fighting on the Russian Front in 1944. (Zarah Leander, on the other hand, was so identified with the beaten regime that she paid the price after the war, unable to refloat her career).
As the tropical paradise becomes Astrée’s prison over ten years, La Habañera moves indoors, with cameraman Franz Weihmayr framing the interiors with increasing precision. Faced with her husband’s consuming jealousy, Astrée’s romantic illusions have shriveled and the couple’s rancor only grows as they wrestle for control over their nine year old son, the last thing that binds them together. The film pivots on the fluently staged and beautifully edited argument scene, beginning against the glittering mirrored wall of the oppressive interior, and proceeding with characteristic visual economy, through subtly elaborate camera movements, and alternating between seamlessly silken editing and openly assertive cuts..
His figure doubled in the glass behind him, the controlling husband contemptuously pokes his riding crop into the delicate chiffon recesses of a dress strewn across a chair, his distaste for the garment fueled by an English navy officer’s onetime compliment. When he tears the delicate fabric, his action allows her to release her built-up frustrations: “Everything that seemed so charming ten years ago has turned repulsive,” she tells him. “I thought this was paradise, but it’s hell.” So disaffected is she that even when Don Pedro offers to take her to Sweden, she declines.
Her depressive romanticism is now transposed onto their son, depicted as a wan Mama’s boy and blond like a Swede (though unlike Leander), but who seems to have no existence outside the frame. As she pines away for her native heritage of snow, sleighs and ice, she infects him with the same disquiet in scenes that begin in pathos and then fearlessly cross the line to bathos. Thus, when he asks “What is snow?,” Astrée replies, “Millions and millions of frozen angels’ tears” (but adds that angels cry because “they feel sorry for us”). Be prepared, in these nursery sequences about maternal love, for the star’s rendition of “the cuckoo song,” where she is not above fluttering her hands like birdies as she sings. Of course, if she had seen Sirk’s cautionary depictions of mother-child relationships in All That Heaven Allows or There’s Always Tomorrow, she would know that the child’s needs will eventually ripen into the need to oppress her.
When her old flame from Stockholm shows up, the “Don Juan of Stockholm doctors,” he poses a challenge to Don Pedro on two fronts, the private but also the public as his task includes investigating persistent outbreaks of “Puerto Rican fever” (“The Rockefeller Institute gave up after its failure eight years ago. Americans are so lax!”). As played by Karl Martell, the doctor is dashing to a fault, whether impulsively riding a toboggan down a marble staircase with the boy, or surreptitiously drawing blood from an infected soldier, or preparing to blow the whistle on the concealed epidemic.
Bushy-tailed with energy, he seems intended as a specimen of the new Third Reich male, at once lover and crusader, but above all unshakably confident thanks to stainless steel discipline. In contrast, jealousy consumes Don Pedro, his drive for power blinding him as he protects his “powerful friends in Washington,” and then denies the existence of an epidemic (if several hundred died from fever in the past, he reasons, tens of thousands more starved in the economic downturn caused by news reports of an earlier outbreak).
The wind that brings the fever becomes an almost tangible element in the film, the breath of the contagion, like a simmering undercurrent of eroticism in conflict with masculine power, coursing through the villa where a balcony encircles an enormous open atrium, its oval reflecting pool imitating life again and again. “I feel the fever wind ten days in advance,” opines Zarah Leander as she dabs a lace handkerchief delicately at her throat.
The Habañera song — with lyrics by Sirk himself — comes to personify the erotic pull (when Astrée hears it at dockside, she quits the steamer to cast her lot with Don Pedro, and she even tells him “it was more the Habañera than you”).
“Come, o come to me
Tonight in secrecy
Where no one else can see
Yes, you alone mean happiness and life to me.”
In the end, despite this commitment to passion, events reach a crescendo of irony when the controlling husband outmaneuvers himself. The moment that Astrée accedes to her husband, donning the native mantilla of the island to sing the Habañera, he collapses from the lethal results of his mendacity. He falls prey to the epidemic himself just after the supply of the doctor’s serum has been destroyed at his orders. Lest the irony pass unnoticed, an onlooker even points out that “he dug his own grave,” and his demise sets her free to return to cooler climes and the Nordic order that she sought to escape.
Completing the circle of the plot, Astrée arrives back almost where she started, on an ocean liner bound for Sweden. From small boats alongside the ship, local dancers sing and dance the Habañera one last time, but now she remains aboard the ship, as the camera moves back down to the turbulent sea.
Tactfully displacing the plot’s racist North/South dynamic onto Scandinavians (though everyone speaks German, of course), the film still provides a Euro-solution from the safe Old World to Astrée’s marital impasse in the Yankee dominated New World, with the doctor’s fearless Aryan integrity uncovering the concealed epidemic scandal. Her quest for freedom in paradise turns into a cautionary lesson that favors conservative sexual morality: you can’t trust those shifty races who live close to the equator, so don’t stray to foreign climes, no matter how seductive. Stay close to your roots.
