According to the article "Hollywood Goes to War" by Colin Shindler in the film history tome "The Movie", "Warner Brothers, who had made the one explicitly anti-Nazi film of the [US] pre-war period (1939, "Confessions of a Nazi Spy") were unofficially told by the [US] government not to make any more such pictures. In April 1940 the news filtered back to Hollywood that several Polish exhibitors who had shown "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" had been hanged in the foyers of their own cinemas."
Some well-known actors (including Anna Sten and Marlene Dietrich) refused to be in the movie fearing reprisals against relatives living in Europe. Many who did appear changed their names for the same reason, accounting for large number of aka's in the cast list.
Warner Bros. increased security throughout the production and some actors slept on the Warners lot. Sabotage was suspected when a boom holding one of the cameras collapsed, narrowly missing director Anatole Litvak.
According to the book "The Films of World War II" by Joe Morella, Edward Z. Epstein and John Griggs, "While this Warner Bros. film was not as sensational as its advance publicity led audiences of the day to expect, it was, nevertheless, the first out-and-out anti-Nazi film from a major American studio . . . [it] made its point by sticking closely to the facts of a real-life spy trial which had involved high officials in the [German Third] Reich as well as their American operatives . . . This film was instrumental in bringing about the 'Hollywood war-mongering' charges. Actors and producers received murder threats. American-based German officials screamed 'conspiracy!' and the film was subsequently banned by countries who feared offending Germany. In the United States, however, it was a popular success, prompting other studios to hurry production of more anti-Hitler films."
When this movie was made, America was not part of World War II. At this time a number of Hollywood studios were pro-American involvement in the war. This movie is one of a number of films made during the late 1930s and early 1940s that represented pro-American intervention in the war, including such films as A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941), Man Hunt (1941), Foreign Correspondent (1940), The Mortal Storm (1940), and Sergeant York (1941).
This movie had an initial release date of May 1939. However, the DVD issued by the Warner Archive Collection in 2014 has a narrated two-minute montage of events that occurred later in 1939 and in 1940, suggesting a re-release during the war. Beginning at 1:37:45 are the invasions of Poland, Norway, Denmark (the narration "and Finland's invasion by communist Russia" indicates that Russia has not yet joined the Allies), Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. France was included only in a headline. These last four countries were invaded on May 10, 1940. No mention was made of Nazis invading the Soviet Union in 1941. There are two appearances of this film in New York Times articles in June 1940: on June 2 announcing the updated re-release of the film, and on June 16 mentioning its disappointing tryout box office despite "generous publicity campaigns."
The exchange of papers for the number of patients in the military hospital are arranged for Lexington and 93rd St. This is the location of the famous 92nd St. "Y", in this case the Young Mans Hebrew Association.
A libel suit for $75,000 was filed on Monday, July 3, 1939 in U.S. Federal Court against Warner Bros. by Katherine Moog, in which she claimed that the picture "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" and its advertisements defamed her character. Plaintiff alleged that Warners, without her consent, used her name to exploit the picture and connected her with the character "Erika Wolf," played by Lya Lys.
Four character names within the movie were slightly different than those names listed in the end credits: Paul Lukas, billed as Dr. Kassell, was actually Dr. Kassel within the movie. Similarly, Lya Lys was Erica Wolff (not Wolf), Hedwiga Reicher was Mrs. Kassel (not Kassell) and Sig Ruman was Krogmann (not Krogman).
Despite this being a vehement anti Nazi film, the word "Jew" is never mentioned. The topic is tangentially addressed when Dr Kassell rants about a vast and dangerous international conspiracy (clearly the Jews in this context). The coyness about using the word in the film, which the nazis were certainly not shy about using, suggests that the filmmakers thought that there was not a great deal of sympathy for the Jews in the United States at that time (1939). I cannot be certain, as it has been a long time since seeing it, but I think that the film The Mortal Storm was also coy about mentioning Jews. This was another excellent anti Nazi film made by Hollywood early in the war.
Leon G. Turro, the real FBI agent who broke the spy ring was hired as a technical advisor for this film. He quit his job at the FBI just prior to selling the story to the New York Post, then writing a book "Nazi Spies in America", which he sold the rights to Warner Bros. for $25,000 ($440,000 in 2017).
Because many of the players in this picture had relatives still living in Germany - having fled from there - several actors went under false names and were referred to just by numbers on call sheets. Warner's makeup department also went to great lengths to conceal their identities - the studio's publicity department stating, "even their best friends will not recognize them on the screen."
The leader of the German-American Bund, Fritz Kuhn, sued Warner Bros. for $5,000,000 for libel and for an injunction against the film's distribution. A federal judge denied the injunction. The suit was dropped when it was revealed Kuhn was charged with embezzling Bund funds.
The ocean liner shown as the S.S. Bismark is either the S.S. Breman or its sister ship, the S.S. Europa. One shot of the stern shows one of the twin-stack ships with its original shorter funnels early in its career. The funnels were made taller after passengers complained of exhaust from its oil-fired boilers fouling the decks.
The film exactly quotes U.S. District Court Judge John C. Knox, who presided over the trial of the case upon which this film is based: "In this country we spread no sawdust upon the surface of our prison yards." This was an allusion to the executions of spies in Nazi Germany. The real four spies received prison terms from two to six years. Over a dozen other spies in the ring that were identified in the investigation were let out on bail and fled the country.
This film was made under tight security due to its controversial subject matter (for the time). Four uniformed studio police officers were posted at the sound stage to keep away anyone not directly involved in its production. Only ten copies of the script were made instead of the usual 150. Most of the actors got their lines one day at a time.