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With the Nazi Party now illegal in Germany but still legal in the
United States with several active members, it's not surprising that the
American Bund had such a large membership in 1939 when Hitler was at
the height of his power and was rapidly augmenting the Third Reich with
territory stolen from his neighbors. Since the United States was
officially neutral at the time, it is surprising that this film
received such a wide distribution. One must remember, however, that FDR
early on recognized the threat to world security, including the danger
to our interests, from Der Fuher. He was in the process of asking
Congress for the approval of Lend Lease and worked closely with Winston
Churchill following the fiasco of the Munich appeasement which ousted
the incompetent Neville Chamberlain.
The movie turns out to be somewhat of a mixed bag. There are really three main elements composing the film. From time to time there is a documentary-style narration by John Deering of actual events taking place in Europe such as the Anschluss; second, there is the main story which is well written, directed, and acted concerning a spy network in the United States attempting to lure the minds of German Americans into the Nazi trap with help from the Gestapo, Hitler's private police force of bullying goons; third, is the preachy part filled with patriotic talk, some noble, some propaganda, some prophetic. The best element is the actual story with standout performances by: Edward G. Robinson, who doesn't appear until the movie is almost half over, George Sanders playing a Nazi Stooge who is a go between for agents in Germany and their counterparts in the United States, Paul Lukas playing a medical doctor who mixes medical facts with Nazi myth and who gives stirring speeches for the Party to get recruits and to hold his own ring of spies together, Francis Lederer as a Nazi agent who places fame and fortune above all else including the master race, and Dorothy Tree playing Hilda a true believer until she breaks under pressure from FBI agent Ed Renard (Edward G. Robinson).
Whether you like this film depends a lot on how much you like espionage flicks dealing with World War II. As a spy movie from 1939, "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" holds up well. It comes across not as a relic from a bygone era but as an exciting movie thriller based on historical events.
I think people that will find this film interesting, are those who enjoy watching movies in a historical context. Released in 1939, it was one of the earliest movies with a distinct anti-Nazi theme. There is no subtlety here. The film's theme is that there is a vast network of Nazi spies and sympathizers at work to subvert America. The film ignores the the likelihood that there were more, and better organized communists running around, then Nazi supporters. But, the purpose was political, convince Americans that there was a eminent Nazi threat. I suspect in this, the Warner Brothers, succeeded.
Not a bad film, particularly in its historical importance. Reportedly, the
Warner brothers and Edward G. Robinson all fought to make this film, which
was made at a time when Americans, remembering the devastation of WWI, were
still wary about entering another European conflict.
Structured a little strangely -- we don't get enough of our favorite character, Robinson's, who is a prototype of the thirties G-Man. He has some great lines, particularly when cutting down the bad guys. It's interesting to see him on the right side of the law for once, and equally interesting to see Paul Lukas, best known for playing the anti-Nazi hero of Watch on the Rhine, playing a German sympathizer.
An almost-unrecognizable George Sanders steals the show (doesn't he always?) as a hardcore Nazi soldier.
The movie is heavy-handed propaganda which becomes almost comical with its over-dramatic narration and failure to recognize the irony in its supposed hate of propaganda. The narrator does offer up the movie's most hilarious line, describing how the Germans manufacture "mass stupidity."
Confessions of a Nazi Spy was made anticipating the fact that American
involvement in World War II was inevitable so it is better to know thy
enemy. Based on FBI files, Confessions of a Nazi Spy was a story about
both the German American Bund and its links to the Nazi regime and the
espionage and sabotage it tried to do.
The film is done in a documentary style, more popular over at 20th Century Fox than at Warner Brothers, with films like The House on 92nd Street and Calling Northside 777 as examples of the style.
The Nazis shown here are straight up villains be they respected physician Paul Lukas or disgruntled plebeian Francis Lederer. I think Lederer modeled his character on Bruno Hauptmann, the Lindbergh baby kidnapper and maybe the most unpopular man in America at one point. Hauptmann's appearance and voice were in newsreels to study and isn't it ironic that the man he wronged became a spokesman for appeasement.
On the other hand Edward G. Robinson is quite the stand up hero as the FBI agent investigating the Bund. Robinson was one of the bigger anti-Nazi activists in Hollywood and was proud to be included in what he considered a very important message.
No subtlety used in this film. For those not interested in the anti Nazi message, Confessions of a Nazi Spy does succeed on the entertainment level as well. But I will say that playing America the Beautiful over the end credits was a bit much even for audiences in 1939.
Edward G. Robinson, Francis Lederer, Paul Lukas and George Sanders star
in "Confessions of a Nazi Spy," a 1939 film done in anticipation of the
United States becoming involved in World War II. There was a
proliferation of the German-American bundts, and Hitler was using them
to spread Nazi propaganda in the U.S. Robinson, as an FBI man, is
brought in to head an investigation of spy activities.
The film is done in semi-documentary style - sort of a dramatized documentary. Sanders is the head of one such bundt, and he sports a short haircut and a very convincing German accent. Lederer plays a amateur spy in it for the money and the power trip, and Lukas is a doctor who hides behind his profession but is really an impassioned believer in the Reich who helps get the spy material through. All of the performances are very good and hit the right tone.
