The Case of Hans Fischerkoesen

Hans Fischerkoesen, Germany's leading producer of animated commercials, was ordered to make theatrical cartoons by the government in World War II, as William Moritz notes, he produced a trio of remarkable films which were not exactly Nazi propaganda.

The following article is extracted from "Resistance And Subversion in Animated Films of The Nazi Era: the Case of Hans Fischerkoesen," that was first published the premiere isssue of Animation Journal (Fall 1992), which in turn was based on a paper presented by Moritz at the 1991 Society for Animation Studies Conference held at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York..

The cover of Der Speigel featuring Hans Fischerkoesen. Courtesy of William Moritz

After World War II started, the trickle of cartoons produced by German studios was not enough to cover the loss of Disney and other American product. To rectify the situation, in 1941 the Nazi government called for the establishment of a strong German animation industry capable of producing both color cartoons and animated features. Thus, all able animators were commanded to step up production and focus on theatrically viable cartoons. Among the filmmakers called into action was Hans Fischerkoesen, who was among the most distinguished animators remaining in Germany between 1933 and 1945, and whose work during the war years included a trio of remarkable films: Verwitterte Melodie (Weather-beaten Melody, 1942), Der Schneemann (The Snowman, 1943) and Das dumme Gänslein (The Silly Goose, 1944).

Hans Fischer was born May 18, 1896 in Bad Koesen, near Naumburg of the famous cathedral, on the road between Leipzig and Weimar. Because "Fischer" was such a common name in the film world, he would later add on the name of his birthplace in order to distinguish himself from the others. He was a delicate child, plagued by asthma, so his parents allowed him and his sister Leni to indulge their taste for fantasy and spectacle by creating puppet shows and home entertainments. The two attended the Leipzig Art Academy together and Leni later worked with Hans on many films.

Because of his asthma, Hans could not serve as a soldier during World War I, but he did work in army hospitals near the front lines, where he experienced the grotesque inanity of trench warfare. He dreamed about making an animation film, Das Loch im Westen (The Hole in the West), which would expose the War Profiteer as the true cause of war--and the real manipulator of victory and defeat.

When the war ended, Fischerkoesen returned to his family home and spent months drawing about 1,600 sequential images that made concrete the dream (or rather nightmare) vision he had experienced in the trenches. He took the drawings to a Leipzig movie company and paid them (a borrowed) 700 marks to photograph them; but, as it turned out, the company was near bankruptcy and had never shot single-frame material before. Hans lost that money, but he persevered to build his own animation stand out of a wooden margarine crate and shot it himself. Fischerkoesen described the film as a political cartoon brought to life, and it certainly suggests something of Bertold Bartosch's L'idée (The Idea), made a decade later. Fortunately, a local distributor bought Hole in the West for 3,000 marks, so he could continue to make more films.

Hans Held's Troublemaker, a real Nazi cartoon. Courtesy of William Moritz

The Darling of Audiences

Fischerkoesen made a successful advertising film, Bummel-Petrus (Strolling Peter, 1921), for the Leipzig shoe factory Nordheimer, which led to a two-year contract with Julius Pinschewer, who had pioneered the use of animated commercials in movie theaters back in 1911. Afterwards, he established his Fischerkoesen Studio in Leipzig to specialize in advertising films, something Fischerkoesen seemed perfectly suited to. After all, he had an irrepressible sense of humor, a good sense of rhythm, and a charming, flexible cartoon style--as well as the obsessive concentration necessary to make animated films perfect in every way. He also had the knack for seeing a pun or twist in some old saying, common situation or popular song which would fit right in with a product. He philosophized about advertising, proposing the "if-then" formula (If you use this product, then this will happen; if you have this problem, then this product will help) as the best format for a succinct, cogent ad.

In 1931, a Leipzig newspaper celebrated Fischerkoesen, "the darling of audiences," with a full-page article entitled "Watch out, Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, and Co.!" which contains delightful images of a cow with a lyre built into her horns, a bull in a tuxedo, and an enchanting art deco-style kangaroo ballet--all popular cartoon figures from his ads. By 1937, when he won both first and second prizes at a Dutch-sponsored international competition for advertising films (the runners up included George Pal and Alexander Alexeieff), Fischerkoesen had made around 1,000 publicity films. Unfortunately, all but a few of these seem to be lost, or languish unidentified in collections that do not consider commercials important.

For many years, Hans Fischerkoesen managed to keep his production confined to the kind of advertising films he did so well. But after the 1941 edict, the Propaganda Minister demanded that he move his staff and studio to Potsdam, near UFA's Neubabelsberg studios, to be available for consultations and special effects on features and documentaries. When the 45-year-old Fischerkoesen, loathe to become any more closely involved with Goebbels than necessary, protested that he didn't really have the talent to invent ideas for story films, he was assigned to work with 35-year-old Horst von Möllendorf, a popular Berlin newspaper cartoonist who had just been "drafted" to work as a gag man for animated cartoons. (Although Möllendorff received story credit on several of Fischerkoesen's wartime films, his contribution was negligible: the credit for these films rests solely with Hans and Leni Fischerkoesen.)

