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1939 was indeed a blue-ribbon year for American movies, and not just in terms of blockbuster hits. Warner Bros., the most socially assertive of the studios, produced and released Confessions of a Nazi Spy, the very first Hollywood picture to acknowledge Nazi Germany as an aggressor nation and a threat to world peace. Previous attempts by Warners to dramatize provocative issues had been met with fierce censor objections -- the church- oriented Production Code office felt entitled to go beyond policing movie morals, and routinely stripped movies of their political content. Black Fury, a picture about management terror against union activists, had to be softened to exonerate the coal industry. Fury, an indictment of lynching, was forced to cut scenes acknowledging the reality of racially motivated lynching murders. The President Vanishes, an exposé of arms merchants, was altered to drop scenes with a communist angle.
Each of these pictures was about a pressing issue of the day and was based on nationally reported news incidents. In 1939 Warners stepped up to the plate to make a movie based on true Nazi espionage trials. It was a brave stance to take, far more courageous anything faced by American filmmakers today. Pro- German congressmen promoted isolation from foreign wars. American chemical, oil and arms companies did not want their profitable contracts with Nazi Germany to be interrupted. And conservative elements preached that anyone against Germany was really in favor of Communism. Add to all that the film industry's unwillingness to give up profits from German screens, and it's no wonder that Hollywood avoided political subject matter.
Warners didn't go into Confessions of a Nazi Spy by half measures. Milton Krims and John Wexley's brisk screenplay concocts the basic formula for the dozens of anti-Nazi films that would follow in the next six years. The Nazis are power-mad zealots, intellectual frauds or beer & schnitzel dupes. They out-strut one another with vicious pro-Nazi speeches, but most collapse in defeat when caught and confronted with honest American reasoning. Confessions has a terrific cast of German-Americans and German refugees, all speaking English with stage accents modulated to create various grades of sinister: haughty, contemptuous, condescending, craven, deluded. Frankly, Americans loved to hiss at these black hearted villains.
Disaffected German-American slacker Kurt Schneider (Francis Lederer of Pandora's Box) is an egomaniac who sends a letter straight to a Berlin newspaper volunteering to spy on his adopted country. He's cruelly exploited by Nazi spymaster Franz Schlager (George Sanders) but manages to obtain secret radio codes and troop numbers by hoodwinking his dim-witted Army buddy Werner (Joe Sawyer). Meanwhile, ambitious Dr. Kassel (Paul Lukas) becomes a star speaker at the German American Bund meetings and angles to become the top propaganda minister for a new "Germanized" America. Kassel also cheats on his wife with beautiful Fraulein Erika Wolff (the notorious Lya Lys of Luis Buñuel's L'Age d'Or). The German passenger steamship Bismarck brings new Nazi agents and Gestapo enforcers to New York, including courier Hilda Kleinhauer (Dorothy Tree), a fervent Nazi. It also ferries back to Germany various Bund members (even American citizens) who know too much or who express doubts about the wisdom of Der Führer. Himmel! Extraordinary rendition!
Realizing that its secrets are being compromised, the U.S. Army calls in the F.B.I.. When Brit agents capture a Scotswoman (Ely Malyon) being used as a mail drop between New York and Berlin, government agent Ed Renard (Edward G. Robinson) sees his chance to dismantle the spy organization. He captures Kurt Schneider and soon unravels the threads leading to Dr. Kassel. But this is only the beginning, as the top Nazi spies remain at large and thousands of Nazi agents, conspirators and saboteurs are being planted in every American city.
Confessions of a Nazi Spy really sounds the alarm bell. In no uncertain terms it proclaims that Germany is in a propaganda and espionage war with the United States, over two years before a shooting war would become a reality. Although Americans could sense that war was coming, they weren't exactly sure who it would be fought against, as opinion was divided over whether Germany or the Soviet Union was our real enemy. With the country in a stalemate over Europe, events in the Far East seemed largely disconnected to our affairs. The film stresses that America is in desperate need of a counterspy network of its own -- the Nazis laugh out loud about our ill-preparedness.
