Fantastic German Fox: The National Identity of Reineke Fuchs (1937)

Le Roman de Renard  (Ladislas & Irène Starewitch. 1941).

Le Roman de Renard (Ladislas & Irène Starewitch. 1941).

In the chapter “Fantastic French Fox: The National Identity of Le Roman de Renard as an Animated Film” for the edited collection Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (2018), I alluded to the three different versions of Le Roman de Renard – France’s first feature-length animated film – that existed over the course of its production history. These were the unfinished silent cut from 1930, the German edit in 1937, and finally the official French release of 1941. Out of these, the 1941 cut has become the one true version of the film. It is the one with the label of France’s first animated feature film, the one available on home video, and the one on which I write in depth in the chapter in the collection (see left). I briefly contrasted this reputation to that of the version released four years earlier by the Nazi-controlled Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA), a German film production company.  I observed that the German cut was not available on home video, citing it as a clear indicator of the primacy of the later one. Due to of this, my descriptions of its contents in the Fantasy/Animation chapter were derived from the writings of other scholars and historians – most notably, the work of Richard Neupert (2014).

This was all true when I wrote by first draft of this chapter in 2014 and when I presented it at the Fantasy/Animation conference in 2015. However, unbeknownst to me, a special edition DVD of Le Roman de Renard was released in 2016, and it included Reineke Fuchs as a bonus feature. This past summer, I chanced upon a copy while in a French comic book shop, by which point I could sadly no longer amend the chapter. This blog post therefore affords me a welcome opportunity to correct this omission in my original chapter, and I wish to use it as way to reflect upon how access to the German version during the writing process might have affected my reading of the French one as well as the conclusions that I draw.

There are only so many ways that Reineke Fuchs could differ from Le Roman de Renard. After all, both were more or less working from the same set of footage. There are some changes that move the German version in a more conservative direction. The particularly Starevitch-ian interludes are absent as are some of the more fantastical and surrealist visuals. Reineke still tempts Wolf with lies about Heaven, but the striking image of the winged animal heads is nowhere to be seen. The more impactful factor though is the reframing of this material through the extensive use of a narrator (Leo Peukert). In the first scene, he chastises the menagerie of characters for heaving like zoo animals as a literal fist strikes them from off screen. He introduces the audiences to Reineke the Fox not as a trickster protagonist but as the villain in another animal’s cautionary tale. Learn from the Raven, children, and do not sing when your mouth is full. Reineke is labeled a robber and a thief, even by the human villagers. He does not fight against the system but against the people, the volk.

Reineke Fuchs has far greater reverence for authority than Le Roman de Renard. The King is not a dumb blond beast but a noble and righteous ruler with genuine love for his people. The edict forbidding the eating of meat does not come with an exemption for him and his wife. The King is no hypocrite, even though the animation depicts him eating meat in later scenes. The otherwise ubiquitous narrator does not feel the need to comment on this inconsistency. The cuckoldry subplot involving the Queen and the Cat is still present though less pronounced. The King’s eventual reconciliation with his foxy foe is also different. In this version, the final scene is a duel between Reineke and Wolf – the footage appears as part of a dream sequence in the 1941 release – in which titular character defeats his opponent. Because Reineke defended himself with honor in the arena, the King invites him onto his council.  In the final shot, the camera pans down to Reineke’s young son, struggling to keep his diapers from falling off, to keep clothed. As the narrator scolded at the beginning of the film, there is no reason for these creatures to behave like animals.

As Andrew Higson once wrote, cinematic texts change meaning and can change physically as they cross national borders (2006: 19). In the case of Le Roman de Renard and Reineke Fuchs, the result is a story that does not encourage children to question and ridicule those in power but to respect them. Even the visual elements – which I had tenuously linked to theories of fantasy and fairytales in the original Fantasy/Animation piece – are relatively more grounded and literal. The incorporation of an ever-present narrator helps with that. These factors took a film produced in the context of antiauthority movements in 1920s and 1930s France and turned it into propaganda for an authoritarian dictatorship in 1930s Germany. The transformation is imperfect as there are instances where the dissonance between the narrator and the visuals is unavoidable. However, the apparent malleability of this text and its identity is both notable and troubling.

Reineke Fuchs thus offers a cautionary tale. Regardless of the source material or the intention of the filmmakers, the narratives and imagery of fantasy and of animation hold conservative and reactionary potential. Breaking from reality is not inherently radical or subversive. This holds true even outside of such explicit examples of appropriation and re-contextualization as Le Roman de Renard. We – as scholars and as readers of fantasy and animation – therefore have a responsibility to critically consider the metaphorical and ideological elements allowed by these types of texts.

References

Agnoli, Francis M. “Fantastic French Fox: The National Identity of Le Roman de Renard (1941) as an animated film,” in Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres, eds. Christopher Holliday and Alexander Sergeant (London & New York: Routledge, 2018), 126-140.

Higson, Andrew. “The Limiting Imagination of National Cinema,” in Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader, eds. Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (London: Routledge, 2006), 15-25.

Neupert, Richard. French Animation History (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).

Biography

Francis M. Agnoli is a doctoral candidate at the University of East Anglia, where his research focuses on the ascription of race to animated bodies in contemporary U.S. television animation. He has previously earned his MA at the University of Iowa and his BA at Loyola University Chicago. His work has been published in the edited collection Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (Routledge, 2018).