Leni, Walt and Walter: Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaften

Esther Leslie


In November 1938 Leni Riefenstahl sailed to America, on the luxury liner Europa. Riefenstahl hoped to sell her latest film, Olympia, to an American distributor, and she began her search for American powerbrokers while still at sea. In her luggage, there were three different prints of Olympia and numerous copies of the book Beauty in the Olympic Struggle [Schönheit im Olympischen Kampf] and other publicity material.

Her film of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin had premiered a few months before, a treat for Hitler’s 49th birthday. Paid for by the Propaganda Ministry and the Film-Kredit-Bank, the film had enjoyed accolade after accolade, as Riefenstahl escorted it from venue to venue across Europe. Riefenstahl’s Olympia, as much as its subject, the 1936 Berlin Olympics, successfully promoted New Germany’s public image abroad. The 1936 Olympics had been designed as a widely broadcast spectacle of peace, an internationalist gesture. For the duration of the festivities, attended by people from across the world, the press had printed pages in three or four languages for foreign visitors. Cinema programmes had included international movies and short films. But, as the games drew to a close that exceptional ‘normality’ returned to nazi everyday life. The cessation of official-backed jewish persecution, prompted by the attention-seeking and attention-garnering games, was wound up and Hitler prepared for a public attack on the jews at a party rally in September 1937. There he accused them of bolshevism and support for the republicans in Spain. (Kater, 50) This harangue unleashed a violence that culminated just over a year later, in November 1938, in the horrors of Kristallnacht. Pacific, cosmopolitan Germany had been an illusion for the cameras.

On the third day of Riefenstahl’s sojourn in the United States the Anti-Nazi League began a campaign against her, further boosted by horrified responses to the anti-jewish pogroms. In Detroit, on 18th November she met with modern factory-meister Henry Ford, an industrialist who felt some affection for Hitler. She headed for California, via the Grand Canyon. In Hollywood the Anti-Nazi League called for a boycott of Riefenstahl, running, on 27th November, an advertisement in the Hollywood Reporter. It declared: "There is no room for Nazi agents!!" Walt Disney was one of the only Hollywood celebrities to receive her. She visited him on 8th December 1938, for a three-hour tour of the Disney studio.

Fascists had their eyes on Hollywood. It had been described by il Duce’s son, the bomber and filmist Vittorio Mussolini, as the "centre of political agitation against the fascist idea". (Storm/Dreßler, 128) However, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was still breaking box office records in Rome at the end of 1938. It was to be one of the last. American films were being phased out in Mussolini’s Italy. The German cinema magazine Film Kurier in February stressed that the Anti-Nazi League was a jewish organization that was part of a "jewishified film industry". On her return to Germany, Riefenstahl gave a detailed report of her American trip to Goebbels, who then noted in his diary an extraordinary reversal of fact: in America – "The Jews are ruling with terror and boycotts." ["Die Juden herrschen mit Terror und Boykott."] Goebbels voiced uncertainty about whether or not to ban American films.

The association of Disney and Riefenstahl was not new. They had been brought together before – in fascist Italy – at the Venice Film Festival, where Olympia had won the Coppa Mussolini. Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had been a strong competitor for the prize. Asked later why she should have met Disney in the US, Riefenstahl said:

And why not! ... Disney and I have never met before but our pictures – Olympia and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – were the two outstanding successes in many outstanding countries.

And she goes on to suggest an aesthetic logic to their rendezvous.

He has the German feeling – he goes so often to the German fables and fairy tales for inspiration. (Graham, 222- 223)

What is "the German feeling"? Disney’s aesthetic, especially in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio [1940], and Fantasia [1940] with its ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ tale from Goethe, drew on both Romanticism and a folkish Gothic woodcut tradition. Snow White was a fine Grimm fairytale, though Disneyfication of the ending involved junking Snow White’s vomiting up of the poisoned apple lodged in her throat, and in its stead borrowing an awakening, re-animating kiss from Grimms’ Sleeping Beauty. The German sourcing of Disney’s feature-length films was a major topic of discussion in German film journals. Critics wanted to know who would guarantee that Disney would treat his German material well. (Storm/Dreßler 110) The fairy-tale, according to the nazi critics, was a German affair.