Among the specific things that Goebbels mandated for the new German cartoon industry was the development of "three-dimensional" effects which could be competitive with the Fleischers' Stereo-Optical process (which combined model sets with cel animation) or Disney's multiplane camera (which filmed several layers of cels). Fischerkoesen had already been using a simple multiplane effect derived from the multilayered glass animations that Lotte Reiniger used in the 1926 animated feature Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed, 1926). Fischerkoesen had also been working with puppet and model animation, and could hardly have been ignorant of Oskar Fischinger's brilliant simulation of a deep-space traveling boom shot around the Muratti cigarettes parading towards the Olympic stadium in his classic 1934 ad film Muratti Gets in the Act.

Weather-beaten Melody. Courtesy of William Moritz.

Weather-beaten Melody

The opening sequence of Weather-beaten Melody (1942), his first film made under the government edict, demonstrates a bravura mastery of both the multiplane and stereo-optical processes--and a meaningful use of depth, following the flight of a bee down from the sky, through 12 layers of grass and flowers in a meadow, and circling around an abandoned phonograph which lies, puzzlingly for the bee, in the middle of the meadow. Behind this long point of view sequence is the assumption that the bee is a personage worthy of following, and in fact she turns out to be adventurous, resourceful, perceptive, talented, witty, and friendly, among other admirable, even noble "human" characteristics. Fischerkoesen demonstrates these traits in little episodes characteristic of his style: she uses dandelion seeds as parachutes for a joyous free ride; her game of tossing a blueberry ends in disaster (the overripe fruit bursts over her head), but she meticulously wipes herself clean on a daisy petal. He also delineates her personality with unexpected complexities. For example, is she jealous of the hedgehog who takes over her place as "phonograph needle" when she is away sharpening her stinger--or is she merely exasperated at the confusing quality of his multi-needle pickup? The very idea of ambiguity was anathema to the Nazis, who could only hope to maintain their fascist program by enforcing strict, unbending codes of behavior, and absolute, inviolable "ideals and truths." Precisely because of its technical brilliance, Weather-beaten Melody could get away with quite a bit of forbidden information.

Ironically, inherent in the "stereo" animation techniques, as Fischerkoesen uses them, lies the most subversive metaphor: a sense of freedom of movement, an affirmation of the multi-layered nature of reality--of ambiguity and change--which demands (even subconsciously) that the viewer think for herself and consider other things as valid as the subjective self--something truly forbidden by Nazi doctrine as the most dangerous action of all.To fully appreciate Fischerkoesen's daring, one must remember that the Nazis had forbidden jazz and swing as an Afro-Judaic plot to undermine traditional German culture. The catalogue of the 1937 "Degenerate Film" exhibition contained an anti-jazz spread entitled "Africa Speaks...?," which stigmatized "Al Jolson-Rosenblatt" among other black and black-face jazz musicians, and the 1938 "Degenerate Music" catalogue featured the image of a black saxophone player wearing a Star of David. Detlev Peukert chronicles how the "swing movement" became a key symbolic rebellion, while the British film Swing Under the Swastika documents the sad and ironic fates of jazz musicians during this period.

In this context, the discovery of an abandoned phonograph takes on new meaning, especially when the record on the turntable is a swing number with lyrics that say, "The week wouldn't be worthwhile without a weekend when we can get away to enjoy nature." Near the phonograph lies an "abandoned" clasp from a woman's garter belt (with a lucky four-leafed clover growing out of it!), which suggests that the interrupted picnic that left behind the musical instrument had also involved erotic play--something also strictly forbidden by the puritanical Nazi codes. So from beneath the charming surface of this cartoon emerges a subversive message: women, far from the unnatural Nazi-designated stereotype of "children, church and kitchen," can escape into Nature to be self-reliant and adventurous, erotic and free--they can rediscover or revitalize a suppressed world of forbidden joy in music and friendship between diverse creatures who may be brown or white, frog or caterpillar--or even a pair of ladybug beetles who may be a same-sex couple. Especially compared to the American cartoons of this same period (profligate with gratuitous violence and racist/sexist stereotype victims), the entire community of animals depicted in Weather-beaten Melody is peaceful, friendly, fun-loving, imaginative and altruistic--quite the opposite of the Nazi requirements for a dedicated Aryan citizen.

