Up next on Killtoberfest 2, something a little different, a pair of short films. Both have an interesting provenance.
The first is Education for Death: The Making of a Nazi (1943, 10 minutes).
If you haven’t heard of this, it’s one of the most infamous Disney cartoons. Disney fell on hard times right around the outset of World War II, mostly thanks to Fantasia (an expensive flop at the time), and as a result had take on government contracts to survive. (Other results of this situation: Disney releasing almost nothing but cartoon anthologies like Make Mine Music throughout the ’40s, and the partially animated propaganda feature Victory Through Air Power, which detailed the state of the war and argued that a bigger and better Air Force was the key to defeating Hitler.)
Based on a book, the cartoon follows a German child, Hans, from before his birth (his parents have to prove they have no Jewish blood in order to get permission to procreate) through his classroom education, where he is shamed and drilled into believing that “the strong shall rule the weak,” and finally to the front lines, where he and his fellow soldiers are depicted as blind slaves of Hitler, marching in lockstep to their deaths like zombies.
Watching this short, there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance involved. It’s propaganda (and grim, creepy propaganda at that), but there is basic accuracy there (the Nazis were burning books, they were indoctrinating their children, they did restrict births and marriages based on race). Mostly the strangeness comes from seeing Disney techniques familiar from children’s films used in what is essentially a nightmarish fairy tale about boys who are led down the primrose path all the way to Hell.
The short uses a number of techniques, some subtle, some overt, to get you on its side. Chief among them is that any spoken German is either left untranslated, or translated by the snide, grim narrator; it’s an easy way to dehumanize the enemy. On the more overt side, one sequence actually features a quick recounting of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale (more than a decade before Disney’s feature length version), with the “beauty” turning out to be a drunken, obese woman (ie., Germany) and her savior knight an awkward, lascivious Hitler. This is one example of the short not only being animated but using the techniques of animation (as perfected by Disney) to express ideas in a vastly more fluid (and therefore impactful) way than any live action film could have done. It’s one thing to have a Nazi schoolteacher tell, as he does here, a parable of a fox eating a rabbit; it’s another thing to have the chalk drawings come alive on the blackboard to chase and be chased, devour and be devoured. Likewise, the film’s climax is chilling as it seamlessly transforms dissenter Hans into a book-burning, goose-stepping soldier.
I don’t know if propaganda of this sort is morally excusable in the context of the war effort or not; but I do know that Disney was damn good at it. Their artists were, after all, profoundly skilled at telling complex stories in ways that even a child could understand. Watching, I was reminded most of Pinocchio, which had come out 3 years prior and no doubt featured some of the same creators. That was another film about boys who are encouraged to leave the upward path for an unthinking immorality, and who are horrifically transformed as a result. In that story, at least, the donkey-boys were only going to be enslaved as workers. Education for Death makes clear that children indoctrinated into Hitler’s army would not make it home alive.
Education for Death is in the public domain in America, and can be viewed in its entirety here:
From propaganda to pastiche: 2005’s silent The Call of Cthulhu (47 minutes).
In general, Lovecraft has not been treated well by the movies. Perhaps this is because his particular brand of horror, slimy, tentacular monsters and shadowy beings from beyond the veil of time and space, only works when obfuscated by his rambling, high-handed prose. Or perhaps Lovecraft’s stories are in that category of source material which was essentially unfilmable prior to the advent of CGI. Whatever the reason, his successes on the silver screen (Re-Animator, and…?) are dwarfed by his failures (The Dunwich Horror, to name just one). But this brilliant, silent adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s best stories (1) points to one possible way forward–or rather, backwards, to film techniques invented more than 80 years ago.
Silent movies put a spell on you. Especially silent horror movies. Without the ability to use dialogue or sound effects to keep you engaged, a silent film demands real, constant attention. There, in a black and white world of long-dead actors mouthing unknown words, it is possible to achieve a state of mind that shifts unobstructed through dreamlike scenarios. If dead Cthulhu does wait dreaming in his house at R’lyeh, his dreams are silent.
It is that essential eerieness that The Call of Cthulhu taps into. As it turns out, that layer of separation between the film and reality added by the silent movie style is precisely the equivalent of Lovecraft’s obfuscating prose–like the best horror movies, it creates mood through limiting perception, and thereby allows us to bypass the absurdity of the story’s ideas.
Don’t think that, because the movie is in the style of a 1920s silent film, the filmmaking is not complex. The narrative faithfully mirrors Lovecraft’s dizzying tales-within-tales structure, moving effortlessly through time and space, following the protagonist’s investigation into his father’s obsession. It takes real skill to establish a space, mood, and characters for each new segment in quick succession without dialogue, and TCoC does a great job. The actors and costuming look right for the period, and the production design is a highlight–especially during the film’s dream sequences, which borrow from German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, using angular, expansive sets to suggest a wider, more off-kilter space tapped into by the unconscious mind. This is in contrast to the dramatic scenes, which often use close, canted angles and small environments to create an almost claustrophobic sense of tension. The thematic line is concluded at the mysterious island, where Cthulhu’s mountain lair is like a fortress of sharp corners and sudden pits of darkness. Set-piece after set-piece stands out in the mind thanks to strong, economical camera angles and strict stylistic contrasts between segments, each of which seem to take place in a different genre–pulp adventure, drawing room mystery, psychological drama, macabre policier. And the score is decent.
Overall, The Call of Cthulhu is an effective adaptation of Lovecraft’s classic story by talented, reverent filmmakers. Lovecraft, who encouraged the use of his mythos in works by friends and fellow authors, would have been proud of the production’s accomplished, authentic DIY spirit.
The Call of Cthulhu can be ordered direct from the filmmakers’ website, and possibly might be on Youtube, shhh.
1 “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Colour Out of Space,” and “At the Mountains of Madness,” unequivocally.
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