"Confessions of a Nazi Spy" is heavy on the propaganda as should be expected, warning the country that there are Nazis everywhere. Were there? Hard to say but given the Germans who emigrated to the U.S. who still had families back home, it's entirely possible.
The most interesting thing about the film was that all these Nazi infiltrators were living on U.S. soil expressing belief in the Reich and Hitler - yet each time one of them was told they had to return to Germany, the blood drained from their faces and they begged to stay in the U.S.! Interesting film, as are many of the films that preceded the U.S. involvement in World War II.
According to the host of "Turner Classic Movies", this movie is based on F.B.I. files. I also learned that the theatrical release of "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" almost resulted an international incident that might have caused America's premature entrance into World War II, two years before the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I've seen documentaries about the activities of the German-American Bundt and can tell you that this movie has the frightening ring of authenticity. Well worth seeing if you can't get a hold of documentaries on the subject.
Well paced and watchable even if obvious propaganda, the film does not have much in the way of a good story, but some very competent acting and good editing keep it afloat. The narration is heavy-handed and far too dramatic to have any impact, and there are many stereotype characters in the mix, but yet the film has a sort of exciting, riveting style to it, and therefore it is easy to imagine that it was effective propaganda in its time, even with some shortcomings and a lack of subtlety. It is not brilliant film-making, but there are a couple of reasons why it may be of some interest. Firstly, it captures the attitudes and propaganda ideas that were around at the time. Secondly, the film is relatively entertaining, even if quite predictable and a bit obvious. It is not a great film, but it is worth a look.
This is a fast-paced, sometimes slightly confusing but never boring
semi-documentary- style FBI drama about the hunt for a ring of Nazi
spies in the US in the years leading up to World War Two. The nastiest
Nazis are played by such villainous actors as George Sanders, Martin
Kosleck and Hans von Twardowski; somewhat softer but still powerful
characterizations are supplied by Frances Lederer as a misfit with
dreams of grandeur and Paul Lukas as a cultivated and respected doctor
who lectures at gatherings of the German- American Bund. They are all
scheming to steal military secrets for the use of the Third Reich in
its ambitions to conquer America. Edward G. Robinson plays the FBI
official who tracks them down. If you are familiar with later movies
like House on 92nd Street, Double Indemnity, Hangmen Also Die, They
Drive By Night, The Stranger and Man Hunt you will see that all of
these actors were past masters of the types of roles they played
Based on a true story of a spy ring in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, these frightening individuals are brought to compelling life under the no-nonsense direction of Anatole Litvak. Although the film can certainly be described as propagandistic, particularly with the bombastic Walter Winchellesque narration, who can argue that something sinister wasn't afoot in those days and that America wasn't directly threatened by a powerful and totalitarian rival? Sure, America was not perfect either, but it is easy to be roused by the spirit of independence and individual liberty that is evoked by the good guys trapping and defeating the bad guys.
One of the best scenes is the interrogation of Frances Lederer by the seasoned FBI agent Robinson who cleverly yet forcefully appeals to Lederer's vanity to coax him into confessing and naming names. Paul Lukas is also gripping as the suave and confident doctor who by degrees crumbles in defeat after first being cornered by the FBI and then set upon by the Gestapo. Unfortunately the fate of some of the spies is not resolved at the end and the narrative just seems to drop them in favor of a blitzkrieg of wartime propaganda (much of it added after the film's initial release to update it for 1940 audiences). According to the FBI historian who appeared on Turner Classic Movies to introduce and discuss the film, this anti- espionage effort was largely a failure but the FBI learned a great deal from it and got better at its job in ensuing years. Part documentary, part detective story, part human drama, part cat-and-mouse chase adventure. Something for everyone.
In 1939, most Americans really could have cared less about the war
clouds in Europe. In hindsight, most Americans felt our intervention in
WWI was a mistake and now a strong sense of isolationism permeated the
country. Because of this, most American films ignored that there was a
Nazi Germany or took a very neutral attitude (such as in IDIOT'S
DELIGHT and CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OLYMPICS). However, by about 1939, a
few domestic film studios finally began showing the Nazis as "the bad
guys" and CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY was one of the first. Even the
wonderful STORM WARNING (probably the best Hollywood anti-Nazi films
made before America joined the war) didn't appear for another year.
Because of this, CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY is a very brave
film--showing the Nazis as evil and bent on warfare against America.
The film is an espionage film and the first half is told solely from the viewpoint of Nazi agents living in America. The star of the film. FBI agent Edward G. Robinson, doesn't even appear until about the midway point--at which point the US government springs into action to root out these traitors. It is all told in a very realistic and believable manner--mostly because it was based on a real pre-war case in the US. Exciting, well acted (with many underplayed roles despite how easily the whole thing could have been portrayed) and stirring--this is a great film.
By the way, although the film was made in 1939, the version just recently shown on Turner Classic Movies must have had additional pieces added sometime after 1939--as they talk about the fall of Norway and Holland--something that did not occur until 1940.
An investigative drama finding Edward G. Robinson as an effective G-Man "rooting around" in the Nazi underground. Its great to see Robinson as a positive character and equally impressive is his counterpoint Paul Lukas. An apt supporting cast includes:Francis Lederer, Lya Lys and George Sanders.
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