Thu 4 Sep 2014
CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY. Warner Brothers, 1939. Edward G. Robinson, Francis Lederer, George Sanders, Paul Lukas, Henry O’Neill, Dorothy Tree, James Stephenson, Joe Sawyer, Sig Ruman. Director: Anatole Litvak.
Reviewing Confessions of a Nazi Spy, from the vantage point of 2014 is quite a different undertaking than writing about it in 1939 when it was first released. While it remains a well above average spy thriller, some of the film’s immediacy has been lost by the passage of time. That said, the Anatole Litvak-directed project remains a significant and quite well constructed film.
The movie, based on the real life exposure of Nazi spies operating in the United States, depicts in semi-documentary style the emergence of a pro-Nazi spy ring in New York City. Interspersed among the dramatic sequences is actual newsreel footage.
As the first major studio production to detail the growing Nazi threat to American national security, Confessions of a Nazi Spy was harsh in its condemnation of German-American groups that allied themselves with Hitler. Although it seems to deliberately avoid any explicit reference to Nazi anti-Semitism, the movie does repeatedly portray Nazism as maddening, barbaric, and contrary to the very fabric of Americanism. Nazi expansionism is made out to be very real danger to democracy.
Edward G. Robinson, whose family was a target of Romanian anti-Semitism prior to their emigration to the United States, portrays FBI Agent Edward Renard. It is his mission to both expose the Nazi spy ring and turn them over to the Justice Department for prosecution. The message is clear. Unlike in Nazi Germany, the United States gives all men a fair trial.
Apart from their Nazi handlers, the ring consists primarily of three German-Americans: a megalomaniac loser and U.S. Army deserter, Kurt Schneider (Francis Lederer), his dimwitted chum, Werner Renz (Joe Sawyer), and the fanatical Dr. Karl Kassel convincingly portrayed by Paul Lukas.
The latter character is, in many ways, the most interesting. He’s a bespectacled, mild mannered, physician working in the Yorkville section of Manhattan who is also a fanatical Nazi sympathizer active in the German-American Bund. Rounding out the cast are George Sanders, who portrays a Nazi official, and his female partner who ends up having a quite important role in the FBI’s successful unraveling of the spy ring.
Watching this film, I could not help but wonder. How many people today are even aware of Nazi espionage in the United States prior to Germany’s declaration of war upon the United States? Even further, how many people are aware of the rise and fall of those German-American societies that supported the Third Reich? There’s an especially captivating scene in which Dr. Kassel visits a pro-Nazi youth camp based somewhere in what is presumably supposed to be the northeastern United States.
Despite its grave subject matter, the film does end on a semi-optimistic and patriotic note. Renard is sitting in a diner with the federal prosecutor. A paperboy comes in with the latest edition, the headline noting that the feds have taken down the spy ring. A diner worker and talk for a moment among themselves, glad that those Nazis have been found out. This is America, not Europe. We are different from those hatemongers, they say. We’re Americans.