The Dutch film industry's most ambitious production during World War II was an anti-Semitic sequel to Reynard the Fox. Egbert Barten and Gerard Groeneveld detail the fascinating story behind the film's production.
This article is adapted from "'Van den vos Reynaerde' (1943): How a Medieval Fable Became a Dutch Anti-Semitic Animation Film" that appeared in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (vol. 14, no. 2, 1994), which in turn was revised and translated from "Reynaert en het Jodenbeest" (Reynard and the Jew Animal), that appeared in De Volkskrant, May 25, 1991.
In 1941, Nederland Film was set up in The Hague by a member of the NSB (Dutch National Socialist) party with the aid of the occupying Germans to make animated films with a Nazi point of view. Its most ambitious project was Van den vos Reynaerde (About Reynard the Fox), an outrightly anti-Semitic film, and one of the first animated color films made in Holland. However, Reynard was never shown publicly and in the turmoil of the war was lost; in 1991, a fragment of the film was unearthed in Germany, thus permitting us to get a closer look at this fascinating film.
"Even on his way home, Reynard succeeded in catching a fat hen. 'And it will always be that way.'" The final sentence of the Dutch novel, Van den vos Reynaerde, is just as innocent as the face of Reynard the Fox. This time, however, it is not Reynard who is the villain. Yes, he does steal a few chickens, but that's the way he is. Much worse is Jodocus, the rhinoceros, a cunning, money-grubbing animal who came from far away to settle in the land of the late King Nobel. His family has secretly followed him from the East and together they seize power, taking control of the money market and poisoning the people with strange new ideas. With their entrance, the decline of the empire begins.
Van Genechten's Tale
The book version of Van den vos Reynaerde, by the Flemish-born Robert van Genechten, is without doubt anti-Semitic. It is a plea for racial purity and for a so-called natural order, in which a powerful leader governs the people, and in which the Jews undermine those values. This sequel to the medieval fable, Reynard the Fox, was first published in 1937 in Nieuw-Nederland (New Netherlands), a cultural and political monthly of the NSB. In 1941, it was published as a book and distributed in The Netherlands and Belgium. Over the next few years, a small fortune was invested in an animated film version, a remarkable example of Nazi propaganda of the highest technical quality.
Van Genechten was born in 1895, in Antwerp, Belgium, where he studied law and began his political career in the Flemish Nationalist Movement. When Flemish activists were persecuted during World War I for their collaboration with the Germans, he fled to the neutral Netherlands, but was sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison. He settled in Utrecht, where he established a law firm with A. J. van Vessem (who later won a seat in the Dutch Parliament for the NSB). In 1934, he became a member of the NSB (Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging = National Socialist Movement), led by Anton Adriaan Mussert, and distinguished himself as an editor of Nieuw Nederland. When the Germans invaded Holland in 1940, he was briefly imprisoned, only to be released after the Dutch Army capitulated. The NSB then rewarded him with the position of Procurator-General at the court in The Hague, and Mussert later appointed him Head of the Department of Socio-Cultural Training and of the Educator's Guild.
About Reynard the Fox takes place in Flanders (Belgium, where, after the death of King Nobel, a fierce power struggle takes place. Lionel the Lion, the king's young son, lacks the strength and knowledge to take his father's place, so the donkey Boudewijn usurps the throne.
While the animals argue whether or not Boudewijn is a legitimate successor to the throne, "a most peculiar animal that no one knew" announces himself: Jodocus, the rhinoceros. (The Dutch word for rhinoceros is neushoorn, which literally means nose horn; as to Jodocus, it should be noted that the Dutch word for Jew is jood.) He asks the donkey for a place in the empire. "I come from far away-countries," he says. "Everywhere I wandered and everywhere I was persecuted because unfortunately I applied myself to the cultivation of thistles. I breed a thistle variety of unknown fineness, but the envious people don't want to recognize me. Give me a modest little place in your empire, where I can modestly grow my thistles." Boudewijn agrees.
Soon after Jodocus' arrival, the old empire of King Nobel crumbles. The rhinoceros introduces new ideas and the natural order is drastically altered. A Republic is declared in which liberty, equality and fraternity exist. The people lose their heads at his talk. "There was no one who kept to the rules of the race. Rabbits crept into foxholes, the chickens wanted to build an eyrie." And all of this happened in the name of liberty.
Eventually, Jodocus manages to promote animal miscegenation. "Then there was a great confusion amongst the animals. They had become true brothers and mated amongst each other. The bull and the goat, the hare and the fish, the ferret and the wild boar; because they didn't recognize each other, and confused each other's names and habits, they ate their own children." The animals bring forth bastards, and that is just what Jodocus wanted, "because the bastard has no standards of his own, and is prepared to accept those of anyone."
The rhinoceros rapidly increases his power. The animals have to pay taxes and Jodocus appoints his relatives, whom he has secretly sent for from the East, as tax collectors. The country is going downhill and is totally covered with thistles. The animals become dissatisfied, especially because they learn of the better life in the Achterhoek (in the Dutch province of Gelderland). It was to this area that Reynard and his family had emigrated and lived "according to their nature," and where Leonard the Lion had also gone.