To some, the ironies may look less obvious in black-and-white than in the rich Technicolor of Sirk’s 1950s productions, but the meanings seem to be reversed here. Where Jane Wyman’s character in All That Heaven Allows rejected conventional social morality, Leander’s suffering frau learns to respect traditional separations and divisions and to distrust the unfamiliar, which makes quite the opposite message.
While Errol Flynn’s brash bravado played well in 1942 Hollywood, the same moment was no time for lightheartedness in Germany. The forty-year-old Herbert Selpin, the beleaguered director of Titanic, stressed out from pressure to finish the million mark epic, unwisely criticized the German navy to the Nazi true believer who authored Titanic‘s screenplay, and found himself arrested by the Gestapo, an ordeal he did not survive. When he was found hanged in his cell, the unfinished production was put in the hands of the unremarkable Werner Klingler.
This backstory seems even chillier than the icy depths of the Atlantic that swallowed the ship. Then, when Klingerer finished work on the unstoppable production, an air raid destroyed one copy of the film the very night before its premiere. Despite the trailer’s tag — “the film Germany has been waiting on for years” — the fatherland continued to wait as Goebbels, presumably reluctant to mount models of mass death, ordered the negative to be locked away and banned any showing of the film. Kino has raised this Titanic, thought lost until 1950 and never properly released, from its grave in history.
The money sequence for any Titanic narrative is always the maritime disaster itself, but apart from the film’s elaborately detailed sets of the ship’s salons and staterooms, Selpin’s perfunctory deployment of miniatures pales next to its competition. This is true even compared to E. A. Dupont’s Atlantic from 1929, a rather primitive talkie indoors but impressively poetic when it moved outdoors, let alone James Cameron’s teen-targeted Titanic (1998), the king-of-the-world behemoth that methodically deconstructed the vessel as a spectacle of engineering.
Selpin steers Titanic through its course, goose-stepping through the plot at quite a clip. This is bread-and-butter filmmaking, full of slick visuals with a machine-tooled look, everything tidy and clean and evenly lit. The director’s method takes an early stab at the moment-to-moment procedural approach taken by the British A Night to Remember (1958) — still the gold standard of this subgenre — but the Germans don’t even match the more modest satisfactions of Jean Negulesco’s rather plush Titanic (1953), where emotional relationships resolved themselves in the valedictory bravery of those who went down with the ship.
The flurries of cross-cutting here leave no time for reverie or poetry and no room for milking human sentiment. With few sympathetic characters, this is certainly no love boat. The most appealing romantic subplot (toothy Franzl, the first violinist of the ship’s chamber orchestra, courts pretty Hedy the manicurist) gets treated like some cinematic stowaway, paraded before the cameras as if in a lineup, then locked away, ignored and unable to develop.
Any spare tenderness goes to melancholy Sybille Schmitz (right), understandably morose as a newly impoverished Baltic millionairess (a decade after the actress starred in Dreyer’s Vampyr, but four decades before Fassbinder fashioned Veronika Voss on her unhappy life). When the character rallies to take charge in the crunch, directing traffic to load the lifeboats, she stands out for her gestures of nobility.
Below decks, the proles huddle in babushkas and slurp their soup, entertained by the sultry Jolly Maree, apparently a Gypsy emigrating to New York, who wriggles through a habañera-like dance (set to Spanish rhythms that want to become a polka). If her performance keeps threatening to turn into a striptease, that is an obvious impossibility in the family values-heavy Reich, but at least it motivates a none-too-convincing knife fight by two lumpen rivals for her “hand.”
A Cuban jewel thief, a musty professor, and an emblematic heartland couple who resemble Bavarian Gothic also report for duty, yet there’s no real attempt to sketch a social microcosm on board the ship. Gradually, the central character proves to be the rigidly correct Herr Petersen, “the only German officer on board” and another exemplary Nazi type. Despite his tirelessly warning the crew, the passengers, and the greedy British speculators of impending danger, no one pays this Teutonic Cassandra much heed; so, while the plutocrats dicker over financial deals, the liner’s staff is left to rearrange the deck chairs.
It’s thirty minutes to the first iceberg warning, and once the collision strikes, the film attains a rare grotesquerie as Herr Petersen then gloats as he revisits them all to say, “I told you so”: the Titanic may be sinking, but the script never runs out of fuel as long as this proto-stormtrooper sticks around, and a coda even finds him hectoring the survivors in a British lawcourt. (It comes as a surprise that Petersen once had an emotional relationship with the countess).
