Nazi Agent (1942)

Nazi Agent (1942) is a propaganda espionage thriller directed by Jules Dassin in his first feature-length film for MGM. 

It stars Conrad Veidt playing identical twins, one loyal to the United States, the other a dedicated German Nazi.

There is an uncommonly interesting patch of movie-making in the 1940s which intersects both espionage themed thrillers and the spy genre with film noir.

Nazi Agent (1942) by dint of its subject matter is a film concerned with identity and that which is hidden —  a film of shadows and of betrayal —  and although its director Jules Dassin went on to make some of the finest film noir known to humanity including the mighty Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948) Nazi Agent is not a film noir — despite certain qualities.

Beginning with the ending of Nazi Agent (1942) we encounter a most untypical conclusion and one which appears upon reflection to be too bleak and ultimately horrifying rather than the expected 'the Nazis are foiled' conclusion — no hero walks off into the sunrise in Nazi Agent — and nobody gets the girl for it is not that type of denouement.

Mass Media Broadcast in Nazi Agent (1942)

The ending of Nazi Agent (1942) is a brave and selfless act of sacrifice and self-destruction that, while it saves the girl from certain fate at the Hitlerite hands of the enemy — it does offer up the hero to torture, death and humiliation that may have well been avoided. 

This finale signals a death-wish in the character that is darker than the film which presents it, but it's precisely the sort of sacrifice that might need to be made in wartime.

One of the strangest facts about Nazi Agent (1942) is that when its production was announced in the movie press, in Film Bulletin (1941), it was supposed to be called Out of the Past. That title was eventually picked up for use, elsewhere in the film noir story.

World wide web of terror in Nazi Agent (1942)

Gentlemen of the press in Nazi Agent (1942)

The great conceit and and hinge upon which Nazi Agent springs into melodrama is that Conrad Veidt plays two characters — one is a simple, unpretentious and loyal naturalised American guise as the doddery old fellow type of character.

His twin however is a Nazi consul, known as Baron Hugo and is more in the style of the Conrad Veidt evil villain character — and it is this twin who coerces the kindly old bookseller into assisting with some spy activities. 

Conrad Veidt — split screen performance in Nazi Agent (1942)

This works well and the split-screen is pulled off with great fun and aplomb, with the technical highlight probably being when the brothers shake hands. It's a moment which looks like it is going to be mimicked moments later — when it looks like the brothers are about to clink glasses together in a toast — the good one drinking milk and the evil one drinks brandy — how else could it play out?

Martin Kosleck in Nazi Agent (1942)

The brothers do not clink glasses however — although the milk itself will become an important dramatic cue at a later point.

The brothers have not seen each other in years, but now Baron von Detner wants to use his brother's (who goes by the name of Otto Becker) shop to transmit and receive secret messages from the fatherland. Becker refuses, until von Detner threatens to have him deported back to Germany as an illegal immigrant and reveals that Becker's assistant, Miss Harper (played by Dorothy Tree), is actually a German agent.

Conrad Veidt as the gentle German in Nazi Agent (1942)

Later, the moment comes when Otto is able to kill his brother Hugo without any one seeing the deed, and he takes this opportunity to place himself in the evil brother's shoes. His purpose thereby is thereafter to spy upon the spies. 

Hugo's body ends up in wooden crate and is dumped unchecked into the sea, and Otto begin his new life as Hugo, getting involved in the Nazi business of plans for example, to send explosive into the Panama Canal. This plan is incidentally aided by an American mobster played by Marc Lawrence  — an interesting storyline that would be interesting to see explored also in film noir — the possibilities of complicity, if it occurred, between American mobsters and Nazi agents.

Discrete burial at sea in Nazi Agent (1942)

After the start of World War II, the film studios did become more vocal about Nazism and created pictures that focused on resistance rather than direct involvement, as the USA was not at war. 

After the Japanese bombardment of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, and the German and Italian declaration of war against the US on 11 December 1941, the United States was obliged to give up its policy of neutrality. 

It was at this moment that the production of American propaganda movies increased and Hollywood began — in collaboration with the United States Office of War Information (OWI), a state agency which worked from June 1942 until September 1945 — to mobilize the silver screen.