In Riefenstahl’s terms, "the German feeling" denotes a concoction of the romantic, the Gothic, elements of the neo-classical. For Riefenstahl and for Disney, perhaps, the "German feeling" is a code word for restitution and a by-word for kitsch. In 1939 Clement Greenberg, the American theorist of high modernism, defined kitsch as an antithesis, a "rear-guard" of the avant-garde. (Wood/Harrison, 529) In the grim ‘30s, the avant-garde fades, exiled, in hiding – in the "Totalitarian World", or stamped out by the dumb violence of economic facts – in the "Democratic World". It is occluded by its antithesis. For Greenberg, kitsch was both American commercial culture and the totalitarian art of nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Kitsch, the culture of the industrialized masses, explains Greenberg, exploits tradition. Kitsch is that which is recognizable. Kitsch is heightened reality that is made dramatic. (Wood/Harrison, 537) Kitsch bears traces of yesterday’s avant-garde, diluted. (Wood/Harrison, 534) In the Soviet Union this kitsch is represented by Socialist Realism, an idealized naturalism. In nazi Germany it is monumentalist art, again illusionistic and illusory. In America its quintessence is surely high-style Disney.

There had been another German reception of Disney, one that stressed its avant-garde and utopian elements. In the first version of Walter Benjamin’s 1936 ‘Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction’, a section titled ‘Mickey Mouse’ explains how in film’s strange modernist montage-land, first steps are taken for a critical reconfiguration of our world. Cartoons radicalise that effect of live film – where the nature that reveals itself to the camera – a second nature – is unlike the unmediated nature that flaunts before the eye. Adventurous travellers are offered a multitude of trips through widely strewn ruins in a world turned anti-physical. The dynamite of the split-second explodes this world. Space is expanded and shrunk by montage, while time is stretched and contracted by time loops. Cartooning takes such anti-physics for granted. And it outbids the individualism of madness and dreams by producing "figures of the collective dream such as the earth-encircling Mickey Mouse" (Benjamin [2], 461- 462). Benjamin says that this cosmos of detonated physics requires Mickey Mouse as occupant, for his function is curative. In the same essay, he speaks of the camera operator as dissector, as surgeon. For Benjamin, the segmenting, annihilative effect of the cinematic look can slice through the natural appearance of everyday life like a surgical instrument, contravening the tendency of film to mirror the surface. For Benjamin such dissection, an investigation of the world in close-up, production of links between things through montage, analysis of movement through slow-motion and so on, is part of a critical, scientific approach to the world. This is accompanied by an anti-naturalist, utopian rebuttal of physical laws and ‘natural’ constraint. The image becomes "a multiply fragmented thing, whose parts reassemble themselves according to new laws" (Benjamin, 227). As Benjamin’s perceptive epilogue to the ‘Artwork essay’ notes, such critical, analytical dissection – a metaphorical dismantlement - was not the goal of film at the Reichsfilmkammer, nor indeed at the Disnet Studios, as a footnote to Benjamin’s ‘Artwork essay’ indicates – something more violently real was at stake.

Placing his understanding of the Disney films in the context of nazi victory in Germany, he considers the latest Mickey Mouse films: "(Their dark fire-magic, for which colour film has provided technical preconditions, underlines a trait, which until now was only present in hidden ways. It shows how comfortably fascism – in this realm too – can appropriate so-called ‘revolutionary’ innovations.) What surfaces in the light of the latest Disney films is actually already present in some older ones: the tendency to locate bestiality and violence quite comfortably as accompaniments of existence. This calls on an older and no less terrifying tradition; it was introduced by the dancing hooligans which we find in mediaeval pogrom images, and the ‘ragged band’ in Grimms’ fairy tales form their imprecise, pale rearguard." (Benjamin [c], 377)

Violence is now revealed to be less a critical metaphorical dismantlement, and more a way of life, a realistic representation of everyday brutality.

Film succumbs to photographic immediacy’s commanding ideology of naturalism. Film is constrained in the service of reflecting an apparent vision of an elevated real. The originary critical effects of recording technologies have been assuaged by ideological overdetermination. While Hollywood cranks up to polish the disempowering cultish and dazzling commodity glow through its charismatic stars and mythic histories, Benjamin’s chilling commentary on fascist aesthetic cultism ponders the nazi use of recording machines at vast rallies, monster meetings, mass sporting events and in war. The latest technologies are deployed by the nazis to make heartfelt representations of the masses at play, at work, at war. Manipulated emotion is the currency in Hollywood and at the Reichsfilmkammer alike.

