Sunday, August 21, 2011

Stubs - Confessions of a Nazi Spy

CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (1939) Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Francis Lederer, George Sanders, Paul Lukas, Henry O’Neill. Directed by Anatole Litvak. Screenplay by Milton Krims and John Wexley, based on articles by Leon G. Turrou. Music Composed by Max Steiner (uncredited). Produced by Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner, Robert Lord. Run Time 89 minutes, Black and White. U.S. Espionage, Docudrama

Best known today as the first film from a major Hollywood studio that took a stand against Nazi Germany, CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY won the National Board of Review award for Best Film in 1939. Incidentally, that is the same year as GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, STAGECOACH and every other film that contributed to what many think was the best year ever for Hollywood films. However, unlike the other films listed, CONFESSIONS does not quite stand up to the test of time.

That is not to say that CONFESSIONS is a bad movie. Telling the true story of how Nazi Germany used German Americans to spy against the U.S. for the fatherland. Preaching the evils of democracy to the German way of life, Dr. Karl Kassel (Paul Lukas) leads a German-American Bund as a front for espionage. With German Americans loyal to the cause in prominent positions at shipyards, airplane manufacturing, and munitions plants, and with the support of Nazi Germany, a pre-world war II America was fairly easy pickings.

Using German nationals who travel regularly between the U.S. and Germany aboard the S.S. Bismarck, the Nazi’s send propaganda and take back military secrets. Helping the Nazi cause is Franz Schlager (George Sanders), the political officer aboard the Bismarck and the go-between with such agents as Kart Schneider (Francis Lederer), an unemployed malcontent using the code name Sword.

But when an interested postal worker in Scotland turns British intelligence on to the distribution center in their own backyard, the Nazi spy web starts to unravel in the U.S. and the F.B.I. gets involved. It is at this point, forty-five minutes into the film that the “star” of the movie finally appears. Edward Renard (Edward G. Robinson) leads the F.B.I. investigation into finding Sword.

Sword gets caught when pretending to be a U.S. government official, he tries to obtain the blank passports Schlager has requested. Despite his efforts to use Western Union and go-betweens, Schneider is apprehended by F.B.I. agents as soon as he takes possession. His capture and interrogation by Renard leads to the arrest of others involved in the ring: Hilda Kleinhauer (Dorothy Tree), Schlager’s lover and co-conspirator who works on board the Bismarck as a beautician. And from Kleinhauer, they link back to Schlager (who avoids arrest) and to Kassel himself.

While some of the accomplices, including Dr. Kassel, are spirited back to Germany by the S.S. four of the members of the
ring, Schneider and, Kleinhauer amongst them, are taken before a Grand Jury, tried, convicted and sentenced for espionage. Those taken back to Germany receive even harsher punishment for their failures.

Edward G. Robinson, the star of this film is one of those Hollywood actors that it is hard to think of a bad movie they were in. While agreeably, not all of them are classics, he made so many great ones that the others never come to mind. Robinson’s talent as an actor is underused in this film. However, credit should be given to Robinson for making the film in the first place. Other actors, including Marlene Dietrich, turned down the film for fear of reprisals against family back in German controlled Europe.

There were other Hollywood films that would satirize Hitler and Nazi Germany before the U.S. got involved in World War II, most notably, THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) made by Charlie Chaplin and the Three Stooges’ short YOU NATZY SPY! (1940). However, CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY was the first to show the Nazi’s as a threat to the U.S. and the American way of life. For that alone, this films is to be commended.

While this film may not stand the test of time the way other films from 1939 have, this is a testament to the time it was made. When the studios, as the trailer proclaimed, had a duty to make films that shone a light on what was going on in the world.

Confessions of a Nazi Spy is available at the Warner Archive Collection:

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