Mouse Goes to War!: Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943)

Hi guys!

We’re two days into our fundraiser to get Mauricio the fruck out of Veneuzuela and we’re already one third funded! So, to say thanks, I’m publishing the first of the War Era Short reviews which I was originally going to put up in September. I’ll publish another when we get to €500 and a third when we’re fully funded. And if you haven’t contributed already, please consider doing so. And if money’s tight, please help spread the word by sharing the GoFundMe page. Actually, do that anyway.

Both Mauricio and I could not be more grateful,

Thanks,

Mouse.

***

Studio: Walt Disney Productions

Country of Origin: United States

First Screened: January 1st, 1943

Ugh. Ugh! A review of World War 2 shorts that includes Der Fuehrer’s Face. How obvious. How predictable. How vulgar. How basic.

But there’s really no way you can’t talk about this, one of the most controversial of all American animated shorts made during the war years (and hoo boy is that up against some stiff competition!). So let’s state three things straight up front.

1)      Yes, this is the cartoon where Donald Duck yells “Heil Hitler!” 33 times (also known as “a full Bannon”.)

2)      Notwithstanding that, it’s a really, really good short.

3)      Actually, in context, it’s probably less offensive than pretty much any other short we’ll be reviewing as part of this series.

When I announced this series, I posted this image of a saber wielding Donald leading a battalion of cartoon critters into battle against the forces of the Third Reich.

There were no survivors.

Some of you very astutely spotted something rather weird with this picture: How prominent Donald is, how de-emphasised Mickey is (he is driving a tank waaaaaaaaay in the background in case you missed him) and how “not there” Goofy is.

It suddenly struck me that I’d never seen a Disney short from the war years that featured either Mickey or Goofy, while I’d seen plenty that featured Donald as well as Huey, Dewey and Louie. So why were the ducks so heavily featured? I resolved to find the answer and embarked on an epic quest across the internet. I consulted Wikipedia. I consulted Quora. God help me and forgive me my sins, I consulted Reddit. And after all that research, do you want to know what I found?

 

Frustrating and unsatisfying as it might be, from what I can gather the answer to the question “Why did Disney use Donald Duck so heavily in their propaganda and not Mickey and Goofy” the answer appears to be “’Cos they…just…did.” I can offer a few theories, though. At this point in history Donald Duck was cresting in popularity whereas Mickey was already yesterday’s news so his reduced role could simply be a reflection of the fact that he just wasn’t drawing the crowds any more. Goofy was still very much a star, though, which makes his absence quite baffling. The only clue as to why this might be is that Pinto Colvig, Goofy’s voice actor, and Walt had fallen out by this point. Goofy had thus been transitioned into the “How to…” series of cartoons where Goofy doesn’t speak and instead follows the instructions of a suave narrator. These cartoons were very popular so Disney may have simply decided to use the ducks for their propaganda shorts rather than tampering with a formula that was working by sending Goofy into the army.

Anyway, to the matter at hand. The short was originally titled “Donald Duck in Nutzi Land” but the song Der Fueher’s Face (written by Disney songsmith Oliver Wallace who would later write the music for Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom) was actually covered by Spike Jones and His City Slickers before the cartoon was released. It became such a hit that the title of the cartoon was changed to Der Fueher’s Face. The song itself is a parody of the The Horst Wessel Song, originally the anthem of the Nazi Party and later the co-anthem of Nazi Germany which I was very disappointed to find is a cheery oom-pah-pah number and not a dark and sinister Imperial March. It’s almost like they didn’t know they were the baddies. Just as the song is a piss-take of the real Nazi anthem, Der Fueher’s Face is a piss-take of Nazi Germany itself. It places Donald in “Nutzi Land”, a version of Hitler’s Reich taken to absurd and comical extremes (if you could actually get more extreme than the real thing).

One thing I’ve been impressed by while re-watching Disney’s war-era shorts is that they’re relatively uninterested in whipping up fear and loathing of the enemy. Instead, they focus on puncturing the propaganda of the Axis powers. To counter Germany’s image as an industrial behemoth capable of providing its citizens with every luxury, the short shows Donald living in a constant state of comedic deprivation and exhaustion. The goal is to make the Nazis look ridiculous and harmless, to strip away their menace while making the viewer appreciate their own freedoms. Of course, like any short that portrays the Nazis as buffoons, Der Fuehrer’s Face has been criticised as minimizing the horrors of that regime. To this all I can say is, I hope we can all agree that there are appropriate artforms for analysing and understanding the barbarism of the Holocaust and that Donald Duck cartoons are not one of them.

That said, this is forties Disney. And there is always some tar mixed with the sugar.