Of the large number of American anti-Nazi or propaganda films produced between 1939 and 1945, many focused on Nazi Germany and the European countries it occupied, with resistance (think Casablanca as a great example) — being highlighted as the most noble cause.

The forms of resistance presented in these movies include printing and distribution of illegal leaflets and underground newspapers, to hiding of persecuted people, the support of illegal rescue operations, flight and migration of people persecuted by the Nazi regime, sabotage, espionage, individual and collective terror attacks and partisan struggle.

Quickly the Nazis and even Hitler himself became identifiable as the culture's ultimate opponent, a trend that continued in Hollywood movies through most of the rest of the century. 

There was a great difference between the portrayal of the German and Japanese enemy and the German and Japanese people during the War itself, because of the nature of the domestic populations of these groups.

Of 130 million people in America — the figure itself is quoted proudly in Nazi Agent (1942) a total of 1.2 million were known to be and were likely to have identified as being of German birth —  5 million people in fact had both parents born in Germany, and 6 million persons had at least one parent born in Germany. 

Further, between 1931 and 1940, 114,000 Germans moved to the United States, many of whom were of course Jewish Germans or were anti-Nazis fleeing government oppression. In addition, 300,000 German-born resident aliens with German citizenship lived in 1940 in the United States.

These millions of German-Americans were one reason for the fact that we don't find overt racism or even dislike of the German people explicit or even implicit in Nazi Agents (1942) and films like it. Specifically in fact, such movies direct their attentions to the Nazi element and quickly formed a style of gaunt, unsmiling, snarling, raw-boned Germanic evil-doers, that was to become a standard Nazi stereotype for decades to come.

In contrast, by 1940, there were less than 120,000 Japanese-Americans and their lack of social influence and presence made Japanese characters less plausible as villains in the many propaganda films being produced.

Until this point in time, the majority of Hollywood’s studio bosses had supported the isolationist policy of the American government under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and before American engagement only a minority filmmakers in Hollywood were specifically anti-Nazi — although this did include the increasing number of writers, directors, and actors who had to migrate from Europe to avoid the Nazi menace.

Some early anti-Nazi movies even increased tensions between Hollywood and the United States government, which responded with an effort to increase censorship. 

Double Trouble — Conrad Veidt in Nazi Agent (1942)

Europe was at the same time right up until the late 1930s crucial for the financial success of Hollywood movies, with an estimated 40% of the film industry's revenue coming from outside of the USA — most of it in Europe.

A question posed by an internal memo from the Production Code Administration in December of 1938 puts it exactly in these terms (quoted in Clayton Koppes and Gregory Black, Hollywood Goes to War)

“Are we ready to depart from the pleasant and profitable course of entertainment to engage in propaganda?

Still, the economic relationship between Hollywood and Nazi Germany did start to suffer even before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, because the Nuremberg Race Laws of September1935 banned all films with Jewish actors. To keep the German market alive, some Hollywood studios did respond by avoiding Jewish actors, but even so, as a result of the Nuremberg Laws, the number of American films shown in Germany was cut to an average of 20 movies per year, much less than before.

Double Trouble — Conrad Veidt in Nazi Agent (1942)

After the US entered the war, the attitude of the government and Hollywood changed accordingly. As with the German administration, the US government saw movies as an essential propaganda medium, as well as a way to uplift morale and spirits in general.  

Historians estimate that 90 million Americans out of a population of nearly 130 million watched films every week during the war. Movies could both mobilise for war but also distract attention, and so films that supported the American war effort became plentiful, especially in 1943 and 1944. 

The federal government also valued Hollywood as a wartime asset and by the summer of 1942, Hollywood had under consideration or in production well over 200 films that discussed or dealt with the ongoing war in one way or the other. 

In total, over 400 feature flickers were made about World War II by Hollywood between 1939 and 1945. President Roosevelt claimed that the motion picture was above all other mediums, the most effective way to inform the nation about the war and to catalyse the population into joining the effort.

Nazi Agent (1942) for such a minor film is a lot of fun, a well-tangled tale of fifth columnists and intrigue, with a bittersweet romance brewing with Ann Ayars

The supporting cast is strong with Martin Kosleck as the Baron's aide, Marc Lawrence and Sidney Blackmer. The film is ultimately hinged on the humanity that Veidt breathes into the Baron as well as the gentle bookworm. In the midst of the war, the actor conveys the mixed feelings of the twin brothers, and perhaps his own mixed feelings about his former country  — by this time Veidt was a British citizen.

