Movie Review: Confessions of a NAZI Spy (U.S., 1939)


Figure 1.--'Confessions of a Nazi Spy' was Hollywood's first anti-NAZI film. It was courageoudly produced by Warmner Brothers. It was a spy thriller about the breaking up of the first NAZI spy ring in Amnerica. But it also was about how the NAZIs tried to promote their ideology among German Americans. The Unitrd States had the largest German community outside the Reich, bur was one of the few countries where ethnic Germans rejected Hitler and the NAZIs. Surprisingly for Hollywood, it is a fairly accurate depiction.

The Warner Brothers film, "Confessions of a Nazi Spy", is a spy thriller. It is notable as the the first overtly anti-Nazi film produced by an important Hollywood studio. It was feleased before the NAZIs launched World War II in Europe. It is somewhat surprising looking back that movie studios in the Western democracies were so reluctant to take on the NAZIs. (American studios were somewhat more willing to take on the Japanese.) This reluctance in America was primarily the fear of losing the income from the European releases. Hollywood films made quite a bit of money from German and other European relases. The British reluctance was more a reflection of the Government's apeasement policy. The film stared Edward G. Robinson, Francis Lederer, George Sanders, and several German refuge actors. Notice that the film was set in America. A film set in Europe was seen as to provactive. The film had some factual basis. The plot was drawn from aticles written by former FBI agent Leon G. Turrou. He had been involved in investigating NAZI spy rings in the United States. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover fired him when he published articles without permission. Jack Warner was warned that the film would lead to the loss of markets in German and German-influenced countrie. Even so, he went ahead with the project. The film, however, proved to be a major worldwide box office hit. It received the 1939 National Board of Review award for Best Film. The film was as expected banned in Germany, Japan, and many Latin American countries. After America entered the War, scenes from "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" were spliced into "War Comes to America". This was the last of the "Why We Fight" film series. This was a series made to explain to American servicemen why America was fighting. The use of the scenes, testified to the impact of "Confessions".

Filmology

The Warner Brothers film, "Confessions of a Nazi Spy", is a spy thriller. It is notable as the the first overtly anti-Nazi film produced by an important Hollywood studio. It was feleased before the NAZIs launched World War II in Europe. It received the 1939 National Board of Review award for Best Film.

Hollywood and the NAZIs

Movie studios and the U.S. Government agencies were involved in propaganda during World War II. The studios were involved before America entered the War. The Government mostly after America entered the War. Quite a few Hollywood films addressed World War II. The most interesting period was before America entered the War after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (December 1941). Before that there were no Government censorship or directives on content. Hollywood avoided attacking the NAZIs for a long time. Hitler took over in 1933, but the first anti-NAZI film did not appear until 1939. Hollywood was concerned about losing the profitable German market. While Hollywood avoided attacking the NAZIs, interesting during the 1930s there were no films made which endorsed the strong isolationist sentiment that was widely held by Americans. The first American anti-NAZI film was "Confessions of a Nazi Spy". NAZI Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels was furious and threatened repercussions.

Warner Brothers

Harry and Jack Warner were the sons of a cobbler who fled Tsaeist pogroms in Poland. He emigrated to the United States (1883). The family settled in Baltimore, Maryland. Harry and Jack were the oldest and youngest of four brothers. Their father promoted the idea that had the responsibility of helping Jews both in America and back home in Poland. At Warner Brothers, Jack oversaw production at the Burbank studio. Harry was responsible for the studio's vital distribution networks, including overseas distribution. As a result, he saw first hand what was happening in Germany after the NAZIs seized power. Goebbels oversaw a boycott of Jewish business (April 1933). As Propaganda Minister. Goebbels was able to control the German film studios as well as the distribution of all moview in Germany. One of the first steps he took was to limit, but did not end distribution of foreign films, and Hollywood was the most important foreign distributor in Germany (June 1933). Warner Brothers was the first Hollywood studio to close its German offices (July 1934). Paramount, Fox, and MGM continued operating in Germany until the War began (1939). The NAZIs steadily expnded the persecution of German Jews, especially after issuing the Nuremberg Laws which deprived them of their citzenship (1935). The NAZI campaign finally culminated in Kristallnacht (1938). NAZI mobs sacked Jewish shops and burned down synagogues. Open killing occurred for yjhe first time. At the same time, a NAZI spoy ring was tried in a New York court. The Warners decided to produce a film on the German spy ring, a courageous decesion at the time. The studio sent writer Milton Krims to New York to cover the trial. The result was "Confessions of a NAZI Spy" (1939). Jack Warner was warned that the film would lead to the loss of markets in German and German-influenced countrie. Even so, he went ahead with the project. The film, however, proved to be a major worldwide box office hit. Harry and Jack Warner were the first studio owners to present Fascism as a threat to America. Their first anti-Fascist films avoided mention of the NAZIs and Germany: "Black Legion" (1937) and "Juarez" (1939). Finally with "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" (1939), Warner Brothers took on the NAZIs directly. Other films before America entered the War included: "Espionage Agent" (1939), "British Intelligence" (1940), "Sea Hawk" (1940), "Underground" (1941) and "Sea Wolf" (1941).