There is one second, one single frame, that never fails to chill me to the bone.

Look at this beloved cartoon character. Broken. Chained. Exhausted to the point of death. His eyes staring into nothingness as he feebly raises his wing in fascist salute.

Reaching for the sky, just to surrender.

And for one terrible second, we are no longer in Nutzi Land.

We are somewhere much, much worse.

***

How’s the animation?: Excellent, and with a really striking Disney acid sequence towards the end.

Art or Propaganda?:  Both. Unlike a lot of the Donald Duck war era cartoons which were simply standard Donald Duck cartoons in an army setting, this short has a definite propaganda objective. But it’s also a really funny, well animated short.

How does this rate on the Jingo-Meter?: I give it four star-spangled sets of pyjamas out of five.

What’s going on with the War?: In January 1943 the Soviets have encircled the German Army at Stalingrad, inflicting massive losses. General Tojo orders the evacuation of Guadalcanal in the face of overwhelming American force, a Jewish uprising in the Czestochowa ghetto is brutally repressed and the Casablanca Declaration is issued, where Churchill and Roosevelt declare that they will accept nothing less that total surrender from the Axis Powers.

Dude, is this racist?: Dude, this is somewhat racist. There’s an uncomfortable yellow-face portrayal of a Japanese soldier. Oh, and one of the Germans is clearly supposed to be gay.

Should I buy bonds?: You should absolutely buy bonds.

 

 

26 comments

  1. I don’t get controversy of not showing all horrors of Nazis (I had not heard of that before). This shorts focus is showing the contrast of Nazi propanganda and reality for the ordinarily Germans. It is pretty effective for children imo (even though it’s kind of disturbing to show any propaganda for kids, they don’t get this is one). It’s not like Donald was a Jew oppressed in a comedic manner or something terrible like that.

    Which German looks gay to you. I did not notice that.

  2. “So, to say thanks, I’m publishing the first of the War Era Short reviews which I was originally going to put up in September”
    Huh, I knew something was amiss.

    I find it funny how 40s Disney managed to sneak a word that roughly translates to “bastard” into one of their shorts. Maybe that’s the TRUE reason it was banned.
    Probably not though.
    Also yeah, there’s a gay german??

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this all the way through, just snippets as parts of video essays, and almost always just the scene with the conveyor belt.

    It’s a bit creepier than I imagined it. I guess I always pictured something a little more Mel-Brooksian, just taking the piss out of nazis and portraying them as buffoons. But yeah, seeing Donald basically driven to madness is actually disturbing. That frame you highlighted may be spookier than him grabbing the axe to kill the cow in Mickey and the Beanstalk.

    This short definitely hasn’t lost its punch.

  4. If I may offer my entirely uninformed thoughts on the “why Donald Duck?” question, it may be to keep Mickey’s image clean. Now, obviously everyone around here knows Mickey Mouse as a force of violence and evil. However, the 1940’s American public did not. While there is nothing wrong with fighting NAZIs, Disney may have been reluctant to put Mickey in a position that is implicitly about killing people. In this case, there may have also been a tiny bit of reluctance to put a swastika on their most famous creation. Donald is the closest to edgy that mainline Disney characters got so if you’re doing anything like that he’s the one you would go with. Or you know, I could be entirely wrong.

    Finally, Donald wearing pants is weird.

    1. I’m not specifically read up on Donald’s history, but didn’t he have his famed sailor-cap even before the War began? Disney and co. would’ve logically seen him as their closest segue with the military – and by extension, war propaganda.

      1. Donald’s sailor outfit was because he had his own small boat in his first appearance, he wasn’t part of the navy. But it’s still closest of Disney characters with some military appearance and I agree with you in general about Mickey, I have red somewhere something along those lines but I don’t remember where so I don’t know what the sources were. I think maybe one article with the Donald Duck comics, I was always reading them as a kid.

  5. I knew that song would be stuck in my head all day. I knew, and I watched it anyway. Oh, stupid me.

    Still, it’s worth it for the gags. The swastika-shaped everything! The single, jealously-guarded coffee bean! The little ‘hell’ they snuck into the lyrics! I half-expected a rendition of ‘Hitler Has Only Got One Ball’ over the credits after that.

    That one spooky frame is great, too. Almost more ‘1984’ than 1943. Speaking of which, ‘1984’ came out in a Melbourne theatre recently. People were fainting and throwing up towards the end, and it wasn’t because of all the Cab Sav at intermission. Put ‘Disney’s realistic Holocaust documentary’ in the same box as ‘1984 stage spectacular with convincing torture’ – the box of things I wouldn’t watch if you paid me. Sanity is priceless.

