August 16, 2019
Confessions of a Nazi Spy – US, 1939
Time is not always friendly to films, especially ones that are overtly political. The public’s sentiments can sway, characters that were popular in the past may be less appealing to successive generations, and, as is the case with Anatole Litvak’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy, facts learned in later years can leave earlier depictions of historical events open to criticism. This is both unfair and unavoidable. Chaplin’s The Great Dictator has its detractors, one of which is Woody Allen, as a result of what some see as a sanitized depiction of Nazi horrors. It’s a criticism that Chaplin acknowledged, even going so far as to say that had he known what was really going on in Germany, the film would have been quite different. I suspect the same is true of Confessions of a Nazi Spy.
The film is based on the 1938 trial of four German spies in the United States, a case which resulted in four convictions and is credited with helping the FBI develop techniques that enabled it to utterly devastate Nazi intelligence operations in 1941. It is not, however, a case that cast the FBI in the most positive light. Four times as many German spies escaped than were convicted, and the agent placed in charge of the case, Leon Turrou, leaked information about it to the press and was even suspected of taking a bribe from the man assumed to be the head of the U.S. German intelligence ring. Also missing from the film is any reference to Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), boycotts of Jewish businesses, and the Nuremberg Laws, which were passed four years prior to the film’s release.
Of course, 1939 was a different time, and movies were not as critical of the government as they are today. The Hayes Code was in effect, the Great Depression was still ravaging the country, and people were hopeful that Roosevelt’s New Deal would bring them much needed relief. So, perhaps it is not surprising that the film depicts most of the spies’ flight from justice as being the result of German ruthlessness rather than FBI ineptitude. Also spared cinematic scrutiny is the lead agent. Here, he gets a new name, Edward Reynard, and a cool, calculated persona. Played by Edward G. Robinson, he’s a man who can size up a suspect in seconds and devise a strategy that will culminated in either a confession or an incriminating act. He’s also a master at getting them to flip.
Confessions of a Nazi Spy consists of three parts. The first part covers the activities of those involved in the German spy ring and illuminates the tactics they employed, their reasons for targeting America, and the philosophy behind their actions, much of which has to do with “blood and race,” as well as a maniacal devotion to the Fatherland and Adolf Hitler. In this part of the film, we meet Dr. Karl Kassell (Paul Lukas), a physician by day and anti-American motivational speaker by night. His audience is German-Americans, and his message is that they should unite under Hitler against democracy. His words are met with thunderous applause. One of his supporters is a young disgruntled German teacher named Kurt Schneider (Francis Lederer) who takes the professor’s word to heart and is soon offering his services to the German government as a spy.
The film then takes a drastic turn, shifting its focus to the FBI and their efforts to unravel the Nazi‘s plot. You can see the problem here: for about a half an hour, we’re watching characters try to discover what has already been revealed. In fact, there’s a single suspect that’s brought in for questioning that we don’t already know is guilty. The only thing keeping the film from becoming completely tedious throughout this part is Robinson’s performance. He has such a commanding presence that the film is able to maintain enough momentum to get audiences through the confessions and arrests and into the film’s third part, the beginning of which resembles a courtroom drama.
Alas, it is in this part that the film loses focus entirely and reveals its true motive. Instead of riveting testimony, a teased defense strategy that would have been intriguing to see in action, and dramatic cross examinations, we witness a procession of political speeches designed to prop up the United States and cast the German government as monsters and its people as experiencing an unexplained bout of madness - you know, the kind which rids them of their humanity and makes them follow a silver-tongued huckster promoting racial purity and extermination. There’s even a judge who delays sentencing so that he can explain just how much better their fates will be under American justice. He’s not wrong, but still. The film eventually ends with a few customers in a café talking about the case and saying, “Just wait until we get in the fight.” Cut to Reynard, his face beaming a smile so proud that its message is unmistakable – Villains beware! America is waking up!
It seems clear that screen writers Milton Krims and John Wexley were convinced that the film could be the catalyst for that awakening. However, their optimism proved to be misplaced. The film was a box office failure, despite being generally well received - it was even named the best film of 1939 by the National Board of Review, and when America did enter the war, it was not in response to the Nazi atrocities depicted in the film – at least not explicitly. Interestingly, the film actually succeeded in getting Hitler’s attention. According to Wikipedia, Hitler banned all Warner Bros. film as a result of it, and that fact alone makes the film a curiosity.
To look at it today, though contemporary eyes and with the benefit of hindsight, is to see a film with all the best intentions simply lose its way. It’s like watching a documentary about nuclear weapons and having it end with a parade of individuals proclaiming that the ideal number of nuclear weapons is zero. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Countdown to Zero.) Even it you agree with that sentiment, it’s still annoying to be hit over the head with it so many times. Regrettably, this is akin to how Confessions of a Nazi Spy ends, and the film suffers as a result – albeit to no real fault of its own. After all, it wasn’t made with our generation in mind. (on DVD from Warner Bros.’s Archive Collection)
2 and a half stars