Book Review: 'Animation Under the Swastika: A History of Trickfilm in Nazi Germany'

Fred Patten takes an in-depth look at a new book chronicling the history of animation under the Third Reich.

Animation Under the Swastika: A History of Trickfilm in Nazi Germany, 1933-1945, by Rolf Giesen and J. P. Storm.

Jefferson, NC, McFarland & Co., Publishers, September 2012, trade paperback $45.00 (viii + 229 pages).

Everyone knows about all the World War II animation produced in the United States, from Disney’s Academy Award-winning Der Fuehrer’s Face to today’s Politically Incorrect You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap and Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips.  But did Nazi Germany produce any wartime propaganda animation?  In fact, did the Nazis produce any animation during their 1933-1945 Third Reich?

Animation Under the Swastika documents that Germany from 1933 to 1945 produced more animation, or “trickfilms,” than most people today realize.  In fact, Rolf Giesen and J. P. Storm produce evidence that both Adolf Hitler and his Minister for Propaganda Josef Goebbels were big fans of Walt Disney’s theatrical cartoons, and were determined that Germany should become a similar producer of internationally prestigious animation.  Yet this never happened.  Why not?

Chapter 1, “Optical Lyric and Shadow Plays: The Early History of German Animation” briefly discusses the first German experiments in animation from 1910 to the mid-1920s.  Chapter 2, “The March of the Cigarettes,” mentions Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette Arabian-Nights 1926 animated feature, Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed, but makes it clear that this was an anomaly.  “Except for Prince Achmed, however, animation in Germany was reduced to experimental shorts […] which, when the filmmakers were lucky, were shown and financed as advertising films.” (p. 5).  The authors document several stop-motion puppet films made between 1926 and 1935, all as advertising films promoting chocolates and cigarettes.  Significantly, the leader of this type of animation was Hungarian-born Georg Pal, a Jew who was wise enough to move from Germany to the Netherlands when the Nazis rose to power in Germany, and then emigrated to America on the eve of the German occupation of the Netherlands.  There was at least one anti-Nazi animated propaganda film made just before their seizure of power, which they promptly banned.  “But the Nazis themselves did not do what would have seemed natural: use animation mainly for propaganda.  Their interest in animation was to compete with Disney cartoons – and a Disney cartoon had to be nice.  Predominantly.” (p. 8)

Chapter 3, “Tilo Voss and the Development of German Sound Cartoons”.  Tilo Voss was Germany’s first attempt to create a national cartoon star similar to Mickey Mouse or Felix the Cat.  It was approached with Teutonic thoroughness.  “In October 1934 Ufa [Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft; Germany’s largest motion picture studio] commissioned [Otto] Waffenschmied to develop a new animated cartoon character.  After some research Waffenschmied came up with an old German fairy-tale sylvan elf, Tilo Voss, whom he thought would fit the purpose.” (p. 9)  Production costs and script revisions were discussed at length.  Ufa debated the merits of producing original German cartoons versus licensing proposed French cartoons.  “Ufa got stuck in the attempt to rival Disney’s Silly Symphonies.  And then came Snow White.” (p. 11)

Chapter 4, “How Walt Disney Became Walter Distler: Snow White for Greater Germany” covers the popularity of American films in Germany before World War II, and Hitler’s and Goebbels’ personal liking for Disney’s cartoons.  Goebbels’ diaries record that for Christmas 1937, he gave Hitler a present of several American movies including 18 Mickey Mouse shorts.  Snow White, based on a Germanic folk tale, was eagerly awaited.  “No other American movie received that much attention in the National Socialist press.” (p. 13)  With its smash success upon its American premiere on December 24, 1937, Goebbels immediately ordered Snow White be acquired for German distribution.  Unfortunately, a series of delays (Disney’s theatrical distributor, RKO, had closed its German office, and America became increasingly hostile to the Nazi regime during 1938) kept pushing a distribution deal back until it became politically impossible to show any American movies in Germany.  The planned distribution had gotten far enough that a German dub of Snow White was prepared, which was shown in Germany after the war.

Chapters 5 through 19 tell the tale of the animation industry that did develop in Nazi Germany.  Despite Hitler’s and Goebbels’ dreams, Germany never developed an animation studio to rival such American powerhouses as Disney, Warner Bros., Paramount, or MGM.  The remaining 14 chapters recount in detail the individual animators raising money, or trying to, to complete their films. The story of Hans Held, who owed everyone money and was pursued by a long string of creditors, but was nevertheless able to complete one short cartoon, Der Störenfried (The Troublemaker, 1940), is told. There are one or two failed attempts to claim the mantle of a German Walt Disney.  On August 7, 1941, Goebbels himself started what was supposed to become the major German animation studio, Deutsche Zeichenfilm G.m.b.H.  Ambitious plans to build a studio for 4,000 artists were made, and art classes were started.  A sample cartoon was made, the 18-minute Armer Hansi (Poor Hansi, 1942), about a canary who escapes from his cage but finds living in the wild too harsh and is glad to return to his cage.  Plans for several more films were completed, but by the time the studio was ready to begin serious production, Allied bombing raids on Berlin made it impossible.  Deutsche Zeichenfilm only managed to complete the one cartoon, Armer Hansi, and to get partway through a second.

There was one 1933-1945 German animator who could honestly be called a German Walt Disney:  Hans Fischer of Bad Kösen, who took the name of Hans Fischerkoesen.  Fischerkoesen had his own small studio, Fischerkoesen-Film-Studio, near Potsdam which produced classified training and advertising films.  In June 1940 Germany started a series of newsreel theaters devoted to European life in peace and at war, naturally glorifying Fascism.  To provide a bit of variety, German Newsreel asked a writer, Horst von Möllendorff, who had recently started work at the Fischerkoesen studio, for a humorous fantasy that Fischerkoesen could animate.  This turned into three cartoons that are still enjoyed today:  Verwitterte Melodie (Weather-beaten Melody, 1942); Der Schneemann (The Snowman, 1943); and Das dumme Gänslein (The Silly Goose, 1944), the latter written as well as produced by Fischerkoesen.  They were so good that Karl Neumann, the head of DZF, tried to recruit Fischerkoesen, a staunch anti-Nazi who refused.  Neumann then asked Goebbels to order Fischerkoesen to join DZF, but as Goebbels recorded in his diary:  “Besides there is another production from cartoon film producer Fischer-Kösen which Neumann would love to take over by force and integrate into his own production.  I refuse temporarily.  As long as a new film production is in its infancy it is good if there is competition.” (p. 120)

In Munich there was an attempt to establish a Bavarian animation studio in rivalry with those in northern Germany.  The here-and-there Hans Held started it, before he was called up for military service and went into hiding in Amsterdam for the duration of the war.  Held’s successors developed plans for a series of cartoons featuring the adventures of the Bremen Town Musicians (a dog, a cat, a donkey, and a rooster).  By then it was so close to the end of the war that all animation production was halted throughout Germany.

There are short chapters on animated maps for newsreels, and classified training films.  There are filmmaker biographies, a select filmography, chapter notes, a bibliography, and an index.  Animation Under the Swastika is heavily illustrated with black-&-white animation drawings and photographs of the animators and their staffs, and eight pages of color plates.  If you have any curiosity about the animation of Nazi Germany, this is the book to go to.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatricalrerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fanclub for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-ConInternational's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to Americanfandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine sinceits #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for severalyears, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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