Watching 1939: Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Confessions of a Nazi Spy

Release date: 
April 27, 1939

Edward G. Robinson, George Sanders, Francis Lederer, Paul Lukas, Henry O’Neill, Dorothy Tree, Lya Lys, Sig Ruman, Joe Sawyer, Grace Stafford, Ward Bond (uncredited), Regis Toomey (uncredited), John Ridgely (uncredited)

Studio:  Warner Bros.

Director:  Anatole Litvak

Dr. Kassell (Lukas) travels from Germany to the United States to rally support for the Nazi party with German Americans. As support and spy activity grows in the United States, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation investigates Nazi activity in the U.S., led by Agent Ed Renard (Robinson).

1939 Notes:
• World War II had not yet begun in Europe. This was one of the first American anti-Nazi films, which was groundbreaking because other films wanted to remain neutral.
• One of two films that Lya Lys starred in 1939. Her Hollywood career ended a year later in 1940.
• One of two films that Frances Lederer acted in 1939. Lederer became a United States citizen in 1939.
• Edward G. Robinson was only in two films released in 1939, including Blackmail (1939).
• The only film Anatole Litvak directed in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• Another working title was “Storm Over America.”
• The film is based on true events surrounding a spy ring in New York and the 1938 trial that followed, the Guenther Gustave Rumrich Spy Case of 1938.
• The film was banned from some European and South American countries, according to a July 7, 1940 news clipping.
• Due to the subject matter of the film, no visitors were allowed on set, and the set was under police protection, according to a May 26, 1939, news brief.
• Some actors had family living in Germany at the time the film was released. They changed their names so their families would not face prosecution. Warner Bros. would not release the names of the seven German actors in the film for their persecution, according to a May 26, 1939 news brief.
• German diplomatic forces worked to suppress the film. Seven Warsaw, Poland theater operators were hanged for showing the film following the Nazi occupation, according to a July 7, 1940, article “‘Nazi Spy’ has had tempestuous career so far.”
• The film was re-released in 1940.
• Based on articles by FBI Special Agent Leon G. Turrou, who led the investigation that located Nazi Germans within the United States. Turrou was a technical advisor for the film.

Edward G. Robinson and Paul Lukas in “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” (1939)

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Britain and France declared war on Germany Sept. 3, 1939, after Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. The United States declared war on Germany on Dec. 11, 1941.

But Warner Bros. declared Nazi Germany on April 27, 1939, with the release of “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” (1939).

With trouble boiling in Europe throughout the 1930s, the United States wanted to remain largely neutral, particularly coming off of World War I. “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” was the first anti-Nazi film to be released by a major Hollywood studio.

The film beings in the United States in the early 1930s. Dr. Karl Kassel, played by Paul Lukas, traveled to the United States from Germany to gain support for the Nazi party from German Americans. As the film progresses over the years, we see Dr. Kassel gain more power with the party. We also see German American Kurt Schneider, played by Francis Lederer, join the cause and become a spy for the Nazis. Unemployed Schneider believes stealing papers (convincing his military friend Werner Renz, played by Joe Sawyer) will help him gain power and become rich.

When letters written to a spy liaison in Scotland are intercepted, the United States FBI begins an investigation into the spy group, lead by agent Ed Renard, played by Edward G. Robinson.

Told in a documentary-like style, the story has narration by John Deering that is accompanied by graphics showing the Nazi rise. Following the narration, the film goes into storytelling with the actors.

Warner Bros. was both applauded and denounced for the film, some feeling it was too political while other studios were trying to maintain their neutral stance. Following “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” Warner Bros. released Espionage Agent, released 22 days after Germany invaded Poland, which was another anti-Nazi story.

From a storytelling standpoint, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” is an intriguing film, and also shows how easily swayed people can be – like Joe Sawyer’s character risking court marshall to help out his friend, played by Frances Lederer, even though Sawyer didn’t agree with his politics.

If you look at the poster, you would think this is an Edward G. Robinson film. Robinson doesn’t appear in the film until 42 minutes into the story. The real star would be Paul Lukas, though he is also one of the villans.

But this film is also interesting because of the real-life events surrounding it. Remember, World War II hadn’t even begun, but those involved with the film potentially were in danger. “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” was filmed on a closed set, special police officers were hired to keep visitors away, there was little publicity leading up to the release (though it garnered much once it was released), and many cast members names were kept quiet. Some actors refused to be in the film, fearing it would put their relatives abroad in danger, and others changed their names. For example:
• Wilhelm von Brincken was billed as William Vaugn
• Rudolph Anders was billed as Robert Davis
• Wolfgang Zilzer was billed as John Voigt
• Hedwiga Reicher was billed as Celia Sibelius

There was also a concern that there would be violence from fascist groups at the premiere, so extra security in plainclothes were hired. The usual glamorous turnout didn’t occur, because heads of other studios suggested that their stars may not want to be photographed there. Louis B. Mayer opposed the film and even threw a surprise birthday party for Lionel Barrymore, where his stars would be instead of at the premiere, according to the article Confessions of a Nazy Spy: Warner Bros., Anti-Fascism and Politicization of Hollywood.”

The film was based on the recent Guenther Gustave Rumrich Spy Case in 1938. The scene with Ward Bond as an American Legion World War I veteran at the rally was also based on true events. In April 1938, Cecil Schubert and 30 other veterans spoke out at a rally and were beaten. Schubert suffered from a fractured skull.

Ward Bond as a World War I veteran speaking out at a Nazi rally

A casual viewer watching “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” today may not find it entirely impressive. But take into consideration the pre-war timing and the danger that surrounded those who took part in the film. It may not be one of the best-known films of 1939, but I would wager that it’s one of the most groundbreaking.

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1 thought on “Watching 1939: Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)

  1. The German American Bund threatened to sue Warner Brothers for libel, but their legal team — were super sharp — released a statement saying they were looking forward to taking their depositions under oath. In other words, bring it.
    Edward G. Robinson was one of the earliest and most committed anti-Nazi activists. Studios had a real problem, because Germany was a big market, and if their picture was banned they would lose real money.
    I think to audiences at the time, the events shown were so controversial and shocking that the movie was more exciting than we can imagine.


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