Country of Origin: Nazi Germany.
First Screened: 20 July 1944
I find it terrifying to consider that, ten or even five years ago, I would have had absolutely no hesitation in writing this post. I mean, of course if I’m doing a retrospective on WW2 animation shorts I’d look at Nazi animation. Why wouldn’t I? The Nazis were, after all, kinda involved in the Second World War, right?
But that would have been in a simpler time when it seemed obvious that, whatever else we might disagree on, we were all more or less on the same “Nazis are bad” page (it’s a good page, nice font, excellent paper quality, highly recommended). But then…
Well, it’s been a year. That it has.
So yes, I did honestly consider scrapping this portion of the series but ultimately I decided against it. One of the goals of the Mouse Goes to War series is to inform and I’ve always believed that knowledge is not dangerous, only ignorance. And today’s short is a fascinating demonstration as to how fascist themes and messages can be worked into seemingly benign texts.
Just in case that becomes a useful skill at some point in the future.
Das dumme Ganslein (“The Silly Goose”) is a 1944 short animation by Hans Fischerkoesen, and the third of his animations created for the Nazis. Both Hitler and Goebbels were, I’m sorry to say, massive Disney fans and Goebbels in particular wanted to create a German animation industry that would rival the American studios. Goebbels also wanted to harness animation’s potential for propaganda. Goebbels would be my dark horse pick for worst human being of all time, but he was a terrifyingly effective propagandist who understood that propaganda is at its most effective when it is barely distinguishable from standard entertainment. Goebbels believed propaganda must appeal to the gut, not the head, and that it must be entertaining to watch. This is why, if you watched Das dumme Ganslein without knowing its history, you would be forgiven for not even realising that it’s propaganda.
In its tone and art-style the short heavily resembles early Disney Silly Symphonies, which was no doubt intentional. In fact, Fischerkoesen’s first short of the Nazi era was an obvious homage to the Silly Symphonies called “Verwitterte Melodie” or “Weather Beaten Melody” (Presumably because “weather-beaten” is the closest equivalent the German language has to “silly”).
In fact, purely divorced from all political considerations, the reason I don’t like this short is because it reminds me too much of those early Silly Symphonies with their overly fussy character designs and smothering, Edwardian-nursery tweeness.
So in this short, a family of geese are leaving the city to move to the countryside. One of the baby geese is enthralled by the bright lights of the city. When they arrive at the farm she doesn’t want to learn how to walk (or step, geddit? geddit? oh, we we have fun here) like the other geese and insists on sashaying around the place like a drag queen at mardi gras. She is also pointedly uninterested in learning how to lay eggs (geese have to learn that?) or in the affections of a particularly Aryan goose who wants to annex her Sudetanland if you catch my meaning. Instead, she makes herself some fancy duds and goes wandering into the woods. There she meets a fox who takes her back to his place, she thinks he’s nice, turns out he wants to eat her, we’ve all been there. Anyway, she escapes, the other farm animals rescue her, she realises that Fritz VonUbergoosen is actually an alright Joe.
She gets married, has some kids, realises the futility of independent hopes and dreams in a totalitarian nightmare state and they all live happily ever after.
On the surface, it’s really not all that different from your typical Silly Symphony but there is one jarring difference between this and most American cartoons of the time. Whereas Disney, Warner Bros and Fleischer tended to celebrate oddballs, dreamers and the world’s square pegs in round holes, Ganslein is ruthlessly conformist. Basically every single defining personality trait of Ganslein, everything that makes her unique and sets her apart from the other geese, has been stamped out by the end of the short.
In its idolisation of rural life, its contempt for urbanism and extravagance, its fear of sex and its aggressive pushing of traditional motherhood and gender roles, Ganslein is clearly volkist. Its anti-Semitism is a little less obvious, but it’s there. The music that plays in the background when the fox lures the goose into his lair is a traditional Jewish folk tune and he’s drawn in a way that would have readily reminded German audiences of the Jewish stereotypes of the time.
Hans Fischerkoesen is, to this day, still the most celebrated German animator of all time who had a long and illustrious career after the war. And, credit where credit is due, Ganslein features some truly stunning 3D work accomplished with a stereo animation stand. When the war ended, he was captured by the Russians and sent to a concentration camp. You’d expect that to be the end of the story, but he was able to convince the Russians that, far from being a collaborator, he had actually been part of an artists’ resistance group. Since the Soviets were not the most trusting individuals, I can only assume he was able to present some pretty damn compelling evidence in his favour. Upon his release, he escaped with his family to the allied-controlled part of Germany and remained working in animation until his death in the seventies. Since then, it’s become something of a parlour game amongst animation aficionados to pore over the shorts he made during the Nazi era, looking for clues as to Fischerkoesen’s true sympathies, hoping to find some condemnation of the horrors of the regime nestled amongst the dead-eyed forest creatures.
Ordinary people trying to survive in a tyranny often have to make terrible choices, and I don’t have the right to judge Fischerkoesen. I don’t think any of us do. But I think trying to make him into a secret resistance hero is just wishful thinking. I’ve watched this short several times and I can’t find anything that makes me think Fischerkoesen was trying to say anything about the Nazis other…