On paper, the movie Confessions of a Nazi Spy looks like a classic thriller—a spy movie with a political twist, where underground Nazi agents and members of the German American Bund compromise US security. Edward G. Robinson, “the fearless leader of the G-men’s smashing counter-attack,” solves the case.
A few things, however, make this an unusual film. Based on the true story of a Nazi spy ring in the United States, Confessions of a Nazi Spy came out in 1939. It was, remarkably, the first film by a major US studio to directly address the situation in Germany and to emphatically warn Americans against a stark isolationist position.
The film drew from records of the 1938 spy trials which resulted in the conviction of four persons and from articles written by Leon G. Turrou, the former FBI agent who broke the case. Following a tip from British intelligence, the US government arrested Guenther Rumrich, an Austrian-born US citizen who was attempting to obtain blank US passports by posing as the secretary of state.
In exchange for a deal, he offered to name his co-conspirators. Against Hoover’s concern about the coordination the work of multiple agencies, the FBI got the case. It is unclear who’s exactly is at fault for the escape of 14 spies, including the ring leader Dr. Briebl: agent Turrou for telling spies they would have to come back to answer question before the grand jury, or Hoover himself for going public with the investigation before everyone was in custody.
Three Nazi spies were found guilty of espionage and the man who had exposed the ring was sentenced to a reduced prison term for his cooperation. While the FBI was heavily criticized, the agency thoroughly reformed its counterintelligence operations. It did a much better job in the 1941 Duquesne Spy Ring case, taking extensive surveillance footage of German agents in order to get the “bigger fish.” The 1945 film, The House on 92nd Street, is a fictionalized account of the Duquesne spy case.
Unlike movies made in the 1930s, which focused almost entirely on entertainment, Confessions conveys a sense of urgency and a heightened feeling of anxiety. Opening with the silhouette of a radio announcer reminiscent of Edward Murrow, the film used semi-documentary techniques, mixing segments of news and scenes from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will with great acting. The film depicts the German American Bund and its leader, an American Hitler played by Paul Lukas, as an arm of the German government. The group organizes its own version of the Hitler Youth and its goal is to destroy the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights. An unemployed German American, played by Francis Lederer, volunteers to be a spy and work for the German spy leader, played by George Sanders. Nazi propaganda is printed and distributed by a fifth column of Nazi enthusiasts across the country in an effort to incite racial and class conflict. Gestapo men move freely and make their enemies disappear. Opposed to that are the democratic and human values of America, where prisoners are not tortured and get a fair trial and where the only acceptable –ism is Americanism. The last section of the film takes place in court, where the district attorney praises these very values, but warn Americans of the looming “storm over America,” the working title of the film, if they do not act.
Why did Hollywood wait until 1938 to produce the first explicit indictment of Nazism in the United States?
Since the 1930s, major film companies (20th Century Fox, Columbia, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, United Artists, Universal Studio, and Warner Bros) refrained from making political films for two reasons: money and the Motion Picture Production Code.
Forty to 50% of profits came from foreign markets. Studios were careful not to offend any nations and risk a financial failure. Secondly, this Code, also known as the Hays doctrine, was a set of industry moral guidelines. In addition to banning profanity and nudity and ensuring that bad guys are always punished, the code also prohibited films that may compromise international relations and recommended to “avoid picturizing in an unfavorable light another country's religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry.” Germany was one of the largest markets in Europe and the new German government made it clear that it would ban any films it disagreed with.
By 1938, however, Warner Bros., the most pro-Roosevelt studio and an ardent supporter of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL), decided it was time to make a film denouncing the Nazi regime. Confessions was written, directed, and for the most part acted by members of Hollywood emigré community and politically active film professionals: Lukas and director Anatol Litvak both emigrated from Germany, while Robinson and writer John Wexley were active members of the Anti-Nazi League. The project was not without critiques, and both the production and the premiere took place under heightened security following death threats. Critics lauded the film, which did OK at the box office and was named 1939's best film by the National Board of Review. As expected, it was banned, first in Germany, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Switzerland and several Latin American countries, and later in Norway and Holland. The film was re-released in 1940 with scenes of events that had taken place since the initial release, such as the invasions of Norway and the Netherlands. Scenes from the film were also shown in War Comes to America and the last of the Why We Fight propaganda film series. Capra also used similar film techniques.
The film is direct, well-acted, and to this day still relevant. Early in the film, a scene opens with a gesticulating and finger waving speaker in front of a big Nazi flag; a scene Americans had been accustomed to see in the news by 1939. Only as the camera slowly zooms out to reveal two American flags flanking the Nazi do we realize the scene takes place in America during a meeting of the German American Bund. The sight and sound of a room full of Americans doing the Hitler salute and shouting Sieg Heil are still chilling to this day.
One very notable omission of the film: the fate of the European Jews and the word Jew itself is never mentioned. Joseph Breen, the conservative head of the Production Code Administration who did not hide his anti-Semitism, was convinced that HANL was not only full of communists but also and “financed almost entirely by Jews." He made sure that any film that advocated for Jews did not get approval. He was not alone in his anti-Semitism: in 1939, for example, 83% of Americans were opposed to the admission of European refugees according to a Roper poll. The treatment of Jews remained untouched by Hollywood for a few more years until Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.