Greed rather than hubris steers the ship toward unsafe speeds and catastrophe, as capitalists attempt to manipulate the stock price of the White Star Line. Aboard the vessel are the president of the company, prominent investors, and Yankee mogul John Jacob Astor. (The latter, at once ruthless and heartless, explains that “I don’t lend money; I’d rather give it away. But since I’m no great apostle of charity, I don’t give it away either”). This well-earned critique of British and Yankee businessmen seems disingenuous since the fascists were as profit-mongering as any robber baron (but felt pushed out of the capitalist club by the punitive strictures imposed after World War One).
However, despite some self-sacrificing actions by the crew and the film’ssole touching visual metaphor — the despairing telegraph operator frees a caged bird, able to fly away from the catastrophe, deepening the poignancy of the humans’ predicament, who are unable to escape the twin forces of the cruel sea and gravity — the film lingers too long on far less sympathetic characters, leaving a feeling that the tragedy has been trivialized.
Though nowhere near as creepy as Kolberg (1945) — director Viet Harlan’s epic of magnificent depression, where German patriots fight to the last drop of blood resisting Napoleon’s army, filmed as the Thousand Year Reich crumbled around the production — nevertheless Titanic‘s tightly-coiffed ladies and thin-lipped men seem to carry more than one intimation of the Holocaust as well as the impending doom of the filmmakers. More than Kino’s other titles, this one gives us the unique experience of pulling on the jackboots, as it were, to think like a Nazi. In the final moments, lest any viewers remain floundering in the water, grasping for meaning, Titanic raises its oar to bludgeon us with a parting restatement of the theme: “eternal condemnation of England’s thirst for profit.”
The ghost of filmmaking pioneer Georges Méliès, who first explored the magical possibilities of cinema in his Voyage to the Moon, smiles over the exuberant Münchhausen, whose genial hero also ascends to the moon (though in a hot air balloon), and meets not only the resident man in the moon but also his wife.
The intended occasion for this multimillion-mark spectacle, however, was hardly the glorification of a Frenchman but rather the celebration of UFA’s silver jubilee. Goebbels lavished resources to create a handsome showcase for Agfacolor, the German process that favors tomato reds, warm ambers and sky blues (delivering the same thousand-watt brightness as Technicolor, but downplaying the scarlets and electric blues of the American system). If the ivory hues and natural skin tones turn waxen now and then, the special effects of Konstantin Irmen-Tschet (who worked on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis) are historically state-of-the-art, while the witty production design suggests the garish but fanciful illustrations of a children’s volume of fairy tales, Breughel for babies.
Also included in Münchhausen‘s brief was a surprising license for whimsy and frivolity, hardly the Third Reich’s strong point (even allowing some blithe disrespect of military endeavors, at a time when the Wehrmacht was being trounced at Stalingrad). This is a film where paintings on the wall look back at the spectator and wink, and indeed it is directed with many felicities and further winks by Josef von Báky (long experienced in Hungarian-themed musicals) who orchestrates graceful rhythms to match the sprightly score of heroic themes, tango strains, and spirited harem shimmies.
As befits the story of a man adventuring through disparate communities, the film rarely uses isolating close-ups, but each episode has its own surprises. This is Teutonic magical realism, where inanimate objects leap with irrepressible high spirit. Coats and trousers jump out of the wardrobe and dance through the air, but when the Baron sits down to play the piano, violin music comes out. There’s also a human timepiece, a ring that grants invisibility (but only for an hour), a rifle that shoots a hundred miles, and a horn whose notes get frozen in the Siberian winter but then burst out all at once when thawing.
As the convivial and perpetually priapic Baron, the blondly Aryan Hans Albers plays this adventurer and inveterate teller of tall tales with light-footed zest (but is it an accident or a sly joke that when he dons a monocle, he looks like Fritz Lang?). Münchhausen repeatedly spins epitaphs for himself (“The Earth was too small for him”) and measures himself against Copernicus as a seeker of “knowledge in experience, beyond the intellect”.
If La Habañera cautions against straying from the fatherland, Münchhausen, both man and movie, rambles happily through foreign climes, tasting the pleasures of Catherine the Great’s Petersburg (as well as of the empress herself). Petersburg’s market square is here conceived as a boisterous carnival for lusty Kulaks, a Tivoli Gardens playground with fountains that spout wine and trees that bear sausages. Costumes are especially resplendent in Catherine’s court, filled with brilliantly designed accoutrements like a gigantic cake that opens to reveal a dwarf playing a harpsichord (but the real dessert proves to be bowls of precious stones the size of eggs).
Though not especially charitable to women — remarking about one that “where other women have a heart, she only has cleavage” — the Baron strikes the fancy of the Empress. Sleek in her chiffon peignoirs and lace scanties, she offers a rare Third Reich picture of a woman in power (Nazis usually felt threatened by strong women). However, as presented here, her philosophy seems not far from Hitler’s own: “When it comes to blows, it is better to give than to receive”.