Reynard lures the rhinos to the Court of Boudewijn by the promise of a hoard of tax revenue. Then, when they are gathered together, Lionel arrives at the head of a large animal parade. A great massacre occurs among the tax collectors and Jodocus is killed. Van Genchten notes, with regret, that, "in spite of the preparations, some of them managed to escape and fled to other countries."
A glowing review of the book appeared in Volk en Vaderland, the national NSB weekly: "One cannot think of a better way of making propaganda than by making people laugh. That Van Genechten gave Van den vos Reynaerde so much real humor ... is a valuable asset for our political propaganda." With a year, the book was reprinted.
From Book to Film
The success of the book in Dutch Nazi circles led to a decision by the Department of People's Information, Service and Arts (DVK), the Dutch version of Joseph Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry, to use it as the basis for the biggest production of the Dutch film industry during the war.
But there were other reasons. One is that the Germans were not satisfied with most of the animated films made in the Third Reich. The Nazis were charmed by Disney's films and what had been made before the war by the Pal Studio in Eindoven. In the 1930s, the Hungarian emigree George Pal made a series of beautiful puppet films advertising Philips' electronic products. Pal left for the United States shortly before the war, but many of his talented Dutch collaborators remained.
Nederland Film was created in early 1941, at the behest of the Germans, by Egbert van Putten (1899-1996), a member of the NSB living in Berlin. Van Putten had previously been financially involved in the famous prewar Dutch avant garde Filmliga (Film League) movement. In 1934, he moved to Berlin and worked on a few German movies. In 1938, he distributed the Swedish anti-Semitic movie Petterson und Bendel in Germany. In short, he was a man with important contacts in Germany and within the NSB, which explains how he traveled from Berlin to the Netherlands with letters of reference signed by the German authorities that opened doors in the Netherlands, including the DVK. He concluded a contract for some movies with the DVK and invested his own money and that of the German dancer, Ilse Meudtner, his girl friend and future wife, in the venture.
From the start, the company had two units, both in the center of The Hague. One produced cultural films, in which propaganda for the New Order was covertly brought forward. The second made animated films. Together with the NSB Film Service, the Profilti Studio and the Haghe Film Lab, Nederland Film became part of a flourishing film industry in The Hague during the war.
Part of the deal that Van Putten made with DVK was the Reynard project. It was originally intended to be about 10 minutes long with a budget not to exceed 30,000 guilders. By June 1942, twice that amount had already been spent. At the end of 1942, expenditures totaled 97,167 guilders--and the film was being expanded to 20 minutes. The final costs were certainly much higher.
Reasons and Explanations
According to Van Putten, the main reason for making this film--a project of considerable duration--was to prevent Dutch animators from being sent to Germany. This is only partly true, since the reason people in the film industry were temporarily free from working in Germany had a lot to do with the fact that Goebbels had declared the film industry to be kriegswichtig (war work). Whether these people worked in arms factories in Germany or in film production in their homeland made no fundamental difference to the German authorities. In the late summer of 1944 (when most animation production in The Hague came to a halt) some of Nederland's personnel were sent to Germany anyway. Some were forced to work in weapons' factories. Others--more lucky--were sent to film studios in Berlin and Vienna.
Some of those who worked on Reynard now claim that they were just simple employees who did not know what was going on. Only Joop du Buy, then 18 years old (who was sent to Germany in 1943 to work in a weapon factory) stated that, "Of course we knew what we were doing. In the studio, the rhinoceroses who were called Jodocusses in the film had a nickname: we called them 'Jew Animals.'"
Even the head of the Nederland animation unit, Hill Beekman, now says that he did not know much. He remembers that he accepted the film as an assignment, that the screenplay had already been finished when he first heard of the project, and that Van Putten organized it. In other words, Beekman claims that he did not know what he was doing.
Actually, Beekman was better informed than that. Van Putten, the film's director, was often absent, as he frequently went on tour (as a kind of manager) with Isle Meudtner, a well known dancer who often performed for the German troops. According to Van Putten, his directing credit was in name only: "I had little to do with it, though I was responsible--the boys from the Pal Studio did it all by themselves." Beekman--one of the prominent members of the Pal Studio in Eindhoven before the war--must also have had an important say in the design of the characters, as he was the principal animator. All the animals were designed for the film. The black and white silhouette drawings that Maarten Meuldijk had made for Van Genechten's book lacked the depth need for animation and were certainly not suited for a color film.
Others working on the film included Jan Bouman and cameraman Jószef Misik. According to one of the animators, André Holla (another ex-Pal artist), even the animation camera used in the Pal Studio was sent especially to The Hague for the film. Another member of the Nederland staff was Jan van Hillo, who became a star TV reporter after the war, well known for his interviews with the royal family. He also made a television documentary about the concentration camps, in which he interviewed victims at the site of the camp, who must have been ignorant of his wartime service.
