Whatever its merits as entertainment, 1939's Confessions of a Nazi Spy is a social and historical landmark, the first time a major Hollywood studio pulled out all the stops in attacking the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism.
The film begins at a rally of an American/German friendship organization. The speaker (Paul Lukas) is haranguing an audience of men in Nazi uniforms: "Those who fight us must perish socially as well as economically because of our determination to destroy our enemies completely and without any consideration...Germans must save America from the chaos that breeds in democracy and racial equality. We Germans must make the United States our America!"
The scene is shocking...in large part because most Americans have forgotten that throughout the 1930s, groups like the German American Bund sought to build support in this country for the German state while encouraging American isolationism. The Bund regularly drew 20,000 Seig Heil-ing supporters to swastika-draped Madison Square Garden. On at least one occasion this spawned rioting in Midtown Manhattan as Nazi supporters, their leftist opponents, and police clashed.
While their newsreel subsidiaries covered the rise of Nazism, in their feature films the Hollywood studios made a point of ignoring what was happening in Europe. Germany was a big consumer of American movies, and the suits didn't want to alienate such a lucrative market.
In fact, among American studios, only Warner Brothers had the will and the guts to take on Hitler. Jack Warner and his brothers were the sons of a Polish Jew who fled the pogroms and came to American in the 1880s, and they looked upon Hitler and his minions with alarm and dismay. Refusing to work with the Nazis, they closed the studio's Berlin office in 1934. The other studios – MGM, Fox, Paramount – would not do so until war broke out in 1939.
When in 1939 former FBI agent Leon Turrou published a best-seller about how he infiltrated and broke up a Nazi spy ring in the U.S., Jack Warner found a story that could express his own feelings of alarm, outrage, and defiance. He snapped up the film rights and put director Anatole Litvak – himself a Jew from Kiev and a devoted anti-fascist – to work bringing it to the screen.
The first obstacle was getting the screenplay approved by the Production Code Administration, the industry's de facto censors. PCA head Joseph Breen was a vocal anti-Semite and worked to shut down production of films that attacked or mocked foreign governments. In fact, the German Consul General in L.A. called on Breen to reject the screenplay, threatening to ban from German cinemas any film featuring an actor who appeared in Confessions of a Nazi Spy.
Breen undoubtedly would have liked to have prevented the film from being made. But the screenplay – based on real and widely-publicized events – didn't violate any of the Production Code's rules. Breen had no official grounds on which to object.
Though Warners tried to keep a publicity lid on the project, word soon leaked. The heads of the other studios warned that the film was jeopardizing the entire industry. What if Hitler in retaliation imposed a ban on all American films?
Jack Warner was defiant. "The Silver Shirts and the Bundists and all the rest of these hoods are marching in Los Angeles right now," he fumed. "There are high school kids with swastikas on their sleeve a few crummy blocks from our studio. Is that what you want in exchange for some crummy film royalties out of Germany?"
Nevertheless, extra security officers were assigned to guard the Confessions... set, which was closed to outsiders. The names of cast and crew members were kept secret until just before the film's release.
Confessions of a Nazi Spy is what we today call a "docu-drama." Though it featured well-known actors like Lukas, George Sanders, Sig Ruman, and Edward G. Robinson (as the FBI agent who brings down the conspiracy), it was produced with torn-from-the-headlines realism. It even had a Walter Winchell-like narrator.
It pulled few punches. Robinson's FBI agent describes American Nazis as "Half-witted, hysterical crackpots who go Hitler-happy from overindulgence in propaganda that makes them believe that they're supermen."
The Nazis, of course, banned the film in all the territories they controlled. In the weeks leading up to the German invasion of Poland in August 1939, Confessions... was banned in not only Germany but in Japan, Italy, Norway, Holland, and Sweden.
And when the film got bookings, there were repercussions. In Milwaukee, a pro-Nazi mob burned down the Warner Brothers theater showing the picture.
Things were even worse in Poland, where anti-Semitic crowds lynched the managers of several theaters showing the movie.
The controversy generated by Confessions... lingered. Two years after its release – and just weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would propel a reluctant America into war – Jack Warner was called to testify before a Senate committee investigating "war mongering" propaganda in feature films.
Warner's defense was that the film was essentially truthful, and that though a work of fiction it "correctly portrayed the operation of a Nazi spy ring in this country, as this operation was disclosed at a federal trial which convicted the conspirators."
Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Crime Stories”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- July 5: Another Thin Man (1939) Not Rated
- July 12: Each Dawn I Die (1939) Not Rated
- July 19: Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) Not Rated
- July 26: The Roaring Twenties (1939) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com.