Book Review: Animation Under the Swastika: A History of Trickfilm in Nazi Germany
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.
Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945). He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom. He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996. A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.