Sunday, March 21, 2010

Radio Memories: Learning To Hate

After 11 years abroad Gregor Athalwin Ziemer finally returned home to the US, the possessor of an accumulation of ugly memories and sick souvenirs.

From 1928 to 1939 Ziemer had been the headmaster of a Berlin-based school for the children of American diplomats and businessmen stationed in Germany. This vantage point gave him a unique look at the changes that befell the German school system after Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1932-1933, and the type of children that emerged from the "Nazi education" methods initiated by Bernhard Rust, Minister of Education who, according to journalist John Gunther, had shortly before "lost his teacher's job -- because he was incompetent!" [Inside Europe, 1938 edition, pg 60]

Gregor Ziemer had an eyeful of the awful transformation taking place in Gemany's youth outside the small oasis of his American Colony School.

At the age of four German boys were to take their first oath to die for their Fuhrer, repeating it with greater solemnity in two more rituals at ages 10 and 14. Songs, textbooks, math lessons, even art projects, all involved preparing young minds for dark thoughts of conquest, war, and especially... hate:

In Hamburg, a teacher displayed to his class a pamphlet, The Jews in the U.S.A., with pictures of New York City's Mayor LaGuardia beside a gorilla, "Jewish Judge Marcus Pecora" (presumably meaning New York Justice Ferdinand Pecora—who is a gentile), the "Jewess" Madam Secretary Frances Perkins. At lesson's end, the teacher asked: "And what do you think of a country like that?" The class roared the Nazi Party battle cry: Judah verrecke! ("Death to the Jews!").

Gregor Ziemer dutifully chronicled his observations in a book released to great success in November 1941:
Education For Death: The Making Of A Nazi.
In addition to carefully documented accounts of horrors witnessed in the classroom, Ziemer also introduced his American audience to the Nazi's forced sterilization and euthanasia programs then underway. Visiting one "woman's hospital" in Berlin, Zimer reported seeing women operated upon, willingly or otherwise, by doctors performing as if working on some ghastly assembly line: patient after patient wheeled in, and promptly wheeled out, courtesy of that once-esteemed "German efficiency", now gone mad.
The message spread: a whole generation of German youth were being turned into soulless monsters. Which begged the question: how to undo such zealotry, absorbed at such an early age, and reinforced so pervasively? Ziemer's book could only offer advice outlined in principle, rather than detail:

"If we are to combat the spirit of German youth with our own spirit of Democracy, it will have to be ... a spirit as fiery in its concentration as Naziism is in German schools. . . . Hitler is making fanatics. We should at least make believers. . . .

When war with Germany soon came upon them, American audiences not yet familiar with the contents of Ziemer's book would be greeted with not just one, but two movie adaptations.

The first treatment of Ziemer's book was, interestingly, made into animated form, by no less than the Walt Disney studio, in early 1943. Fresh from the artistic heights reached in Fantasia (1940) and Bambi (1942), the film showcases a realistic style seldom explored in their other, more humorous cartoons. Their adapation is not without humor: the studio's funniest animator, Ward Kimball, handles some comedy relief material illustrating der fuhrer in a symbolic fairy tale (revealing, I suspect, how the war inevitably coarsened popular culture at the time), while two of the company's best "actors with a pencil", Ollie Johnston and Bill Tytla, handle the touching classroom sequence between young Hans (animated by Johnson, suggesting the same innocence he brought to his work on the young rabbit Thumper in Bambi) and the overbearing schoolteacher (an exuberant performance by Tytla, surpassing the energy he brought to puppeteer Stromboli's similar tirades in the 1939 Disney film Pinocchio). The cartoon ends on a visual virtual kick-to-the-stomach... one imagines how powerful an impact the climax must have made upon the minds of audiences at the time, many with fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles and friends in faraway battlefields facing off against the very enemy the film portrays so grimly...

The "Hitler's Children" mentioned in the Disney film's title is an allusion to RKO's 1943 live action adaptation of the book, enlivened by its producer Ed Golden with what he thought would be a more marketable title. His financial gamble ("who wants to see a film with 'Hitler' in the title?", ran the conventional wisdom of the day) paid off handsomely: filmed on a shoestring budget of $175,000, the film went on to gross millions. By October 1943 the film's success made news, and Time Magazine estimated its return as between $2 and $3 million dollars, making it a bigger box office hit than any previous RKO release, including King Kong. In his autobiography the film's director Edward Dimitrik later estimated that by the end of the war the total gross for Hitler's Children was closer to $7 million! (At .30 cents a ticket, in those days, even the lower estimates make for a lot of customers...)

We examine this other cinematic adaptation of Gregor Ziemer's Education For Death in what may seem an indirect way, as the subject of this week's Radio Memories, our occasional Sunday foray into the bygone art form of Radio Drama.

Before the arrival of television, radio offered its listeners a wide variety of dramatic programming, plays performed not for the eye, as with tv, but for the ear, or more specifically: a theater for the mind.

One of the highest-rated, and longest-lasting dramatic radio programs was The Lux Radio Theater, spanning two decades from 1934 up to 1955. Their gimmick was adapting popular movies into radio plays, either "old" classics or fresh releases then making the rounds of regional theatrical markets. (Films were rolled out area by area in those economically-strapped days, rather than every screen all at once, as has been the modern practice for some time.)

