THE BOOTLEG FILES: DER SCHNEEMANN

BOOTLEG FILES 459: “Der Schneemann” (1944 German animated short).

LAST SEEN: The film can be found on numerous video websites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been included in several public domain anthologies.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Hey, it ain’t often you get to see a Nazi Christmas film.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Only as a public domain offering.

Most people don’t associate Nazi Germany with Christmas, and Hitler’s notorious film industry was conspicuously lacking in movies featuring Santa Claus and flying reindeer. However, one strange little film produced by the Nazi film industry enjoyed an unexpected second life as a staple of the American kiddie matinee world. Even more amazing was the subversive life of the man who helmed this film’s production.

After Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933, the best and the brightest of the German film industry began to leave the country. This created a significant decline in the quality of German cinematic output. Indeed, beyond a couple of bombastic films by Leni Riefenstahl, German films made between 1933 and 1945 were mostly crummy.

But that’s not to say that there was no cinematic talent left in the country. Animator Hans Fischerkoesen had enjoyed a successful career as the director of nonpolitical advertising films that played in German cinemas. Fischerkoesen, by all accounts, did not support Nazi policies, and he resisted attempts to be recruited into the government’s film operations.

By 1941, however, wartime conditions prevented the import of American films – particularly animated shorts that were extremely popular with German audiences. In one of the more bizarre examples of Nazi priorities, the Propaganda Ministry decided to devote considerable money and resources for the production of animated films. Fischerkoesen and his animation team were relocated against their will to Potsdam, where they were instructed to fill what the government considered to be a significant entertainment void.

Fischerkoesen never quite rivaled Disney or the American animation titans with quantity – a grand total of three short films were created between 1942 and 1944. However, one of these works, the 1943 production “Der Schneemann” (“The Snowman”), stood out for its sheer audacity and equally astonishing history.

“Der Schneemann” opens in a snowy village on a dark winter night. A snowman – complete with a top hat and a carrot nose – stands silently near a glowing streetlight. As the snow falls on the street, a number of snowflakes fall in a heart-shaped pattern on the snowman’s chest. When the pattern is completed, the snowman’s eyes magically open and he looks around in playful delight at his surroundings.

The snowman begins to juggle snowballs and laughs at his newfound world. This upsets a mangy guard dog, which gets into a scuffle with the snowman. The large snowman sits on the dog, crushing him under the newly fallen snow. The dog, in turn, takes a bite out of the snowman’s backside, leaving a gaping hole, and the snowman evades the dog by throwing snowballs at it.

The snowman then arrives at a frozen pond and uses icicles as skates. Alas, his Peggy Fleming routine is short-lived and the snowman falls through the ice. He emerges as a melted shadow of his former self, and he needs to roll down a snowy hill to regain his wintry body.

The snowman attempts to take a nap outdoors, but a pesky rabbit attempts to eat his carrot nose. The snowman retreats into a cottage for some rest and relaxation. But once inside, he spies a calendar that offers startling images of the summer months. The snowman, of course, has never seen anything beyond the white expanses of winter, and he longs to experience the joys of July.

Thus, the snowman decides to hibernate until the summer. He seeks refuge in a large icebox and falls asleep. When July arrives, he attempts to leave the refrigerator – but his butt gets stuck to the icebox’s inner wall and he winds up with a gaping hole in his backside. (What, again?) He turns down the icebox’s temperature and regains his lost snowy rear.

Then, the snowman runs outside and romps across the grassy hills. He plays mischievously with grazing cows and an unsuspecting chicken, and he wildly sniffs the fresh flowers. Of course, snowmen don’t last very long in the July sunshine, and the wintry visitor melts away. As he disappears into a puddle, the snowman finally speaks, singing (in German) “How lovely summer is; my heart breaks from happiness!” After he melts forever, the rabbit that previously tried to eat his nose examines the stray carrot lying on the ground. The rabbit’s baby bunnies join the inspection and play happily in the snowman’s abandoned top hat.

What does any of this have to do with Nazi filmmaking? Very little, if anything, and that was the point. Unknown to the Propaganda Ministry, Fischerkoesen was an active member of the German underground movement. “Der Schneemann,” despite being produced by the Nazis, offered nothing that could even vaguely be mistaken for coarse propaganda. If anything, it could be seen as an anti-Nazi statement, with the doomed snowman wishing in vain for the chance to experience a different and brighter world.

Animation historian William Moritz boldly observes that the snowman could also be seen as a symbol of the persecuted populations of Nazi-held Europe. “This point of view is confirmed when snowflakes alight on the snowman in the pattern of a heart – suggesting that he is a creature of feelings, rather than a military/political figure (who would wear medals or insignia), or an ostracized victim (such as the Jews or gays who wore yellow stars and pink triangles),” Moritz says.

Whatever subtle double meanings are present here can be debated, but the visual style of “Der Schneemann” clearly shows that Fischerkoesen was an avid student of American animation. Several scenes employ three-dimensional effect that were meant to recall the Fleischer animation technique, while the living flowers and trees of the July sequence look as if they were lifted from Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” series. There is also some light violence – particularly involving the fight with the dog – that was typical of the harmless slapstick knockabout of 1930s-era cartoons.

It is unclear what impact, if any, “Der Schneemann” had on the Propaganda Ministry officials or German audiences. After the war, Allied forces seized the film and prevented it from being shown. Fischerkoesen was apprehended by Soviet forces and, due to his employment in the Nazi film world, was imprisoned for three years before his work with the underground movement could be confirmed. Finding himself marooned in Communist East Germany, he escaped with his family to West Germany and resumed his work in creating advertising films. He died in 1973.

During the mid-1950s, “Der Schneemann” re-emerged on the other side of the Atlantic. The burgeoning kiddie matinee cinema circuit and the proliferation of cartoon shows on local television stations required films to satisfy the new Baby Boomer generation. As a result, “Der Schneemann” was reconfigured under the titles “The Snowman” and “Snowman in July.” A new English narration covered the soundtrack – a somewhat intrusive addition, since the narrator described everything that was transpiring on-screen. The previously anonymous snowman was given the name Whitey, but his German-language song during the fatal melting moments was erased.

This new version did not include any end credits, so viewers had no clue where the film came from or who created it. The only hint that it might be a foreign film was the snowman’s calendar, which spelled his desired summer month as “Juli.” The prints that circulated did not include the original German copyright, so it is highly possible that the film’s American distributors were bootlegging Fischerkoesen’s work.

Not that any of this mattered. For many years, this unusual film turned up in kiddie matinee shows and on television during the Christmas season. Many Americans of a certain age happily recall this animated short as being among their favorite holiday films. Later on, this short was also included in video anthologies of public domain cartoons, even though its copyright was still intact. Today, both the Fischerkoesen original and the Americanized versions can be found in unauthorized postings on a variety of video websites.

As we get ready for another Christmas, let’s put that silly ol’ Frosty aside for a few minutes and spend some time with the bizarre German snowman who briefly gave the Nazis a snow-covered middle finger.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on December 21, 2012 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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