If you’ve seen a film by Terry Gilliam, Wes Anderson, or Tim Burton, you’ve likely seen the influence of Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman. An artistic genius who often combined live action and animation to spellbinding effect, Zeman worked as an animator and director from the 1940s up until his death in 1989. I first discovered him when I was studying in Prague a few years ago and my class visited the Karel Zeman Museum, a magical place that opened in 2012 to keep alive the legacy of its namesake and his groundbreaking work in special effects. From the moment I stepped into the museum, I was enchanted by the film clips, costumes, and props that surrounded me, so much so that I went back to the museum a second time and made sure to walk away from the gift shop with a stack of Zeman’s films on DVD.
So, what’s so great about this guy? For starters, his visuals are some of the most riveting I’ve ever seen on the screen. In 1943, Zeman accepted a job offer at Zlín’s animation studio and by 1945, he was directing his own short films, like the superb Inspirace (Inspiration). He also created a very popular series focused on Mr. Prokouk, an adorable mustachioed puppet. In the mid-1950s, the filmmaker began producing the works he is best known for, sumptuous dreamscapes that look both charmingly old-fashioned and startlingly timeless, such as Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955), Invention for Destruction (1958), which has been called the most successful Czech film ever made, and On the Comet (1970). In my opinion, though, the greatest of them all is The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1961), a sentiment with which the titular braggart would no doubt agree.
A swaggering, tall-tale-telling man, the Baron discovers an astronaut named Tony on the moon and mistakes him for a “moon man.” Wanting to show his new friend Earth, the Baron travels to eighteenth-century Turkey, where he and Tony meet the lovely Princess Bianca. Both men fall in love, with the Baron believing he is the obvious best choice. The three of them experience a series of amazing adventures, including being swallowed by a whale and the Baron casually riding a cannonball, allowing Zeman’s creativity to go wild.
Inspired by German author Rudolf Erich Raspe, who created the character of Baron Munchausen in 1785, with aesthetics based on the artwork of Gustave Doré, Zeman’s film is a terrific, often hilarious fantasy that will never leave your memory. Employing hand-drawn sets, cutout collage, puppetry, stop-motion, matte backdrops, and antique tinting, Zeman creates a unique world that feels like you’ve stepped into an exquisitely detailed storybook, one that you found in the comforting warmth of a beautifully musty bookstore.
In Zeman’s work, you can so clearly see the craftsmanship — the lines of the painters; the handmade creatures; the imaginative use of color, even if those colors are just black and white — and yet there will inevitably be something that will make you gasp and think, “How did he possibly do that?” Nicknamed the Czech Méliès, Zeman’s blending of the real and the artificial is evocative and transportive in the way that only the best kind of cinema is, and nothing illustrates that more magnificently than The Fabulous Baron Munchausen.
You can currently stream it on the Criterion Channel, along with Invention for Destruction. Both films were recently released by Criterion on DVD and Blu-ray as part of the Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman set.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film, in addition to being IU Cinema’s Publications Editor. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, she is pursuing an MA in Cinema and Media Studies and has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.