The Snowman. Courtesy of William Moritz

The Snowman

The same spirit of ambiguity and subversive subtext pervades Fischerkoesen's next film, 1943's The Snowman. The opening sequence, as in Weather-beaten Melody, establishes the filmmaker's bravura mastery of creating the illusion of three-dimensional space. Behind the credits, we see layers of snowflakes, with their elaborate abstract patterns (including pure geometrical circles--all of which justify "degenerate" abstract art as a natural phenomenon!), falling down through the frame. As the credits finish, the viewer flies down over a snow-covered twilight village, around the steeple of a church (a stereo-optical model), down to a snowman in an open space--just as if seen from a snowflake's point of view. This point of view is confirmed when snowflakes alight on the snowman in the pattern of a heart--suggesting that he is a creature of feelings, rather than a military/political figure (who would wear medals or insignia), or an ostracized victim (such as the Jews or gays who wore yellow stars and pink triangles). Unlike the opening of Weather-beaten Melody, which establishes the point of view as that of the protagonist bee, The Snowman's opening sets us up as a visitor/observer.

The snowman is a more complex and "humanly" equivocal character than the bee, and thereby makes us question the meanings behind the actions he is involved in--and ultimately the social context from which he comes. In his Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster discusses two principles of narrative organization which are particularly relevant to The Snowman. He points out that pattern, the audience's slow perception of an overall shape or direction to the story, can heighten our awareness of the inexorable conditions that produce the narrative "destiny," whether it be, for example, the traits of personality that cause a protagonist to succeed or fail, or the nexus of social conditions that bring together a diverse group of people to a particular time, place and incident. Forster also observes that rhythm, the regular recurrence of certain details, events or persons in a story, can cause us to reevaluate the meaning of both the repeating item and the narrative as a whole. Fischerkoesen employs both pattern and rhythm to make us consider seriously the plight and destiny of the snowman.

In the film's first episode, the snowman begins to play by juggling snowballs--a curiously appropriate pastime. His game angers a watchdog, and in his attempts to get away, squashes the dog into the snow and then laughs at its distress. When the dog then bites a chunk out of his rump, the snowman finally get rid of it by pelting it with snowballs.

The snowman tries to have fun again by skating on an icy pond (using icicles for skates), but finds the three snowballs of his body beginning to bounce apart. Soon, the ice breaks and the snowman is melted down to a skeleton of his former self, but restores himself by rolling down hill until he regains his former bulk, only to have his torso and head get mixed up again. A crow helps reassemble his body. A tree laughs at him as he had laughed at the dog, so the crow shakes its coat of snow away as revenge. While the snowman tries to nap, a rabbit attempts to steal his carrot-nose. He decides to go inside to sleep where it will be safer.

As he walks into a cottage, the viewer is treated to a spectacular 180-degree stroll around the building, which recalls the brilliant opening shot of the city square. Once inside, he disturbs a grumpy cat in order to sleep on its couch, and the cat's huffy hiss reminds us of the petulant, territorial dog's snappy barks. Increasingly, we become aware that (as the scoffing tree had recalled the scoffing snowman) events are beginning to parallel earlier ones-- in fact, a "pattern" which contrasts the events in "Winterland" with those in "Summerland," and several "rhythmic" recurrences heightens our perception of the differences between these alternate worlds.

The snowman notices his own picture on the winter portion of the calendar, but also sees (on later months) some unfamiliar flowers. So, he decides to hide out in the refrigerator, so that he may reemerge when the flowers are in bloom. When he attempts to leave in July, however, his rump has stuck to the refrigerator shelf and he loses a chunk, which he regains by turning down the temperature in the icebox (an intelligent, ecological choice--also recalling his earlier ruse of throwing snowballs at the dog until the dog retaliated by tossing back his lost rump-chunk as a weapon). He plays pranks on the chicken and cows (just as he had teased the dog in Winterland), yet when he finds that he is freezing a ladybug, he kindly becomes a ski run for her by turning somersaults across a meadow--another dazzling animation feat. After he melts, singing "How lovely summer is; my heart breaks from happiness," the rabbit finally eats his carrot-nose (and her bunnies frolic in his hat as if he had been a magician).

Parallel incidents reveal the complexities of the snowman's character and assess the ambiguities of the action as a parable: the snowman, an average person with some good and bad qualities, is trapped in a given environment, Winterland. Although it is functional, it is cold and in some ways inhospitable. He reads that there is another place, sunny and free, and arranges to escape there for some thrilling moments of warmth and freedom, even at the cost of his life, as we hear him gurgle in the death throes of song, twisting and melting in the hot sun. The dog, crow, cat, ladybug, rabbit, and others are characterized as parallel human-like creatures, which supports an open, thoughtful humanitarian world view that was anathema to the Nazis. The Snowman is also full of beautiful, touching, affirmative and spectacular scenes, such as the long pan across unfolding spring.