    I love how innocent some of the previous comments are. The gay one is the mincing rotund fellow with sassy arms akimbo, guys. Although Q+ people were victims of the Holocaust, the caricature is included here because in the forties, ‘gay’ = ‘unmanly, ridiculous and weak’.

    1. All the Nazis are unflattering charicatures of real people and effeminate isn’t the same as gay (and I think it’s stretching to even say the character is more effeminate than the rest). I doesn’t have to be innocence but not overeading stylized cartoons.

      1. Of course we know effeminate isn’t the same as gay, but this is propaganda from the forties. People who were alive then still ask teenage boys if they are ‘poofters’ just because they like wearing their hair long.

  6. History teacher played us this one in 10th grade. It was just this slow burn of creeping horror throughout the students right up until the twist at the end. Then we all left trying not to hum the song in our next classes.
    I do remember Mickey alluded to in another cartoon she showed us, about Minnie saving resources during wartime. She had a photo of him in uniform so I guess he was supposed to be off fighting somewhere

  7. I doubt that Disney would have kept Mickey in the background because of a lack of popularity – remember, around the same time they were throwing together ideas on a number of remarkable Mickey Mouse features, including Mickey and the Beanstalk. I think Disney simply didn’t want Mickey in those kind of shorts. Mickey is after all the mascot of the Disney company. Can you imagine him repeating Sieg Heil in a short? Donald on the other hand was always allowed to be the flawed character.

    Being German, I always appreciated the Disney Propaganda shorts exactly because they focussed on the mechanism behind the third Reich instead of simplifying the message into “All Germans are born monsters”. And I actually keep wondering about the ending of this particular one. I mean, it seems like it ends happy enough with Donald back in his comfortable home, but when the shadow of an American symbol fall on him, there is something sinister about it after all the Nazi symbolism seen beforehand. Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but take this short out of context you can actually see it a little bit like a warning about putting too much faith into symbols instead of thinking for yourself. Well, most likely this wasn’t intentional at all, but you could take the same short and change the narration and it could suddenly work as an warning against the danger of sliding democracy.

    1. Actually, you have an excellent point! I find the ending kind of ironic as well. It mirrors the beginning of the short, with the patriotic icons being the first thing he sees when he wakes up. It almost feels like the film could be saying ‘six of one, half a dozen of the other.’

      1. Y’all aren’t the only ones to suggest this… I distinctly remember a YouTube comment (it might still be floating around, come to think of it) saying the short should’ve ended with Donald running through the *exact same factory routine*, only now under the auspices of Uncle Sam.

        By the way – anyone wanna bet “Education for Death” is somewhere on Mouse’s list?

      2. It has to be….

        I wonder if there was a little bit passive aggressive venting involved…I mean the Disney studios were practically under military control and forced to make all kind of stuff which wasn’t really to their liking for the “war effort”.

    2. That’s one of the things I find so interesting about “Education for Death”–the message isn’t “this evil Nazi got what he deserved” but “this poor boy who could have offered the world so much got all the good stamped out of him and ended up cannon fodder.” An unusual tack for a wartime propaganda cartoon to take–many of them just demonized the enemy without considering that they were human beings as well.

      1. Me too…I mean there is still the warning “this guy will kill you” in the end, but what is said about the indoctrination of the German Youth is basically correct. This is one of the reasons why the Disney war propaganda is so interesting, because it actually tries to be somewhat educational instead of going “we good, they are evil” like it is usually the case.

  8. I’ve never seen this entire cartoon. Usually all I ever see is an image of Donald’s Nazi salute under a clickbait headline about Disney’s “dark side.” or whatever. This is pretty great, and I totally agree that the image of a broken, ghostly, and chained Donald Duck mindlessly saluting is really creepy. I’m of the opinion that the best comedy has a little darkness to it, and that image is pretty dark. We need to be reminded of how terrible the Nazis were, even in a cartoon that makes us laugh at them.

  9. I’ve seen bits of pieces of this, but never in full until now. Have you seen any of the Private SNAFU shorts?

    And, off-topic, but I donated to get Mauricio the hell out of that LOLCOW of a country. What am I talking about? Maybe this video will assist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzx8Sr0F4NA

    (Or maybe not. Just thought I’d share it with you, Mouse.)

    1. Oh, and for the record, I don’t agree with all of this guy’s (the video, not Mouse’s) political thoughts. Just thought of this video, since it was one of the few I remembered that talked about how shit that country has gotten lately. I remember reading about how some baseball players in MLB are afraid to return home.

    2. Man, it hurts when people try to blame socialism for everything wrong with the country, it’s almost insulting. Things are way more complicated than that.
      But hey, at least he’s spreading the word. American news networks don’t seem too interested in doing that!

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