Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)
Directed by Anatole Litvak
110 min.; U.S.A.; Black and White; Mono
This week I'm beginning my exploration of a number of films about World War II produced during that global conflict. First up is Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), an espionage drama-cum-documentary from Warner Bros. released some four months before the war began in Europe, and two-and-a-half years before the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies. Based on former F.B.I. agent Leon G. Turrou's best-selling account of an actual German epsionage case titled, Nazi Spies in America and a series of articles by Turrou and Milton Krim published in the New York Post December 5-8, 1938, Confessions of a Nazi Spy is significant for being the first openly anti-Nazi feature film released by a major Hollywood studio.
1939 is remembered among cinephiles for the large number of quality productions Hollywood released that year, The Wizard of Oz, Drums Along the Mohawk, Ninotchka, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Dark Victory, Love Affair and Gone with the Wind among them. Such escapist pictures entertained audiences and often made money, but the Warner Brothers, Harry Warner in particular, kept an eye on tense conditions in Europe, were strongly opposed to nazism and felt that the studio should also make pictures that promoted the American way of life and decried the rise of fascism even though such material might result in a ban in lucrative foreign markets where the Nazis could exert a strong influence. Resisting this prevailing industry opinion, objections raised by the Production Code Administration, protests by the German consul, and even threats by pro-Nazis, the Warners persevered and premiered Confessions 27 April 1939.1
For those interested, the TCM database has more information about the history and controversy surrounding the making of this film. I want to focus here on some of the ways director Anatole Litvak and his team use the language of cinema to spread Warner Brothers's anti-Nazi message before the war.
Unfortunately, I've been unable to locate Confessions of a Nazi Spy on videotape or DVD and I had to resort to watching a worn out collector's copy; presumably it's a taped TV broadcast (even so, my thanks to the helpful folks at SilverScreenArchive.com for making it available). The poor quality makes it more difficult to enjoy and evaluate the movie fairly. However, Underground (1941), another Warner Bros. anti-Nazi flick, has been released so perhaps Confessions will get an overdue DVD treatment with lots of extras soon. Anyhow, let's take a look...
Confessions of a Nazi Spy's mix of spy thriller and expository documentary styles is ideally fitted to its twin purposes: tell the story of the real Nazi spies convicted in the U.S. in 1938, and persuade the audience that this espionage case is part of a more insidious plot by Germany and members of the German-American Bund to spread propaganda, employ spies, place saboteurs, and train fifth columnists in an undeclared war against the United States. I wonder, do political films form a separate genre or are they lumped in with social problem films or war films? The mix of documentary, newsreel, and fiction filmmaking is more adventerous than similar attempts in the social problem movies from the 1930s that I watched for this blog, MGM's The Wet Parade (1932) or Warner Bros.'s own Black Legion (1936) for example. The style here has more in common with provocative docudrama shorts like the March of Time series. Viewed today, Confessions of a Nazi Spy looks like a cross between Citizen Kane's News on the March sequence and a late-1930s version of Law and Order.
In the opening shot Litvak establishes suspense by concealing the stentorian voiced narrator (John Conte) behind a veil of silhouette. The real spies in the 1938 case were amateur bumblers and their espionage never amounted to any real serious threat to the U.S. or its armed forces. Four of the eighteen persons indicted were arrested, tried, and sent to prison and the rest fled back to Germany. In the film version, however, the shadowed narrator implies that a far more treacherous and deadly plot was in the works, "we don't know all the facts, and we probably never will!"
Even though Confessions of a Nazi Spy features some of the earliest representations of Nazis in a Hollywood feature film we recognize certain elements that will become standard for film versions of Nazis—swastikas and flags form the backdrop, everyone is dressed in starched military-style uniforms, leather boots, belts, and pistol holsters abound, angled shots of a regimented, uniform mass standing, marching, saluting, shouting, and acting as one. Dr. Kassell (Paul Lukas), the leader of the German-American Bund, emotionally rants and raves a hateful message before the crowd, punctuating points in his speech will quick, sharp gestures. No doubt these constructions are motivated by newsreels and films like Triumph of the Will (1935). In the frame seen here, Litvak puts these elements together to imply danger. He contrasts a lone member of the American Legion against the Nazi crowd at a meeting of the German-American Bund. When the Legionnaire stands up to defend the Bill of Rights during Kassell's speech the Bundists attack en masse.
Throughout the film, Litvak and film editor Owen Marks insert montage sequences that combine newsreel images of real world events, such as the Anschluss and the Nazi coup in Czechoslovakia ("a democratic republic modeled on the Constitution of the United States"), with staged images of children reading Nazi propganda shown to have originated from Germany by an animated map and uniformed actors goosestepping over the globe. All the while VOG narration persuades the viewer that similar dangers lie ahead for the U.S.