The Silly Goose. Courtesy of William Moritz

The Silly Goose

Fischerkoesen's third wartime film, The Silly Goose (1944), provides another thought-provoking parable. Through the bars of a wooden cage on a cart going across town, a young goose glimpses the seemingly glamorous allures of city life: an exotic parrot, silhouettes in a dance hall, an elegant fox (stole) with feathers. Back at the farm, while her brothers and sisters receive their schooling in swimming, marching, laying eggs and such, she dreams narcissistically by a pond, swings on the gate like a parrot, uses the plough as a mirror, and creates for herself a pseudo-sophisticated costume by thieving and exploiting her neighbors: a caterpillar stole, a straw bottle-cover hat, pollen powder, a spider-web veil, cork high-heels, and pig-bristle eyelashes. Her sashay through the barnyard creates mixed anger and astonishment. The gander, however, chooses to woo her instead of her more modest sisters, although she rejects him and wanders off into the woods, where she is seduced by a fox. The fox's sinister lair is run by slave labor--a weasel cranking a spit, a cat on a treadmill that makes xylophone music with dangling bones--and a cage full of geese waits for slaughter. She manages to escape, and the barnyard animals cooperate to drive the fox away and free his victims.

While Silly Goose seems to satisfy Goebbels' dictum for "blood and soil" films that glorify German peasant life, Fischerkoesen creates a complex and ambiguous narrative that confuses and contradicts Nazi policy. The city is glamorous--especially as seen in a long stereo-optical, multiplane sequence from the goose's point of view--while the barnyard activities are quaint and confining. At the same time, the goose's exploitation of the barnyard for her costume is mean and thoughtless. When the goose is seduced by the fox, we momentarily hear a crypto version of the old (Yiddish) popular song "Bei mir bist Du scheen," and could think at first that the villain is being identified as a Jew. Quickly, however, we see that just the opposite is true: the goose herself is being exploited. The fox is using her as he does various other animals, which seems to allude to the Nazis' exploitation of the Jews, as slave labor and prisoners doomed to execution.

This subtext becomes even more obvious by comparison with two other German films of the period: Hans Held's 1940 Der Störenfried (The Troublemaker) (in which the fox is a simplistic villain, and the farm animals drive him away in specifically militaristic fashion) and Frank Leberecht's 1943 Armer Hansi (Poor Hansi) (where the gratuitous violence that drives Hansi the canary back home rivals the worst of Warner Bros., truly supporting a "blood and soil" ideal). Very much to the contrary, The Silly Goose warns against being seduced by the glamor of fascism, and encourages us to think carefully about home and the city and responsibility--to realize what happens to victims and to do something about it.

So, in these three cartoon masterpieces, we see how Hans Fischerkoesen demonstrated that even at the darkest, most menacing hours of human depravity, men of principle may resist by subverting, with subtlety, the rules and prejudices of the tyrant.

A carrot showering. A potato

The Postwar Years

At the end of the war, the invading Russian troops arrested Fischerkoesen as a possible Nazi collaborator. Although he could prove that he was not only never a Nazi sympathizer but actually a member of an underground resistance group of artists during the war years, he was kept in Sachsenhausen concentration camp for three years before he was exonerated. During that time, he worked in the kitchen, and painted ironic, allegorical wall murals using vegetable caricatures, which are now preserved as a national historical monument.

As in great animal fables, these murals play out the daily trials and terrors of prison living, yet provide an ironical perspective by enacting these traumas through items that we would eat without a second thought. A parsnip inspects a carrot for "vermin" (i.e., a worm), while another parsnip stands by, sharpening his knife (surgical or punitive?): is it not absurd that parsnips should be in control of carrots, when they're clearly relatives? Another carrot gratefully showers under a plain faucet spigot, while potatoes, eager for a swim, peel off their own skins and dive into the soup. A procession of happy cucumbers carry a pumpkin on a palanquin, yet they also help each other to slice themselves away on a "kitchen guillotine." These (and other) paintings of Fischerkoesen provide a glimpse of humanitarian warmth in the grim camp where so many suffered and lost their lives.

By the time Fischerkoesen was finally released, he had shown that he was not a Nazi, but also that he was no communist; thus, he was not allowed to work privately on his own films, but only as a functionary on assignments in the state-controlled DEFA studios. Later that year, 1948, he and his family made one of those daring nighttime escapes from East Germany, carrying only a camera; he then reestablished his animation studio near Bonn in West Germany.

I have viewed 30 or so of his post-war advertising films and have found most to be witty, lively, graphically interesting, and memorably clever. Certainly, he received critical acclaim: by 1956, he had won major prizes at commercial film festivals in Rome, Milan (three times), Venice, Monte Carlo, and Cannes. He also appeared on the cover of the prestigious Der Spiegel, Germany's equivalent of the American Time magazine. Fischerkoesen continued to make advertising films until 1969, and died in 1973.

William Moritz teaches film and animation history at the California Institute of the Arts.

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