Cast

The film stared Edward G. Robinson, Francis Lederer, George Sanders, Ward Bond, and several German refuge actors. Robinson in real life was a fervent anti-NAZI. George Sanders plays ardent NAZI George Sanders. Franz Schlager Several children asppeared in the film. One of the spies has a toddler. And shoe shine boys are depicted when he is arrested. Most of the children appear wearing Hitler Youth uniforms at a Friends of the New Germany encampment. None of the children have credited roles. And some of the actors wanted therir names obsured for fear of NAZI retribution.

Plot

"Confessions" was the first of the anti-NAZI film turned out by Hollywood. And surprisingly for Hollywood, it was fairly accurate. One of the main characters is Dr. Karl Kassel (Paul Lukas) the president of the Friends of the New Germany. He represents the real life Dr. Ignatz Griebel. "Confessions" is a spy thriller, but a good bit of the film deals with the Friends of the New Germany and the effort to convert German-Americans to NAZIism. Dr. Kassel works to build support for the NAZIs within the German-American community. He is shown speaking at rallies. He vinsists that Hitler has declared war on the evils of democracy and that as Germans, they should fasithfully follow his instructions. Another main character is Kurt Schneider (Francis Lederer) an unemployed German-American malcontent is strongly attracted to the NAZI ideology. He is a would-be spy who thinks he is extremely clever. The spy ring bincludes German-Americans in the military and defense industry. The ring is uncovered because of Schneider carelessness. The British also uncover an Abwehr mail drop in Scotland. The lead role is FBI agent Ed Renard (Edward G. Robinson). Renard oversees the case. He captures Schneider and skillfully extracts a confession. And through Schneider, Renard is led to Hilda Kleinhauer (Dorothy Tree) who is a hairdresser on a German oceanliner and the girl friend of an fervent NAZI. The investigation leads to Kassel's mistress Erika Wolff (Lya Lys), and eventually to Kassel himself. Kassel spews his guts to the FBI leading to mahny arrests. The FBI manage to capture many members of the ring and their accomplices, several, including Kassel escape. The movie presents him as being adducted and spirited back to Germany. He may have escaped on his own. There is a scene in which Ward Bond as an American Legionnaire (veterans organization) stands yp the Friends of the New Germany. It is based on an actual event when a grouo of aboutb 30 World War I American Legion Veterans stood up to the Friends in New York City during a celebration of Hitler's Birthday celebration (April 1938). The veterans were severely beaten by the Friends. Such incidents were common in Germany, but shiocked modst Americans. Cecil Schubert, who suffered a fractured skull, was personnally recognized by Mayor La Guardia for his bravery.

Friends of the New Germany

The NAZI Party covertly approved of the unification of like-minded German political grouos in to the Friends of the New Germany (FDNA). The FDNA was founded after the NAZI seizure of power in Germany (1933). The principal leader was Spocknobel. The FDNA was organized like the NAZI Party. A quasi-military group was recruited and called the OS, based on the German SS. There was also a youth division. While "Confessions" was a spy thriller, large segments of the film was about the Friends of the New Germany. This was an actual NAZI group in America designed to convert German-Americans to NAZIism. America had the largest German ethnic population outside the Reich. Almost all German comunities proved suspectable to NAZI propaganda. America prioved to be a rare exception. The Friends attempted to penrtrated German-American cultural organizartions. They held rallies in cities with German ethnic populations. And they organized encampents out in the country where both young people ahnd adults dressed up in NAZI unifortms and oparaded about with American and German NAZI flags fluttering. Boys and girls in "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" are depicted marching around and saluting in Hitler Youth uniforms. It was controversial because at the time, the primary concern of most Americans was keeping out of the developing war in Europe. And as World war II had not yet begun, the damage that could be dine by Fifth Colunnists was not yet appreciated. German-American Bund leader Fritz J. Kuhn tried to block the release of the film by filing a $5 million libel suit against Warner Brothers and requested a temporary injunction against the film's exhibitors.