Tonight's Radio Memories offering features the Lux Radio Theater adaptation of RKO's live action version of Hitler's Children, broadcast from a Hollywood at war, on May 24, 1943.

The battlefields change, but the battles go on, as whole generations today are still taught to hate, challenging us in our time to find the same resolve demanded by Gregor Ziemer in 1941:

"Young Germany is awake and ready to die. Let young America and its parents, its instructors, and advisers be awake and ready to live."



truepeers said...

I'm guessing with all that German in the cartoon that there may have been the idea that Hitler would get his hands on a copy and have to face the music, a la Chaplin. David has been carrying around a copy of a Freudian analysis of Hitler that was prepared for US intelligence. I'm guessing the imagery around 3.55-4.02 may have been influenced by it, if the filmmakers would have been given access to it. What do you think?

Great post.

truepeers said...


Charles Henry said...

I'm guessing the imagery around 3.55-4.02 may have been influenced by it...
I think this reveals more Freudian insights into Walt Disney than Hitler..! :)

For whatever reasons, Walt had a positive fixation with gags about people's backsides. It shows up again and again in the films over which he had imput.

There's an anecdote that animator Ward Kimball used to tell, about the early days when gag ideas would be pitched in unpaid after-hours story conferences, with each approved gag earning bonus $$ for the volunteer artists who stayed behind to participate.

Sharp-eyed Kimball quickly noticed Walt's predilection for characters getting pocked or kicked or landing on their behinds, and so Kimball would forever pepper the story meetings incessantly with ideas surrounding this motif. This became quite a lucrative way for him to earn some much-needed extra dough during the Depression: suggesting a never-ending series of variations on poke-to-the-backside gags during story gag conferences, many of which would inevitably be approved by Walt!

Charles Henry said...

there may have been the idea that Hitler would get his hands on a copy and have to face the music, a la Chaplin.

Hmm, that may be so. Hitler was obsessed/fascinated with Walt Disney's animation; we learn from the German animators who began Nazi-funded cartoon studios on the eve of wwii that Hitler mandated they surpass the quality so evident in Disney's product at the time. It galled him that "mere Americans" could dominate this one field, leaving the German product as a very distant second-best.

Your Chaplin reference is to his first sound film "Great Dictator", of course; there's a fascinating story that I recall from one of the Chaplin biographies I read, about the question on every viewers' mind: what did the target think of the attack.

Apparently the high-profile release of that film attracted der fuhrer's attention, to the point that the nazis flew in a bootleg print via neutral Portugal, for him to finally see it for himself.

There was a private screening arranged for the target of its parody. No record, so far as I have ever found, remains of what he actually thought of the film.

All we know, is that he watched it... twice...

Blazing Cat Fur said...

Paging Monsieur Houle...

truepeers said...

Well, make of my imagination what you will, but it wasn't just the backside that caught my attention. It was all the trees doing, ostensibly, the Nazi salute. But I read that as subtly suggesting that the Nazis were a bunch of phallus worshipers or group tossers.

ON the other point, can you point to any other cartoon/film intended for a mostly American? audience, that had so much of a foreign language in it? Surely if the target had been the Japanese, it would have been largely done in English, and not just because fewer Americans would be familiar with Japanese than German... Can we really explain it as a nod to realism? Maybe, but i have doubts...

truepeers said...

BCF, talking about Houles, I had no idea so many of the lefties think Coulter is some kind of transvestite or transgendered of something - see the comments at the Globe & Mail.

truepeers said...

Also, why give billing to Goebels if it wasn't thought he would be the Nazi most likely to see the film? Or is that a stretch?

Blazing Cat Fur said...

The Globe comments are hilarious, I love seeing the lefties in a lather.

truepeers said...

Hilarious? If they are indicative of "educated" youth today, we are in serious trouble. But then I guess a serioud reckoning with reality is inevitable now and yutes might grow up after seeing socialized economies up close for a while.

Charles Henry said...

It wasn't common but there are a few other wartime cartoons that were more realistic in their style -- though not as realistic as this one gets; it's pretty unique -- and offered real German rather than "achtung die sauerkrauten und die lieberworst" as ersatz dialog.

I think they're going for an effect here where the viewer is made a visitor to a foreign land, being introduced to their world as an outsider; to keep the poisonous nazi worldview at cultural arm's length they keep the citizens speaking their native tongue, with a translator acting as guide.

Goebels was seen as a kind of "Bagdad Bob" figure in his day; his public statements were so obviously and brazenly silly (albeit sometimes in a sinister way) that they regularly made for good copy in news stories. I just heard one old news show from 1944 the other day, as one example, quoting a speech Goebels had given over german radio to assuage fears over food shortages; among other tips he advises his german listeners on the joys of picking and eating rhubarb. The newsreader quips, "I wonder if Goebels is so badly off that he also has to eat rhubarb.."

I think he was picked because he would be one of the nazi goon squad that would be a familiar figure to most moviegoers of that time.

One individual who is never portrayed in these wartime cartoons, is Himmler. If films like this one were partially made to unsettle the nazi high command I think they would have included him more often, given his stature in their system.