To attract talented young people to the project, a drawing contest was held in the city of Haarlem in April 1942. The contest was directed by H.G. Kannegieter and included Beekman as a member of the jury. Thirty winners got a free course in animation at The Hague. In fact, they were hired to do the routine work.
The screenplay was probably written by the Dutch National-Socialist Henk Plaizier, who worked in the DVK's Press Section. The music was composed by Leo Ruygrok, an NSB conductor who also scored several documentaries for Nederland Film.
Work on the film was not exactly carried out in the utmost secrecy. While the press only mentioned the studio's "animation project," colleagues at other companies knew they were working on an anti-Semitic film. Marten Toonder--the most important Dutch comic strip artist, who worked on a major animated film for Germany's Degeto during the war--stated that "they worked on an anti-Jewish film with an awesome, incredible story."
Not Politically Correct?
Judging from the surviving part of the film and the original screenplay, the film follows the plot of the book in most respects. One of the most striking elements is the role played by Reynard. In the film, he is the fascist hero who makes the other animals resist the Jodocusses. Almost absent in the script is Lionel the Lion. Some scenes, like the racial mingling of the animals and the exploitation by the rhinos have been enlarged and stressed. Nevertheless, the aim of the book and film remain the same: both are unmistakable pieces of anti-Semitic propaganda.
The film was finished in April 1943 and was screened for the crew and for its backers at the Asta cinema on Sunday morning, April 25. Many leading NSB officials were present. "It was black with NSB people," according to Holla. These dignitaries included Tobie Goedewaagen, Secretary General of DVK and, of course, Van Genechten. According to Van Putten, both were very happy with the final result.
However, the DVK's Propaganda Council was not completely enthusiastic about the film. The fox in particular posed a problem: "From a National-Socialist point of view ... this character was not chosen correctly." (Apparently, the German authorities also had some problems with the film.) On the other hand, the Council praised it for its technical excellence and for its "magnificent" drawings.
About Reynard the Fox was never released, which seems strange after so much money was lavished on its production. Why it was never shown publicly is still a mystery. Perhaps the objection to the fox's character was so great that the Dutch National-Socialist Party and the DVK decided not to screen it. Believing in Reynard's positive characteristics may have been difficult, as foxes have traditionally been stereotyped in animated films as untrustworthy characters. How can the prototype of the "bad guy" suddenly turn into a "hero"?
Perhaps the delay in finishing the film meant that such ferocious anti-Semitic propaganda was no longer deemed necessary. By 1943 most Dutch Jews had already been deported. The "Great Propaganda Action" against the Jews was over by 1941, so maybe the film was completed too late to be useful. Also, Reynard seems to offer an intellectual kind of anti-Semitism that was perhaps too abstruse for most filmgoers.
No documentation has been found to support either of these hypotheses. It is known, however, that some other films made by Nederland were also never released. In wartime Holland, it was not altogether uncommon that expensive and ambitious propaganda films found no audience. One related consequence was the rapid liquidation of the studio's animation unit after the film's one screening. Beginning in June 1943, the animators who worked for Van Putten were put into two newly-formed Dutch units of German studios: Bavaria Filmkunst and Fischerkösen, each of whom had bought a part of the company from Van Putten. In a letter, Van Putten complained that his anti-Semitic film could not be completed according to the wishes of the German authorities because, contrary to promises made when the two German enterprises started their business in The Hague, the new studios refused to cooperate.
Van Putten said that he took the only print of the film to Berlin, where he gave it to the widow of German film director Edgar Beyfus. (Van Putten and Beyfus had made a film together before the war.) The negative remained at Geyer-Werke, in Berlin, one of two labs in Europe that could process color film.
The section of the film (which lacks sound) acquired by the Dutch Film Museum came from Germany, where it had been stored at the Budesarchiv. This incomplete internegative (the first of possibly two reels of picture only) of Reynard, consists of the credits, the introduction of the principal characters and the beginnings of the anti-Semitic plot.
In spite of its rather crude anti-Semitism, the film, from a technical point of view, is very well made and a prime example of high quality Dutch animation: the animals move naturally and the well-preserved colors are magnificent. The first movement of the animals comes as something of a surprise, since they do not move when they are first introduced. (This kind of introduction resembles the way in which actors and characters were sometimes introduced in films of the silent era.) From a technical point of view, the Reynard film might well be associated with the Disney film made in the same period, also about animals, but with a rather different plot: the touching film in which a mother elephant teaches her son to take his first steps.
Egbert Barten is a film historian who has published extensively on the Dutch film industry in the 1940-45 period, and is currently finishing a book with Mette Peters on Dutch animated films in the 1940-44 period. Gerard Groeneveld teaches at the International School of Economics Rotterdam, and is the author of Nieuwe boeken voor den nieuwen tijd (Amsterdam, 1992), a study of the first Dutch National Socialist publishing company, De Amsterdamsche Keurkamer.