Setting

Notice that for their first anti-NAZI film, Warner Brothers chose a film that was set in America. Much of it was set in New York. NAZI agents were able to enter the UJnited states aboard German ocean liners entering New York harbor. A film set in Europe was seen as too provactive because the felling that America should stay out of any future war was very intense. Most Americans wanted to ignore Germany and had no interest in provoking the NAZIs. NAZI spy and propaganda activities in America, however, was a very differenht matter. NAZIs here in America were universally condemned, even by many of those who strongly opposed American involvement in Europe. This was seen as fair game for criticism, especially after the sensation details of the NAZI spy ring was revealed in the press duruing 1938. Many Americans were already disturbed by the images of Hitker and the NAZIs thgey saw in the newsrwwls, the idea of NAZIs in America was especually unsettling. The film was still controversial, but the isolationists who found it proviocative could not argue with the fascts.

Costuming

Quite a number of children are depicted in the film. The costuming seems reasonably accurate. One of the conspirators had a todler son. He is dressed in what looks like a sweter and long pants. This was common duringvbthe winter. The one obvious mistake is the outlandish caps the shoeshine boys wear. Also probanly some of the boys would have worn knickers at the time. Knickers were declining in popularity, but there was usually some boys wearing knickers in any group of boys during the 1930s. One short clip shows a boy wearing a short pants suit finding NAZI propaganda in his lunch box. By the 1930s, boys did not go to school dressed in suits, let alone a short pants suit. A few private schools had short pants uniforms, but this is not for the most part how American boys dressed for public primary schools. The girl he is with wears Shirtley Temple ringlrt curls. That was popylar at thge time. She wears a blouse ior dress with a Peter Pan collar. There are also children at the NAZI rally who are not in uniform. They wear clothing thast seems reaonably period correct.

Accuracy

The film had condidedrable factual basis. There had been a Congressional investigation of the Friends of the New Germany. The plot was drawn from work by writer Milton Krims who Warner Brothers sent to New York to cover the trial of the NAZI spy ring. There were also aticles written by former FBI agent Leon G. Turrou. He had been involved in investigating the NAZI spy ring in the United States. Thus there was more than enough fasctual minformation available. Nothing had to be made up by screen writers. They only needed a plot to tie the available information together to make a film. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover subsequently fired Turrou him when he published articles without permission. Hoover didn't like FBI agents who took headlines away from him.

American Reaction

The American response to 'Confesions of a Nazi Spy' were overwealmingly positive. There was both critical mprise and box office success. Movie critic Welford Beaton wrote, "The evening of April 27, 1939, will go down in screen history as a memorable one. It marked the first time in the annals of screen entertainment that a picture ever really said something definite about current events, really took sides and argued for the side with which it sympathized. Therewere those thst were crityical. This primarily came from a small number of Germnan-Americans enamored with the NAZIs. A group in Milwaukee burned down a Warner Brothers theater. There were pickets in some theaters and seats were sklashed. Some theater owners received threats.

German Reaction

The film was as expected banned in Germany, Japan, and many Latin American countries with German sympathies. Propaganda Minister Goebbels, a film buff, was outraged with the film. His outrange was because no Hollywood studio until this had dared attack the NAZIs in their films, in part because of the lucrative German film market. Goebbels issued an official warning to Hollywood studios and actors that the Reich would ban all future films that used cast or crew members employed in the film. Some actors attempted to disguise their identity in the credits. Goebbels also ordered the German film industry to produce a series of "documentary" films highlighting American unemployment, gangsterism, and judicial corruption in retaliation. The Germans after occupying Warsaw (September 1939), hanged theater owners who had shown the film.

War Comes to America

After America entered the War, scenes from "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" were spliced into "War Comes to America". This was the last of the "Why We Fight" film series. This was a series made to explain to American servicemen why America was fighting. The use of the scenes, testified to the impact of "Confessions".






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Created: 8:51 AM 12/6/2010
Last updated: 6:36 AM 12/8/2010