The Bootleg Files: Nimbus Libéré

BOOTLEG FILES 676: “Nimbus Libéré” (1944 propaganda animated short).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It was included in the 1993 Claude Chabrol documentary “The Eye of Vichy.”

Unauthorized use of copyright-protected animated characters.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is in “The Eye of Vichy,” but it is also posted online without authorization.

By early 1944, Nazi Germany saw its control over Europe weaken dramatically due to Soviet advances from the East and the arrival of Allied forces into Italy. An invasion of France was expected, and the Germans were not eager to see their brutal control over the French removed.

In one of the weirdest attempts to convince an occupied nation that they should not welcome liberation, the German authorities commissioned an animated short designed to show the stupidity and recklessness of the liberating Allied forces.

The central character of this propaganda piece was Professor Nimbus, a popular figure in French comic strips. Professor Nimbus was a distinguished but absent-minded gent who wore a bow-tie, spectacles and a single long strand of hair that capped his bald head like a question mark. The comic strips were without dialogue and found the professor getting into unlikely slapstick situations within his home and the hostile world around him.

Professor Nimbus was the creation of Andre Daix, a French draftsman who was sympathetic to the Nazi political ideology. Daix had previously adapted his character for short films, but on this project he ceded the animation to Raymond Jeannin, who was credited in the finished film under the pseudonym of Cal. It is not clear why Daix gave the assignment to Jeannin, as Daix had a history of fighting to control the rights to his character.

The film, titled “Nimbus Libéré” (Nimbus Liberated) opens with a showgirl on a stage who points to a wall. The images of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Popeye the Sailor and Professor Nimbus are drawn on the wall – which is the only genuinely amusing aspect here, since Professor Nimbus never had the same level of international fame as the other characters. Of course, Jeannin did not have permission to incorporate Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Popeye into the film.

After that, the film switches to an evening view of the Nimbus home. There is a large moon above the home, and the sleeping face of the man in the moon awakens to wink at the camera before resuming his slumber. Inside the home, Professor Nimbus is gathered with his wife and daughter around a radio in the living room. He fiddles with the dial and gets a broadcast from across the English Channel with an announcer promising an imminent Allied movement into France. We then see who is broadcasting: an abysmal Nazi-style stereotypical depiction of a Jewish man, speaking in a coarse voice as part of the Free French broadcast “The French Speak for The French” – the suggestion being that the DeGaulle government in exile was a Jewish-controlled fraud.

And, indeed, the Allies are coming in the form of the U.S. Air Force. However, the aircraft crew consists of American cartoon characters: Felix the Cat and Goofy are gunners while the pilots are Mickey Mouse (who doesn’t recognize France on a map), Donald Duck (who is impatient to bomb France) and Popeye (who asks Mickey if the French have superior spinach). The pilots have “Made in U.S.A.” bombs in their rather spacious cockpits, while Popeye has a large can of whisky hanging from the wall. Popeye drops a series of bombs from his airplane, much to Donald’s amusement.

We then see the Jewish stereotype announcer in London promising his French audience the forthcoming liberation. In the Nimbus household, the family is ecstatic over the prospect of gaining access to food, drink and cigarettes from the Allied forces. But one of Popeye’s bombs lands squarely on their home, blowing it to rubble. In the wreckage, the radio is still broadcasting from London, as the angel of death – depicted with a skeleton’s head, black wings and a scythe in his bony hands – lands and laughs while turning off the radio. It seemed that Nimbus was liberated, but not in the manner he expected.

In terms of propaganda, “Nimbus Libéré” is a waste of film. The notion that a cartoon could convince the French that four years of Nazi rule was the best thing that could have happened to them was asinine. From a film scholarship aspect, the only remarkable thing about the film was the bootlegging of the American cartoon character. Goofy and Felix the Cat well-drawn but are given nothing to do, while the depiction of Mickey Mouse is sloppy. Donald Duck and Popeye look closer to the mark and Popeye gets to mumble some of his famous theme song, but the sailor’s grouchiness and supposed alcoholism is stupidly out of character.

The Nazi occupiers rushed “Nimbus Libéré” into release in March 1944 as part of the propaganda newsreel films that theaters were forced to screen. It is not certain how audiences reacted, but ultimately it didn’t matter. Three months after the film was first shown, the Allied forces landed on Normandy Beach, spelling the beginning of the end of Nazi rule in France.

It also spelled the end of Andre Paix’s career. Escaping arrest for being a Nazi collaborator, Paix went into exile in Portugal and Latin America. He also lost control of the rights to Professor Nimbus, which was published after the war with different artists taking over the comic strips. Raymond Jeannin, the short’s director, was arrested after the war but was released without going to trial. He never made another film and would later claim he was forced by the Germans to work against his will but would try to dilute the effectiveness of the cartoon by making the bootlegged characters funny and friendly.

“Nimbus Libéré” disappeared after the liberation of France and was forgotten until a print turned up in an unlabeled canister as part of a collection of wartime newsreels within the archives of the French National Institute for Audiovisual Communication. Claude Chabrol included the short in his 1993 documentary on French wartime collaborationists “The Eye of Vichy,” which marked the first time American viewers became aware of it.

For years, a battered 1-minute-33-second version of “Nimbus Libéré” was posted on YouTube in unauthorized uploads based on the footage from the Chabrol documentary. In 2005, Serge Bromberg’s Lobster Films restored “Nimbus Libéré” to its original 2-minute-44-second running time and copies of this version are also up on YouTube in unauthorized postings. Well, it seems that you can’t keep a crummy propaganda cartoon down.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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