Confessions of a Nazi Spy
Quite an unusual movie here. It was the first to boldly name who the bad guys were—German fucking Nazis—and the first to have Nazi in the title. As such, it was very controversial in some quarters of America: the fascist German-American Bund of traitorous turncoats, for one. It has been said that, after the movie was released, the FBI or someone in government told the producers not to make any more movies like this, as it was interfering with international relations. I haven’t been able to verify that. What I do know is that it was banned in Japan, many South American countries, and, of course, Germany. Hitler put everyone involved in it on a list of people to be executed as soon as he had conquered America. Several Polish theater owners showed it once, and were hanged in their own lobbies for it. They wanted Marlene Dietrich, an ardent anti-Nazi, to be in it, but she had to decline for fear of what the fucking Nazis would do to her relatives still in Germany. There was increased security around the Warner’s lot, many bit players slept right at the studio, and performed under false names. There was real fear, with death threats coming from the Bund and others.
In spite of all this, the movie was a huge hit here and worldwide, and Warners and the other studios thumbed their noses at the weak-kneed government and made several more anti-Nazi movies before war broke out with Germany and every film had an anti-Nazi theme.
Because of charges that the movie would be propaganda, the writers stuck very closely to the real events they were depicting. (It is propaganda, by the way, an unabashed, rousing affirmation of American values, and every “slander” against the German people turned out to be not only true, but only a tiny fraction of the real horror we would soon encounter.)
It is very much a police procedural, with a narrator and everything. Edward G. Robinson is the star here, playing an FBI agent in the tiny espionage unit, but we don’t see him until quite far along in the story. The first part is taken up with meetings of the Bund, in full swastika regalia with shouts of Heil Hitler! This was America! At one point 20,000 brown-shirted sub-humans filled Madison Square Garden! Really! We also see the beginnings of the spy ring, reporting directly to the German government through a cut-off in Scotland, which is where the whole thing broke down because a British mailman got suspicious of a lot of letters from other countries being received by a traitorous woman living there. There’s a dozen of them, some of them just blowhards, others working in defense plants or in the military. But once the questioning begins—brilliantly done by Robinson, playing to a man’s inflated ego—they all collapse like wet cardboard, eager to betray each other for lenient treatment. It’s classic police work, and gratifying to watch.
There is an unusual supporting role for George Sanders as a fucking Nazi officer, almost unrecognizable with his shaved-sidewalls military haircut. Ward Bond puts in an uncredited appearance as a German-American who speaks up at a Bund meeting and has the shit beat out of him for his troubles. (This actually happened to 50 American Legionnaires who had the temerity to speak out against their fascist countrymen.)
Two things struck me as I watched this. One, spy work has come a long, long way. We had practically no intelligence agencies in 1939. One general remarks that there are only two people in the whole Army doing counter intelligence. Now we have literally dozens of massive agencies, supplemented, of course, by thousands of private contractors.
And two, all this treason was being conducted right out in the open by Germans. We rounded up literally hundreds of them. And you want to know how many Japanese spies we rounded up on the West Coast? Zero. And how many Japanese spies we rounded up in Hawaii, where Japanese-Americans were not interned? One. That’s right, some stupid asshole flew over Pearl Harbor taking pictures. That’s it. And yet who were ripped out of their lives to spend the war behind barbed wire, and who were allowed to roam free? You know the answer. I say this as a half-German American: this was wrong, wrong, wrong. If we were going to round up anybody (and we shouldn’t have, not without evidence) we should have rounded up the fucking Krauts, not the innocent Japs.