Münchhausen rides a cannonball through the clouds right into the Turkish sultan’s palace, enjoying more than a few glimpses of topless houris who frolic in the harem pool. One droll exchange with a harem guard who lavishes praise on a favorite woman prompts the Baron to remark, “For a eunuch, you seem to be quite in love,” while the latter ripostes with “It wasn’t my heart they clipped!” Then, in Venice during Carnival, the peripatetic hero gets showered with confetti and streamers as flower-laden gondolas glide through the canals, though his suspiciously Dorian Gray-like youth arouses the jealousy of an aging Casanova and unwelcome interest from the Inquisition.
Throughout, von Báky’s Baron acts considerably more adult than his counterpart in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (1989), portrayed as a dotty grandfather who seemed more Don Quixote than a credible rival to Casanova. If Gilliam finds room for several additional episodes (the Baron gets swallowed by a whale and treks into a volcano), the German version adds a witty frame story, where the modern-day Baron narrates his exploits to a squabbling young couple, but finally chooses to sacrifice the gift of immortality granted by Cagliostro for the love of his wife. So, after tomcatting around the world, the baron reaffirms the value of his wholesome, stay-at-home Aryan frau. Standing up for the family values of the Master Race, he gets to have his kuchen and eat it too.
The two versions also diverge in villainy: where Gilliam pits his Baron against a heartless bureaucrat, opposing imagination to reason, the Germans contrast pleasure with power through the Baron’s encounters with the diabolical magician Cagliostro (unique to this version of the tale), so sinister that even black cats bristle and attack at his approach. Prodded by this trickster into an alliance to seize political power, the Baron chooses to decline, observing that “You want to rule and I want to live.” Still, from the viewpoint of Goebbels and company, veterans of that mother of all political dirty tricks, the Reichstag Fire, Münchhausen’s disinterest in power seems like wish fulfillment, an unlikely boyish fantasy to pursue adventure, naughty beauties, and a rousing good time.
His exploits become a literally fabulous footnote to history, but like Zarah Leander’s Astrée, Münchhausen ultimately rubber stamps the impulse toward ethnic insularity, concluding that there’s no place like home (fitting more than ever Eric Rentschler’s description as “a Nazi Wizard of Oz“). Then, the Baron’s final touching gesture of renouncing immortality approaches a Wagnerian grandeur, embracing death for love of his noble spouse, much as thanatos overwhelmed the regime itself.
These three glimpses into the belly of the brown-shirted beast, whatever their individual attractions, avoid looking inwardly at Germany, concealing the conflicts of their historical moment, preferring to point fingers outward at the rest of the world. Nevertheless, we cannot watch them with innocent eyes because we have already absorbed the countless images of the physical and social brutalities of the fascists fashioned during the intervening six decades. It’s not even necessary to go as far as the fingernail marks scraped on the walls of the gas chambers in Resnais’s Night and Fog to form an unshakable indictment. Who can forget the old man in a wheelchair flung out a window in Polanski’s The Pianist, or the Polish partisans forced to wade through rivers of raw sewage in Wajda’s Kanal, or the sociopathic German army incinerating entire Russian villages with all their occupants in Klimov’s devastating Come and See? However, when the sometimes arch exuberance of Münchhausen gives way to a final envoi, suggesting that “Man is like a wisp of smoke that rises and vanishes,” this attractive metaphor for existence only works if that smoke isn’t coming from the ovens of the Final Solution.
For vintage films, Kino’s transfers all look remarkably good; among thethoughtful extras are comparisons of the lustrous colors of Münchhausen with the muddy hues of the unimproved presentation, as well as samples from restorations of other rare Agfacolor films. The Titanic DVD includes a 1912 newsreel with footage of the ship’s captain, plus the rescue ship’s youthful crew posing and clowning for the camera.
If Kino can be faulted on these releases, the primary offense is skimping on the historical context, aside from Jan-Christopher Horak’s short but pithy essay included with La Habañera (along with translations of several contemporary German reviews). Viewers interested in fleshing out the background details may want to read Klaus Kreimeier’s The UFA Story and Eric Rentschler’s The Ministry of Illusion, the latter supplying a close and critical study of Nazi cinema’s achievements, while divaphiles are on alert to read Cinzia Romani’s fascinating and generously illustrated Tainted Goddesses: Female Film Stars of the Third Reich.
To supplement these valuable entries to the national DVD treasury, Kino might consider resuscitating the fading star of Luis Trenker, brave Alpine adventurer, anti-fascist, and director/screenwriter/star of Der Rebell (1933) and the English-language The Challenge (1937). One more Sirk title, like Schlussakkord (1936), and perhaps Frank Wysbar’s Fahrmann Maria (1936) could round out another provocative package to further explore this terra incognita of film history.