It must be stressed that the makers of these movies were taking real risks. Big stars wouldn't appear in them for fear of reprisals against their relatives still in Germany, and several cast members in Confessions used false names for the same reason: Wilhelm von Brinken = William Vaughn; Rudolph Anders = Robert Davis; Wolfgang Zilzer = John Voight; Hedwiga Reicher = Celia Sibelius. These patriotic American actors were sometimes bothered on the street by citizens who associated them with their film roles. Try asking one of today's actors if he'll take a part for scale, knowing that he'll be placed on the Death List of some nefarious foreign power.
General audiences in 1939 were surely impressed by the legal details, as shown when Renard must coax agent Kleinhauer off a German ship and onto U.S. soil before making an arrest. The supposedly invincible Nazis crumble quickly as soon as the F.B.I. starts talking to them -- we almost expect Warners to superimpose titles over these fools, reading "Dumb Kraut #1" and so forth. Nobody asks for a lawyer or stonewalls; if only real Nazis were so easy to take down. The film's biggest laugh comes when the inept Kurt Schneider simply calls up a passport office, pretends to be the Secretary of State, and demands in a thick accent that a bundle of blank passports be delivered to him in half an hour. He then has Western Union move the package all over town before trying to pick it up; the charge is less than $2. Try that trick with UPS or FedEx sometime!
Anatole Litvak delivers a fast-paced and exciting spy story punctuated by two or three impassioned Edward G. Robinson speeches (now there's a courageous actor). Robinson reportedly leaped at the opportunity to direct his tough-guy rhetoric at the thugs in Berlin, while Paul Lukas is at his most animated delivering fiery Nazi slogans. He even imitates some of Hitler's dynamic gestures. Francis Lederer is excellent as the unemployed nincompoop who grouses when he's paid only $50 for two important pieces of information; he gets caught trying to snatch those blank passports at only $5 a pop. This spy work just doesn't pay.
Among the (really good) "Nazi" talent are Sig Ruman ("Konzentrayshun Kamp Erhardt" from To Be or Not To Be), Hans Von Twardowski (clean-cut here, he'd be dressed up in lipstick to play a Nazi pervert for Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die!) and Martin Kosleck (The Flesh Eaters). Kosleck made a career playing Dr. Goebbels the same way Raymond Massey "became" Abraham Lincoln. John Hamilton (of TV's Superman) is a government official; Ward Bond is completely in character playing an American Legionnaire who objects at a Bund meeting. Bond would later become an unofficial gatekeeper of the Hollywood blacklist, destroying the careers of people associated with "premature Anti-Fascist" movies like this one. One of the blacklist victims was Confessions scribe John Wexley (Angels with Dirty Faces, City for Conquest) whose film career stopped abruptly in 1947, never to be re-started.
Pre- Pearl Harbor Hollywood was still in no rush to make many anti-Nazi pictures; the town seemed uncomfortable with political controversy, due to the broad newspaper backlash against purported Communist influences behind even home-grown social problem pictures like The Grapes of Wrath. Even after the invasion of Poland, six months after the release of Confessions of a Nazi Spy, isolationists in congress successfully curbed pro-interventionist films and reportedly delayed the wide release of Sergeant York for being too pro-war.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Confessions of a Nazi Spy is a very good transfer of what must be a fairly recent restoration. Occasional scratches & blips and a single film tear are in evidence but the show is sharp, stable and has excellent contrast. Neither cameraman Ernest Haller nor composer Max Steiner are credited, leading us to wonder if they were concerned about relatives back home as well.
Confessions has excellent montages by Don Siegel, who would later become a celebrated director. Siegel uses clever animation and optical effects to fly headlines across the screen and perform strange matte transitions. One of the evil Nazi propaganda flyers shown full screen accuses President Roosevelt of being a Communist -- which immediately brings up, shall we say, topical contemporary parallels. In fact, a lot of the uber-Americanism speeches in this year's ..... back off, Savant.
The last montage has clearly been amended, most likely to bring Confessions of a Nazi Spy up to date for a post- Pearl Harbor reissue. During the final courtroom scenes, the D.A. rattles off a number of wartime events that ocurred after the film's Spring 1939 release. We can see the splice points go by and hear a slight shift in audio quality. The film's copyright date remains unchanged.
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