Today, it seems we can make anything appear realistically on screen. If you can summon the image in your mind, some technologically savvy artists will probably be able to conjure it up on the big screen as if it belonged in the ’real world’. A dinosaur looks like a dinosaur rather than a mechanical puppet, people are able to jump skyscrapers and fly through the air with ease, cinema audiences have even been to space and experienced the galactic thrill of a slingshot ride away from Mars. All of this can now be done in an impressively realistic manner. The imaginative images of cinema have become awe-inspiring real to look at. If we didn’t already know that these images are fiction and fabricated, we may very well have difficulties in discerning them as such.
The Fabulous Karel Zeman and bonkers Baron Munchausen
Cinema has however never previously allowed itself to be restricted by the concerns of realistic visual portrayals. Before the technology was in place to ensure such things, filmmakers with storytelling ambitions that lay beyond reality, were forced to improvise in imaginative ways to create the worlds, rules, and fantasies that flourished before their mind’s eye. One such a filmmaker, particularly adept at creating reality-defying and imaginative cinematic adventures, was the Czech director Karel Zeman. I recently had the pleasure of watching a beautifully remastered version of his 1961 film Baron Prášil (Eng. title: The Fabulous Baron Munchausen).
With a truly innovative mixture of live-action and animation, Zeman treats audiences to a grand adventure. We follow the dashing Baron Munchausen as he meets a man on the moon, brings him to earth, battles an 18th century Turkish army with some well-timed tobacco smoke, gets swallowed by a giant fish, rides a cannonball between two warring armies, and blows up a building to create a rocket ship with destination back towards the moon.
Baron Prášil is first and foremost a fabulously bonkers adventure. Everything in this film is stylized to the extreme, be it the stereotypical Turkish Sultan, the flamboyant and self-centred Baron himself, the beautiful damsel in distress, or most noticeably the magical visuals. Sprinkled throughout you will also find great satirical moments, often facilitated by the gloriously self-indulgent hero, Baron Munchausen. A moment of particular glee occurs when the Baron first approaches the Sultan, speaking in a jolting incoherent manner. He explains to Tonik, the spaceman, that he is speaking ‘the language of diplomacy’. Considering this film originated from behind the iron curtain during the cold war, such a sly remark becomes especially poignant and funny.
What struck me above anything else in the viewing of this film, was the imaginative mastery displayed by Zeman in his creative attempts at crafting images that transcend our earthly-bound world. The images in Baron Prášil come alive. They engross audiences by demanding a playful engagement with the images on screen. The lack of ‘reality’ in the images does not reduce the believability of the story or the joy of experiencing these amazing adventures play out before you in moving pictures. The screening I saw of this film was shown at the opening of the world’s largest Childrens’ and Youth Film Festival located in Zlín, Czech Republic. This was an extremely fitting match as it is precisely the child’s ability to look for adventure armed only with the power of imagination that Baron Prášil evokes in audiences old and young.
Set your imagination free and enjoy the visual magic
The story is enriched by Zeman’s magical experimentation in combining live action with animation. At every turn you sense the deep thought that has gone into the rich ever surprising visual imagery. Watching Baron Prášil was a truly cinematic experience. Every moment of the film was centred on the image and the boundless possibilities that exist for adventurous storytelling through visuals, if only you dare let your imagination take flight and refuse to let it be hindered by a need to reproduce realistic imagery on screen.
The viewing of Baron Prášil also made me a bit nostalgic for some of that off-centre way of viewing, grasping, and bringing forth the world on film that seems increasingly rare, as big screen adventures are able to portray unrealistic scenarios and creatures, as if they where actual reality. In the world of animation this joy of the imaginative image lives on, but the magical experience of watching a live-action Baron Munchausen traversing an animated landscape of dangers and joys remains a rare sight.
Watching this entertaining adventurous romp reminded me of how much I love the way in which film tells stories through reality-defying images. I was reminded of how wonderful and important it is to be able to view the world through different lenses, to portray the world beyond the realistic and the obvious. To mould reality, challenge it, and watch fantasy come alive and become real in unreal ways, if only for just the briefest of moments on screen.