Mouse Goes to War: Das dumme Gänslein (1944)

Studio: Fischerkoesen-Film-Produktion

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.

Y’know.

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.

Dude, she was almost eaten literally five minutes ago, give her a second.

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…

…than…    

 Oh Jesus.

 

22 comments

  1. The pictures from the US was the main reason why I was so insistent on you doing this series. Learning to recognize propaganda is the first step to not being lured in by it. And actually understanding how the Nazis worked is the first step to call the alt-right movement what it is, a bunch of Nazis who only haven’t rounded up people yet because they lack the power to actually do so.

    Nope, no relation whatsoever between “weatherbeaten” and silly. The word means in German exactly what it sounds like in the translation, that something is “weathered” because it was hit by storm and rain for a long time. I have no idea why they picked this name.

    Not sure if I would agree that Fischerkoesen is actually the most celebrated German animator. I mean, he and his family are certainly good in advertising his name, but nobody bothers to offer showings of his work or even release them in DVD collections. They do so for Lotte Reinigers work.

      1. Well, the “German Walt Disney” part is true, and he was certainly influential….but I guess that is mostly because he was male and had a style similar to Walt Disney, while Lotte Reiniger was female and did Silhouette animation.

        Thus said I think a normal Germany wouldn’t know either name. But as one which is familiar with animation, I consider Lotte Reiniger the one more celebrated for her artistic merits.

  2. As someone who is less of an animation nerd than most people on this blog, how common was that sort of 3D work in animation of this time period. I know you say that it is truly stunning, and it is, and I haven’t seen it except in the other NAZI cartoon you’ve posted, but that doesn’t necessarily say a lot.

  3. I agree, I probably wouldn’t have recognized this as propaganda just from the story…if it had come out about 10 years earlier. By the mid 40s this style seems really passe, which makes the conformist message pop a little more.

    Though I’m basing that mainly on what Disney, Warners, and MGM were doing at the time. Maybe there were other studios still making cutesy shorts like this.

  4. 3.31: how you feel after a quarter of an hour of goose boobs and vents. Why did they have to draw the cloaca on all the birds? Why couldn’t they have just covered them with feathers, like in real life? What is the purpose behind all these Nazi goose assho-…?

    Ohhhh, I get it. Good one.

      1. Well, naturally it is….the question if it is sexist might be more interesting (yes, it is). Though it is kind of interesting that it is less overtly racist than some of the other shorts we have seen but more sneaky about its racism.

  5. There’s something really creepy about the conformist message. Like you said, the American cartoons tended to celebrate the unique. This feels like, I don’t know, a perversion of the animated canon (not the Disney one specifically, but the broader golden age canon).

  6. You’re really right about disguising the propaganda thing. If I hadn’t known this was a Nazi cartoon I’d wouldn’t have guessed. It still would have pissed me off cuz of the sexism but I don’t think I would have connected it with the worst human beings on Earth. Scary.

  7. I feel like I should say something? Problem being, I have nothing to actually ADD to this discourse, other than to echo ‘Jesus Christ’, and hurl various expletives at Nazi’s.

    I do think it’s a good idea to examine propaganda of other ideologies though. I think it’s a good thing to be able to recognise propaganda, and also to be able to recognise why people end up taking attitudes they do. One of the terrifying things about the Nazi’s is the sheer banality of them, and the fact that they DID gain popular support; analysing how that happened is, I think, important.

    (Obviously,when I say Nazi’s had popular support, I am discounting the German people who were opponents of Nazi’s and -even more obviously- those who were persecuted by them. I think that SHOULD go without saying, but ‘All Germans are Nazis’ is a trope, and one which, again, I find insulting and want to make clear than I reject.)

  8. American cartoons had become darn conformist and anti-individualism by the Dark Age of Animation, though. Just read on Mark Evanier’s comments on how the Standards and Practices bureau was always harping on the ‘the complainer is always wrong, the group is always right’ principle and insisting on it to be enforced in stories.

  9. Well… I have to confess that I’m not as disgusted by this short as most people appear to be. After all, it seems to just be a harmless cartoon. It is true that it looks like the Gänslein conforms in the end, but she only does that after she was almost eaten by the fox and gives the goose boy a chance. And if you hadn’t told me, I don’t believe that I would have guessed that the fox was supposed to be an “evil Jew” stereotype.

    Then again, I guess that that is the problem. It is very much possible to make a propaganda piece look benign and innocent, and maybe even entertaining. And if you think about it in that context, this short will become more problematic. But I still believe that if the same cartoon had been made in America instead of in Germany, people would be less hard on it.

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