From the 1930s onwards the Disney studio had been taming the cartoon, displacing its original avantgardish anarchy and formal inconstancy. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first film to make extensive use of dialogue to define the personalities and show how the characters thought – fully rounded cartoon characters were born. Cartoons could provoke pathos. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs milked this. Snow White’s scenes were increased as the story took shape – she became the point of identification, rather than the anatural dwarfs. At the same time, the sound track was beginning to be used to supply and interpret feelings and sensations in addition to conveying dialogue. Modernist dissolution of reality is abandoned in favour or illusion of reality. Disney transforms cartoons in the service of commercialism – making them Adorno’s commodity form, offering a false appearance of integration and wholeness, magically concealing the labour that went into their production. And they distance themselves from the art of the avant-garde whose law of form had taken fragmentation and disintegration into itself, making clear how constructed not only it is, but also our social world – now ripe for transformation. Along with deep space and gestures towards illusionistic realism come melodramatic values – the Hayes Production Code had affected cartoon characters too. For example, with its introduction in 1933, vampish Betty Boop was redressed with a longer skirt and a higher neckline. Snow White provided a clear-cut and priggish morality, a virginal and highly sanitized ideal. As it became naturalistic, moralistic and tamed, the cartoon was turned respectable, a regular part of the studio-system for the middle-brows. (Hay, 83) If Dumbo lost that depth, it may have been because it was drawn swiftly, on the cheap, by strike-breakers. Melodramatic values however were evident in abundance. Kracauer notes how Dumbo the baby elephant becomes a highly paid star for the same circus director who beat his mother. And he insists that the cause of all this is presence of a plot. The feature-length film necessitates a plot, and that, in turn, bolsters the presence of conventional social values in the film. No longer can the gag or the moment be the main propulsion of the film. The avant-garde temporality, a time of interruption, confounded linearity, moments, is abolished in favour of narrative, logic, development and closure. So unlike early Mickey Mouse cartoons – with their gags and disruptions – and a pesky, ratty creature creating mischief, indulging in vaudeville, and low-life and, as the German magazine Film-Kurier put it in 1930, he was a beast living in jazz rhythm; every step a dance move, every movement syncopated.

By the mid-30s, Disney advances a cartoon version of Hollywood movie-style mise-en-scene and acting. Realism was where the focus lay. Recreation of this was aided by advances in depth of field generation, and the use of the multiplane camera. This movie-style negates flat-space and the self-referentiality of the drawn cartoon and substitutes a deep cartoon space. It was the definitive rollback of modernist revelation of materials. If the modernists used the illusion of depth it was to investigate the illusion. The modernist return to zero, stripping away all the clutter and effects of culture, was reversed in the re-furbishing of the screen with objects stretching into every corner. The feature-lengths, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs onwards, re-institute the laws of perspective and gravity, fight against flatness, and no longer explode the world with the surrealistic and analytical cinematic dynamite of the optical unconscious developed in 1920s cartooning. The re-institution of physical laws was most evident in the animators’ dilemma when designing a scene that showed Snow White falling. They worried about the height of the drop and whether it could lead to her death. By the late 1930s, Disney wanted his cartoons to look 3-D real, from the muted earthy backgrounds, perspectival faithfulness, to the life-likeness of movements and skin-tone. Using techniques such as rotoscoping the Disney studio strove after an increased knowledge of organic structure and a more acute sense of timing, breaking down movements in order to build them up mechanically. Disney produced an animated imitation of realist cinema, in terms of content and form; romantically realistic, an idealized real.


