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