Thursday, May 14, 2015

Toons in Hitler’s time

In 1942, MGM released an animated short called Blitz Wolf, directed by the great Tex Avery. The three little pigs must defend their house from a wolf with a Hitler moustache. The visual gags and puns—the wolf’s truck has “Der fewer (der better)” painted on the side—are pure Avery, lightening and simplifying serious matters like trench battles and war bonds.

I wonder if Avery or one of his colleagues had seen a German animated film titled Der Storenfried (The Troublemaker), made two years earlier. This short by Hans Held has a fox as the villain, though the prospect of a blitz—carried out in the short by dive bomber bees—is presented as a positive outcome. The title would have had special resonance for German children: In his piece titled Resistance And Subversion In Animated Films Of The Nazi Era: The Case Of Hans Fischerkoesen, published in the 1992 issue of Animation Journal, William Moritz mentions that a popular Hitler Youth poster of the time read, “Drive out all troublemakers!”

Der Storenfried is part of an intriguing selection of films being screened this Saturday at Films Division in Mumbai, in association with the Goethe-Institut. Presented by documentarian Avijit Mukul Kishore as part of the FD Zone series, “Trickfilm: German Animation Films From The Nazi Era” has films by animators who worked under that regime (“trickfilm” was the German term for animation). Some, like Der Storenfried, are militarist propaganda; others are more insidious. Heinz Tischmeyer’s 1940 film About The Tree That Wanted Different Leaves features a shifty-looking caricature of a Jew stealing gold leaves from a tree.

Yet not all these films are propagandist in nature. For him, says Kishore, part of the fun was in discovering counter-propaganda, instances where film-makers were “throwing in symbols that are anti-fascist”. Perhaps the best example of this can be found in the films of Hans Fischerkoesen. In his Weather-beaten Melody (1942), a bee comes across an abandoned phonograph in a field. Once he gets it working, there’s an impromptu insect party. That hardly sounds threatening, but the film subverts the Nazi ideal of “blood and soil” with its frank embrace of pleasure and sensuality (and swing music, very verboten in Nazi Germany).

Two other Fischerkoesen films in the line-up, Snowman In July (1943) andThe Silly Goose (1944), are built around a similar yearning for beauty and fun. But they also have a veiled warning for artistes operating under the regime: Stay within your boundaries, or you’ll get into trouble. Ironically, Fischerkoesen got into trouble not with the Nazis but with the Russians after the war; he was jailed for three years on charges of being a Nazi collaborator. Once he got out, he built on his earlier career as an adman. Some of his ads from the 1930s and 1940s, which are on YouTube, point to his unique visual style and sense of humour, especially the one for Underberg digestif bitters, with its Dario Argento-like dreamscapes, and the “dancing smoke” ad for Ariston cigarettes.

Another highly impressive film is Ferdinand and Hermann Diehl’s Seven Ravens. The 53-minute film—released on 2 December 1937, a couple of weeks before Disney’s first full-length feature, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs—is extremely sophisticated in its use of stop-motion animation, puppet figures, and light and shadow. Like Fischerkoesen’s films, it might also be construed as a veiled criticism of the state, particularly of the witch-hunts conducted during the Nazi era (one of the characters is denounced as a witch and sentenced to burn at the stake).

There’s a lot more that’s worth seeking out in this line-up: the nerdily precise sci-fi of Anton Kutter’s Launching Spaceship 1 (1937); the rudimentary but infectiously silly Adventures Of Baron Münchhausen: A Winter’s Journey (1944) by Hans Held; and Frank Leberecht’s charming Poor Hansi (1943). As Kishore is likely to mention on Saturday, these films continued the tradition—if not the style—of German director Lotte Reiniger’s Adventures Of Prince Achmed (1926), the world’s earliest surviving animated feature. That the bleak years that followed produced work of comparable quality is something this programme brings to welcome light.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

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