Marc Lawrence in Nazi Agent (1942)

Apparently Jules Dassin regarded the plot as rather formulaic and was also disappointed that he never worked with the editor of the film. The special effects which show for example the Nazi web of destruction and the split screen marvels remain impressive and credit should be given to cinematographer Harry Stradling and editor Frank E. Hull for this. 

For Veidt, this marks the last time he would play a double role, which was almost a theme within his career — see Der Januskopf (1920), Mysteries of India Part I: Truth (1921), Die Brüder Schellenberg (1926), and Der Student von Prag (1926) for other examples of this in his work. 

Jules Dassin later made a habit of excluding his MGM films in career retrospectives, which did leave out two decent features he made with actress Marsha Hunt, The Affairs of Martha (1942) and A Letter for Evie (1946).

Jules Dassin later told Patrick McGilligan about his first days in Culver City:

"The first job I was ever offered at MGM — I never knew I'd be so thrilled — was a film with Conrad Veidt. I remembered as a youth sitting in a theater in New York watching Conrad Veidt... This first job was a typical MGM masterpiece, with Nazis and anti-Nazis, and Conrad Veidt playing two parts — the good German and the bad Nazi. I remember when I was introduced to Veidt. I had this problem of always looking very young, much younger than I was, even when I was young. I was brought to the executive office, and in came Veidt — a tall, tall, beautiful guy with these gray eyes. They said, 'This is your director.' And he looked down at me, said 'Nein,' turned and left. He was persuaded to try it for one day."

"Harry (Strandling) was a great lighting cameraman — if somewhat inarticulate, nevertheless a brilliant artist. Fortunately, he knew Conrad Veidt. They had worked together in Europe. (Stradling had photographed Veidt previously in Dark Journey (1937) in Britain & The Men in Her Life (1941) at Columbia Pictures as well.) So there I was with Conrad Veidt, with Harry Stradling, and I knew nothing. And I had just that one day to prove I knew nothing."

Finally Martin Kosleck is a great addition to this film — essential in fact if you are talking Nazis in Hollywood in the 1940s. Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), starring Edward G. Robinson, Francis Lederer, Paul Lukas, and George Sanders, was based on The Nazi Spy Conspiracy in America, a book by Leon Turron, an FBI agent who had uncovered the network of Nazi organisations in the US. Martin Kosleck, in a small role, played Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, and revealed a sinister streak of evil that became sought after in many wartime movies that were to come.

Martin Kosleck in Nazi Agent (1942)

It's fun to note that other German actors at the time resented being typecast as Nazis, whereas Kosleck revelled in it as a way to get back at the Nazis. He appeared in numerous anti-Nazi films of the early 1940s: 

  • Nurse Edith Cavell (1939) 
  • Espionage Agent (1939) 
  • Underground (1941) 
  • Berlin Correspondent (1942),
  • Bomber's Moon (1943)
  • Chetniks! The Fighting Guerrillas (1943)

However, it was his impression of Goebbels that remains very likely the most memorable performance he gave, especially in Paramount's pseudo-documentary The Hitler Gang (1944).

There is a slightly strange relationship with the most minor hints of homosexual coding between Otto and his servant, Fritz, played by Frank Reicher. Other than the shower scene, which serves to plant a painfully obvious clue into the identity of Otto in the form of a World War One scar — there is an unusual intimacy hinted at as Otto quite often touches Fritz when they are speaking, either moving his hand across his body, or often holding or feeling his clothes as he does so.

Americans boo the departing Nazi in Nazi Agent (1942)

The conclusion of Nazi Agent (1942) is powerful, as Otto, still pretending to be Hugo, deports himself back to German to face the wrath of the High Command. He bravely walks the passage towards the boat being brayed at by a crowd of Americans, booing him and wishing him good riddance. 

Pondering liberty in Nazi Agent (1942)

Otto's final thoughts can not be discerned as he seen from behind, watching the Statue of Liberty recede.

Nazi Agent (1942) on Wikipedia

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