Confessions of a Nazi Spy
WARNER BROTHERS (1939) | DIRECTED BY ANATOLE LITVAK | WRITTEN BY MILTON KRIMS & JOHN WEXLEY
Confessions of a Nazi Spy was the first major film to be unabashedly anti-Nazi. Released in 1939, it was the first film to tackle the growing crisis in Europe and how it could affect Americans at home. The movie was based on a series of articles by Leon G. Turrou, an FBI agent responsible for cracking a real spy ring in the United States in 1938. He was fired from the agency after those articles were published. Warner Brother’s quickly optioned the rights to the articles and started production once the trial was completed in the fall.
The rise of fascism had posed a problem for Hollywood. The big reason: money. All the majors, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, MGM and RKO Pictures made millions of dollars from overseas box offices. Studios were reluctant to take on films with an international flavor that could hurt revenue. The domestic front also poised challenges for studios. With a home-front that was largely anti-interventionist and isolationist studios were reluctant to make films that could be subject to censorship. There was also the Production Code Administration which asked studios to avoid highly political movies that could be morally objectionable to audiences.
Warner Brothers was determined to make a film about a potential fifth column threat to the nation’s security. The studio had good reason to dig their heels when making Confessions. In 1936, the studio’s German sales representative was beaten to death by Nazi thugs in an alley. Harry and Jack Warner were the sons of Jewish immigrants and were all too aware of what was happening in Europe.
The studio had problems from the start. The head of Paramount wrote to the PCA to complain about the movie, fearing it could spark retribution against other studios. The German Consul also demanded the film be scuttled by the PCA. The German-American Bund, the evil portrayed in the film, threatened to sue the studio. The code administration refused, albeit reluctantly to intervene. The PCA allowed the film to move forward after some back and forth over the script.
In addition to the brutal murder of its employee in Germany, most of men involved in the film were either highly political, European refugees or were of Jewish ancestry. They saw Confessions of a Nazi Spy as an educational tool that if Americans refused to see the threat of Nazism, they could see the threat of the German-American Bund.
Threats came in to the studio and to anyone involved with the film. Confessions was risky to those involved. They knew their careers could be ruined by making the film. There was also risk to those who still had families in Nazi-held territories. The studio altered the names of some of those involved in the credits to protect their families from retaliation in their former home countries. Because of this, production of the film was carried out in secrecy. Script pages were held back from the cast and crew until it was necessary to deliver them for the day’s filming.
The film opened to mixed reviews in May 1939. Critics pointed to the film’s subject matter as being timely—it was a year after the Anschluss and weeks after German troops marched into Czechoslovakia. The public’s reception resulted in protests outside theaters around the country. Germany’s propaganda ministry wasted no time in pointing the finger back at Americans, citing America was more sympathetic to Nazi ideology than it wants to believe.
The failure of Confessions of a Nazi Spy prompted the PCA to issue a ban on anti-Nazi films for several months. By the summer of 1940, the studios realized the threat that they avoided so long could no longer be ignored. The Fall of France pushed studios out of Nazi-held territories. By the end of the year, all of the major studios had left Europe. By this time, they were beginning their own take on the current events.
Warner Brothers started a movement it would carry through the rest of the war. One of its biggest films which would drive home the point of being aware of America’s role in the world and an individuals impact would become strikingly clear in Sergeant York.
An analysis for this film will be posted in the coming weeks.