Friday, June 17, 2016

"Der Fuehrer's Face": The Donald Duck as a Nazi Cartoon You Didn't Know You Needed

Released in 1943, "Der Fuehrer's Face" (originally titled "Donald Duck in Nutzi Land") was produced explicitly as propaganda, its purpose to contrast the misery of Nazi Germany with the freedom enjoyed in the United States. It was not the first Donald Duck cartoon that the Disney studio had produced for the war effort, but it proved especially popular, in no small part due to the title song, sung by Spike Jones, that parodies the "Horst Wessel Song." The cartoon has typically garnered positive comments online, though many of these same commenters admit that they like the idea of it and haven't actually seen it.

Squeezed into an eight-minute short, the action is frenetic, but the plot essentially simple. Donald Duck is woken by a marching Nazi band. He consumes a miserable breakfast of "aroma of bacon and eggs" (in an atomizer), contraband coffee, and bread that has to be sawed like a log of wood. He is then bounced out of his house with a bayonet, all the while being told he is lucky to live in the Fuehrer's Germany, and goes to work in a munitions factory. The scene is strongly reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, with Donald having to work ever faster, screwing shut artillery shells. At one point, a painted banner of the Alps drops behind him and the intercom informs him that he is on vacation, thanks to the Fuehrer. The banner is then yanked up and the intercom bellows that Donald has been chosen, and with great good fortune, to work overtime. At this point, Donald loses his mind, and a hair-raising, hallucinogenic sequence in which anthropomorphized artillery shells praise the Fuehrer and swallow each other and Donald bursts onto the screen. These brightly, unnaturally colored frames, which push the madness of Dumbo's "Pink Elephants" sequence to a new extreme, are a testament to the Disney animators, and a welcome bit of avant-garde cinema in an otherwise unimaginatively drawn cartoon.

In the end, it turns out that Donald was having a nightmare. He's not a Nazi, but an American citizen, sleeping in American flag pajamas and bedsheets, with a miniature Statue of Liberty, which he kisses in gratitude, planted on his windowsill. Nazism, the film tells us, is a literal nightmare.

It's no great surprise that the film was out of circulation for a while. The caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito are broad to say the least, and while in the first two cases, most viewers are unlikely to be bothered, the last is a bit problematic. Hirohito is buck-toothed, his eyes mere slits, and his skin is virulently, synthetically yellow. Though the title song was a major hit in the 1940s, today, it too strikes the listener as rather too obvious. The satire is so on the nose that it can hardly be considered satire. For example: "Everyone of foreign race/Will love der Fuehrer's face/When we bring to the world disorder." It's not terrible, but it's not exactly clever either. Even so, the cartoon has a certain shock value, if only because Donald Duck shrieks "Heil Hitler" about once every five seconds.

Disney produced better war cartoons than "Der Fuehrer's Face," but none of them were as distinctly driven by the exigencies of painting Hitler and the Nazi government as buffoons. There is an equal anxiety to depict the United States as a bastion of freedom, this despite the fact that by 1943 Americans, including citizens, of Japanese, Italian, and German descent were being interned and stripped of their basic rights, including their rights to certain properties (such as boats) and the vote.

My favorite Donald Duck cartoon from this period is "The Vanishing Private" - it is both a funnier and a more subtle film. In it, Donald, a troublesome private in the American Army, is ordered to camouflage a cannon, which he does using invisible paint. His superior, Sergeant Pete, goes bananas when he thinks the cannon has been stolen on Donald's watch and accidentally tumbles the short-tempered duck into the vat of paint. Invisible Donald has a field day, quacking "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush" and leading the increasingly confused Sergeant Pete right around it. "The Vanishing Private" was released in 1942 and despite its focus on the Army and its clearly positive stance towards the war effort, the cartoon is far more wrapped up in the madcap fun of Donald's antics than in assigning those antics an obviously ideological significance. As such, it's a better film, but it tells us far less about wartime attitudes than "Der Fuehrer's Face," which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film and was both popular and critically acclaimed.

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