Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)

Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) was not just the first but one of the most convincing anti-Nazi films to come out of Hollywood's Golden Age.

Amazingly, it feels like it was made by a country that was already at war.

That's not the case though, and even though it would be another three years before the United States were actually at war with Germany, what is remarkable is that World War 2 had not even started by the time Confessions was made.

It is funnily enough pointed out somewhere around the midpoint, when Edward G. Robinson enters the film. Someone says that it feels like they are at war with Nazi Germany, but Edward G., playing an FBI spy hunter here, corrects this erroneous interpretation of events. 

"No," he says. "It's the other way round. It's as if Germany was at war with America."

This undeclared war is a strange one, given the resulting events. It's strange because Nazi groups are alive and kicking in 1930s America; even The Black Legion is mentioned; the same 'bund', as featured in its own movie several years earlier, starring Humphrey Bogart.

But what a great pre-cursor to the age of film noir this motion picture makes. It's got the stars, it's got the paranoia, and it's sure got the shadowy frames.

So what does the Nazi threat amount to in the United States? It is fairly substantial, with full-on beer-hall playing its part, making us wonder about these old world communities, and if they really could be breeding grounds for this. Odd that such a contagion from Germany should spread, but spread it did, and 

The Nazi meetings, several of which are portrayed in Confessions of a Nazi Spy, are fascinating, and a great vehicle for the movie to present some pretty fundamental debates about the current and up and coming state of affairs. Ukranian Director Anatole Litvak had first-hand experience of European politics. 

We flash between Germany and America, and witness their communications, which oddly take place between a strange and parochially presented village in Scotland, where a 'Mrs McGonnigle', a miserable local spinster, is the local international spymaster. Although she is incredibly unlikely, everything else about the village is a rather sweet cliché.

Anatole Litvak Nazism crosses the world montage

In Germany, madly frothing Nazis spout hate and plan their wold domination; tropes which were apparently cemented before the war had even begun, and which continued long after it, and persist today. 

They have Swastikas on everything, and that includes the floor. 

They look down on America as degenerate and cannot wait to take over, altering their plans to a more subtle approach, sneaking in their ideology by fomenting race and class hatred.

Anatole Litvak "Nazism crosses the world montage"

Back in the States the debate continues; do we want a segregated and racially pure country, or do we want that good old melting pot? There appear to be thousands and thousands of Nazis in the country, and this being before the war, they are of course allowed to parade, hold meetings, drink beer, indulge in punch ups, and spread propaganda.

Even in an effort to attempt a documentary style, Fritz Lang achieves something more. Lang is working film noir before it even has been invented, enjoying his shadows and dreams, his montage and his framing, and making art for America, a primary builder in the global statement that was Hollywood.

George Sanders in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)

So the Nazis exist in America, although presumably once the war had started, simply being a Nazi would be a crime in most eyes, and once America had engaged, being a Nazi would make a person an automatic enemy. It means that the Nazis in Confessions, whether at home or abroad, have to be seen to take part in some proper crime, and this case it is all around military secrets.

It means that the film boldly states, before any military aggression had begun, that the German administration was working flat out to steal American military secrets, which is the plot of the film.

Edward G. Robinson in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)

This may be a plot, but it is rather secondary to two other factors; the first is the grim portrayal of the Nazis, as a slimy, grim and never smiling gang of heel-clickers, with the Gestapo simple played as out and out thugs. 

- - Francis Lederer - -

The Gestapo, when they take prisoners back from the States to Germany, have a nasty little room on their steam ship, with air holes in the door, where they lock their victims. It is around this room that we first hear the promise of the concentration camps, proving that these evil institutions were already the stuff of popular culture.

The other dominating element to Confessions of a Nazi Spy is the newsreel and historical element of the story.  Try as it may, Confessions of a Nazi Spy still seems to be closer to fantasy, and therefore film noir, than it is to either propaganda or newsreel, or vérité. Because it is Lang, and he knows what he is doing in terms of thrilling an audience, there is a specific and dramatic way of presenting matters, never seen better than in a classic mid-century interrogation - - the type that would be repeated through classic film noir for over two more decades. Ultimate film noir dramatic confrontation and climax, before the style was even born. 

Film noir was invented before it was invented

There's an interesting short chat between two undesirable faces of the USA early on in the feature. The spy, played by Francis Lederer, is a rabid racists and Nazi, and intent on bringing the ideology to the States; and he argues with a brash and rather idiotic patriotic American, who dumb as he is, still feels that being American is the important thing; while tellingly stuffing his face, confident of his country and the great cuisine it imports. 

This should be considered as an important movie. It's the first full-on anti-Nazi movie from Hollywood for a start. Although they may have had their real or perceived issues with Communism in the decade that followed, Nazism was never taken seriously. But here it was taken seriously enough to go so far as to include details such as this Goebbels pastiche.

Full Confessions at Wikipedia

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