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Considered the first anti-Nazi film produced by a major studio, Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) follows Edward G. Robinson in the role of FBI agent Ed Renard as he investigates a Nazi espionage ring headed up by dedicated National Socialist, Dr. Kassell, played by Paul Lukas in a part he patterned after Hitler himself. From the first clues in Scotland that the Nazis have infiltrated the US, to the suspenseful pursuit of Dr. Kassell and others, we are witness to spy rings, violence, deceit, and a new and egregious evil come to our shores. The film hit the viewing public with a wallop; it was an expose the times.
In 1939 the US was still distracted by the last vestiges of the Great Depression. The war in Europe was a far off problem and irrelevant to most. But not to Jack and Harry Warner. Children of hard working immigrants, they had built a career on movies about the little guy, oppression, and fighting for freedom. For example, film biographies produced by Warner Brothers such as The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and Juarez (1939) can be interpreted as historical allegories with barely disguised references to anti-Semitism and totalitarianism. A case can even be made for costume dramas such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) which can be seen as using the familiar storyline to address the dangers of dictatorial power and corrupt governments. Coincidentally, the first major film for Warner Brothers in 1918 was a propaganda action film, illustrating the build up to World War One entitled My Four Years in Germany. So, in 1939, when the first Jewish escapees from the Nazi concentration camps started telling their stories to the world, and when German thugs spray painted and ransacked the Warner offices in Berlin, murdering one of their employees, it made perfect sense that Jack and Harry Warner decided it was time to release Confessions of a Nazi Spy, regardless of being labeled warmongers and propagandists.
Despite personal threats against most of the principals of the film, Confessions of a Nazi Spy was courageously released in 1939, six months before the official beginning of the Second World War, and served its purpose of awakening a good deal of the American public to the dangers of Nazism. It stirred up enough controversy so that in 1941, after several protestations by isolationists, Nazi sympathizers and those fearful of losing business overseas with the "friendly" German nation, the brothers Warner were testifying before a Senate hearing - just two months before Pearl Harbor - investigating "moving picture propaganda" which fostered "war mongering." Harry Warner explained in his statement to the committee that the movie was not merely a work of fiction designed to build support for the war, but, "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." And, in fact, the film was based on a series of articles by former FBI agent Leon G. Turrou, depicting the spy case mentioned by Harry Warner. It also utilized a semi-documentary style showing spy ring activities in newsreel fashion and even showed some actual news clips from the 1937 trials of four Nazis convicted of espionage.
Although Edward G. Robinson said in his autobiography, All My Yesterdays, that because he and other members of the cast were so familiar to the viewing public that some of the documentary feel of the piece may have been better served by unknowns, it is obvious in retrospect that it would be impossible to think of anyone else but Robinson in the role of the cool and determined secret agent Renard. And as Schneider, an evil dupe of the Nazis, Francis Lederer was so convincing in his role that he was once asked in an interview whether or not people boo him whenever they see him in public. In fact, the scenes of Robinson interrogating Lederer are among the highlights of the film. Other standouts are the aforementioned Paul Lukas and the usually urbane George Sanders playing Schneider's boss, the cold-blooded Schlager. All of them are terrific and believable under the expert guidance of the well respected journeyman director, Anatole Litvak, a true anti-fascist who, throughout his career, had always been fascinated by the tarnishing of innocence.
Only a shocking event such as Pearl Harbor could drag us eventually into a war we didn't want, but maybe films like Confessions of a Nazi Spy helped contribute to an overall sense of the necessity to oppose fascism in any form. As Variety said in its 1939 review ofthe movie, "Decades from now what's happening may be seen in perspective. And the historians will certainly take note of this daring frank broadside from a picture company."
Producer: Robert Lord
Director: Anatole Litvak
Screenplay: Milton Krims, John Wexley, based on articles by Leon G. Turrou
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Film Editing: Owen Marks
Original Music: Max Stiener
Principal Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Ed Renard), Francis Lederer (Schneider), George Sanders (Schlager), Paul Lukas (Dr. Kassell), Henry O'Neill (Attorney Kellogg), Dorothy Tree (Hilda Keinhauer), Sig Ruman (Krogman), James Stephenson (British Military Intelligence Agent).
BW-105m. Closed captioning.
by Joseph D'Onofrio