directed by Jack Kinney
"Der Fuehrer's Face" is an anti-Nazi propaganda film made by Disney and starring Donald Duck. It won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1943.
As modern viewers, I can think of two reasons why those previous statements seem nothing short of absurd to us. First of all, living in a world where things like Baby Einstein and Veggie Tales exist, we are clearly a society that is hypersensitive about what we expose our children to and what messages these things are trying to convey. Even in a cartoon that is clearly painting Nazism out to be bad, there is something undeniably jarring about Donald Duck, complete with swastika armband, saying in his characteristic spittle-filled squawk, "Heil Hitler!"
But I'd venture that it seems just as strange to us that this film actually won an Academy Award. There tends to be a fine line between what we consider art and what we consider propaganda; many consider the two categories to be mutually exclusive, and whatever gray area exists between them is as contentious as a mine field. As I was searching lists of major award-winning film for this post, I was baffled when reminded that in 2004, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, a prize that many people consider the highest of "high art." Whether or not Michael Moore's films are propaganda is a horse we're probably best to leave beaten to death and buried back in 2004, but I think his win at Cannes serves as an interesting case study. Propaganda is something that intends to persuade or influence opinion. Thus, for propaganda films, a direct and obtrusive engagement with the viewer is part of their very nature. On the other hand, we tend to think of "art" in the most general sense as something that is more reluctant to yield its meaning; often a certain degree of effort is often expected on the viewer's part to understand the artist's intention. Perhaps we have trouble reconciling propaganda and art because propaganda gives up its meaning so readily, we often feel like there is no work required on our part. Furthermore, "art" often yields multiple interpretations, while propaganda tends to communicate only one. People seem to get uncomfortable when propaganda films win awards usually reserved for "art" films because it feels as though the juries who award the prizes are trying to tell the viewer which opinion he or she should hold. It feels intrusive, it feels as though they are threatening the right to multiple interpretations that most people associate so inextricably with art.
But what about when a piece of propaganda is 8 minutes long and starring Donald Duck? Maybe it's because the presence of Donald Duck assures me that this is not a film masquerading itself as high art. Maybe it's because I'm watching it decades after its release and social relevance. Whatever the reason, "Der Fuehrer's Face" doesn't feel threateningly manipulative to me in the least. Even at the moment when its message is most laughably blatant (when Donald wakes from his nightmare and, wearing star-spangled pajamas, hugs the Statue of Liberty and croaks, "Oh boy, am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America!"), the film's use of humor tightens the grip of the propagandistic squeeze on the viewer's sensibilities. "Der Fuehrer's Face" is a great and highly entertaining film; its ability to blend the techniques of propaganda with an amusing narrative and the recognizable flair of Disney humor make it fascinating to watch even today.
Interesting note: despite its Oscar win, Disney tried its best to keep this cartoon "in the vault" and not widely seen until it was released on video in 2004. It has since garnered a rather widespread internet audience and has over half a million views on Youtube.