After establishing that the spy case, the activities of the German-American Bund, and Germany's expansion in Europe presage Nazi aggression against the United States, the director draws a direct connection between Bund activities in the U.S. and the government in Germany. In this frame an unnamed but very Goebbels-like character (Martin Kosleck) sits in a cavernous office in Berlin, dominated by a giant picture of Hitler that implies the true source of power (predicting a famous shot in Citizen Kane), and gives Dr. Kassell his orders.
Edward G. Robinson receives star billing in the film playing Ed Renard, a clear-headed F.B.I agent who dupes the unbalanced spies into confessing. Unfortunately, the popular actor is left out of the first half of the picture because so much screen time is devoted to the documentary-style material. However, once he does arrive Litvak and Robinson focus on the character's calm demeanor and use of logic to illustrate the difference between the American agent and the wildly irrational Nazis. Robinson has the best line in the movie too. Ruminating over the alleged plan to train stormtroopers within the U.S., sabotage munitions factories, spy on the military, and spread propaganda to weaken the will to resist, Robinson submits that these actions are tantamount to a declaration of war. "It's a new kind of war," he says. "But it's still war."
As a call for vigilance and preparedness the film takes a clear stand in the decade-long public debate between interventionists and isolationists. However, one obvious shortcoming of the film is that it doesn't satisfactorily address causation, particulalry anti-Semitism, for the Nazis. Moreover, though Dr. Kassell vaugely complains about the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and "racial tolerance" in the U.S. it's never clear why the Bundists feel that German-Americans are treated as an ethnic minority in the U.S., are threatened by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (which their leader vows to destroy), or are otherwise unsatisfied with the present system. The best explanation that screenwriters John Wexley and Milton Krim offer is Renard's final judgement that the Bundists are "totally insane." The film claims that thousands of "half-witted, hysterical crackpots" in America are being duped by Hitler's propaganda to train as stormtroopers and fifth columnists to sabotage America from within. In reality national Bund membership represented a miniscule minority estimated at less than 8,500 members of some 30 million German-Americans. Despite one brief scene at the very end of the film in which some blue collar workers boast that Nazism won't take in America because "this ain't Europe," Confessions underestimates American resistance to foreign ideology and the people's flexibility in times of crisis. And, as noted above, the picture overestimates the threat posed by the convicted spies.3
Despite provocative subject matter and plenty of press Confessions of a Nazi Spy was only a mild success at the box office (I wonder if the excellence of the aforementioned escapist competition contributed to that?). Critics favored it more than the public, and the National Board of Review named it the best film released in 1939 on the basis of "artistic merit and importance." Although the film was banned in a number of countries where the Nazis could exert influence it made almost as much abroad as it did at home.3
|B-picture Beasts of Berlin establishes its interventionist message in the title scroll over the opening sequence.|
Confessions of a Nazi Spy may be the premiere example of pre-war propaganda by a major Hollywood studio, but in November 1939 Independent Producers Distributing Company released a far more inflammatory B-picture, Beasts of Berlin (1939). Based on the novel Goose Step by Shepard Traube, and starring a young Alan Ladd, the interventionist, anti-Nazi film concerns a group of men and women in the German underground printing anti-Nazi pamphlets and infiltrating the regime itself. The men are caught and sent to a concentration camp where they are face being tortured and worked to death.
Sensational promotional materials capitalizing on fears about the Nazis helped to make Beasts of Berlin a money-maker for Producers Distributing Co. By the release of the film the war in Europe had already begun; Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, and Britain and France declared war soon after. The Nazis forced American films out of markets under their control by the end of the following year so questions over anti-Nazi and American preparedness films threatening foreign markets became moot. Following the path blazed by Warners and Confessions of a Nazi Spy other studios began to release anti-Nazi films. Some of the earliest include MGM's The Mortal Storm (1940) and Escape (1940), the United Artist's release Pastor Hall (1940), Twentieth Century-Fox's Four Sons and The Man I Married (1940), and my favorite, Charles Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940). Next week I'll post about another film that beat all of these pictures to the screen.
1. For more information about Warner Brothers anti-fascist pictures see Michael E. Birdwell, Celluloid Soldiers: Warner Bros.'s Campaign Against Nazism (New York: New York UP, 1999).
2. Some historians have argued that the German-American Bund did more harm than good for American-German relations and never posed any real threat to American Institutions. Ultimately, the Bund's leader, Fritz Kuhn, was jailed for embezzlement later in 1939; his successor fled to Mexico; a third Bund leader committed suicide in 1941. By then the United States was at war with Germany and the Bund voted to disband. See Leland V. Bell, "The Failure of Nazism in America: The German American Bund, 1936-1941," Political Science Quarterly 85.4 (December 1970) 585-599; Joachim Remak, "Friends of the New Germany,: The Bund and German American Relations," The Journal of the Modern Historian 29.1 (March 1957): 38-41.
3. "Nazi Spy Picture Best of the Year," New York Times, (25 December 1939) 28. The film cost $681,000 and earned $797,000 at home, $734,000 abroad, see "Warner Bros Film Grosses 1921-51: the William Schaefer Ledger," Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 15.1 (March 1995): 55-73.