Roy Disney visited Germany in March 1938 to seal a deal on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But in the autumn of 1938 there was a controversy in Germany about whether or not the film would be shown in the Reich. Due to currency difficulties, the film was very expensive and also, embarrassingly for the nazis, too technically advanced compared to German animation at the time. And anyway after Kristallnacht in November international reservations were growing about trade with Germany. After the production in Hollywood of a number of anti-nazi films, the Propaganda Ministry put the pressure on critics to express anti-American sentiments. In 1938 the Propaganda Ministry made possible the purchase of fifty American movies, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But critics were beginning to voice frustration at American domination of the silver screen. In Licht-Bild-Bühne, one critic bemoaned the fact that even though Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was not going to be seen in Germany, at a conservative estimate at least 200 pages of text and image about the film had appeared in the German press. In comparison a "top" German film Heimat, that was to be shown in America, had not even garnered fifteen pages of publicity in the American press. (Storm/Dreßler, 122) In September 1939 a report in Film Kurier attacked "Bolshevik Machinations in Film America", and it revealed details of the Dies committee’s investigation into communist supporters amongst the Hollywood film community. The report stated that with the exception of Snow White, almost every actor in Hollywood is helping the reds. (Storm/Dreßler, 99) By 1939 a little war had been declared in the press – on the Anti-Nazi League and the "56 Hollywood stars" who had signed a petition against Germany. The author of the Film-Kurier article claimed that a lack of artistic capability made them resort to "atrocity propaganda" against Germany, or else they were forced to sign the petition under threat of violence. Those who attack the Germans "out of hatred or stupidity or cowardice" can surely not complain if they are refused appearance on German cinema screens. Despite this, in that year twenty new Hollywood movies were shown in the Greater German Reich. However such sentiments in the film press made the purchase of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for German distribution very difficult. American films were banned from German premiere film theatres. And yet an exception was to be made for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This was a film of high artistic quality, claimed the film experts and the gentlemen from the Propaganda Ministry agreed. (Storm/Dreßler, 123- 4)The same excuse had not been made for Felix the Cat, banned since 1935. Perhaps it was "the German feeling" that so impressed them. "Who is the fairest of them all?" asks the evil witch-queen of her magic mirror in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Why, one whose skin is white as snow, and evil, as embodied in the witch and the vultures, of course, is always dark, hooked-nose and ugly. Beauty and evil manifest themselves on the body – as the witch cackles, while preparing her magic poisoned apple: "on the skin the symbol of what lies within". While class emerges in the image of the friendly but imbecilic and dirty dwarf-workers, Snow White, the temporarily fallen princess possesses a white skin that is emblematic of her inner purity. Some are born to rule, it shows on their very bodies. The poets Stefan George and Hans Blüher and other fin-de-siècle esoterics had asserted the association of white skin and moral purity, most forcefully. The ideas of the esoterics were enthusiastically taken up in the Third Reich. One popular book, Nordic Beauty [1937] by Paul Schultze-Naumburg, explicated the theory of racial body types and moral substance, avouching a racist version of the pseudo-science of physiognomy. This proposed the idea that the soul is racially determined and its characteristics manifest themselves on the body. Schultze-Naumburg’s examples were, in fact, a collage of ideal forms from artworks of the past. The author claims that Nordic bodies exhibit the Nordic virtues of logical clarity and truthful thoughtfulness. A good body has clear borderlines and separate parts. Nordic peoples are tall, slim, fine-limbed with narrow hips and narrow faces. The Nordic female breast has chiselled contours and is small and upright unlike the rapid maturation of fleshy oriental breasts, or the mammoth, formless, spongy breasts of mongoloids, racial types who are deemed inferior, illogical and dissembling.(Taylor/van der Will, 66, 137) Snow White, as asexual as a nazi sculpture of virtuous naked Germanic womanhood, and each of the seven dwarfs are all such clearly demarcated types, their bodies, their names, their souls all in unity. These might have had much to say to a ‘nazi’ audience.

In 1938 Hitler arranged for a copy of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to be brought to his private cinema at Ubersalzberg. He thought it one of the greatest films ever made. (Storm/Dreßler, 110) It took a world war to stop the continued exchange between Walt and Leni and all that they represented.


Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. London: Fontana, 1992.

---. [b] Gesammelte Schriften volume I, part 2. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1991.

---. [c] Gesammelte Schriften volume VII part 1. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1991

Graham, Cooper. Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia. Metuchen, N.J. : Scarecrow Press, 1986.

Hay, James. Popular Film Culture in Fascist Italy: The Passing of the Rex. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1987.

Kater, Michael. Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Storm, J.P, M. Dreßler. Im Reiche der Micky-Maus: Walt Disney in Deutschland 1927-1945. Berlin: Henschel Verlag.

Taylor, Brandon, Wilfried van der Will [editors]. The Nazification of Art. Hampshire Winchester Press, 1990.

Wood Paul, Charles Harrison [editors]. Art in Theory. Oxford, Blackwell, 1992.


More Optical Synoptix

Get You Back Home