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Hollywood & the Nazis, Part Four:
MGM Arms Deals

[1]

Martin Kosleck as Joseph Goebbels in Confessions of a Nazi Spy

3,871 words

All installments in this series available here [2]

If you have ever watched the History Channel for longer than five minutes, you have probably heard this quote from Hitler: “If international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, the result will be not the bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”

It is from a speech which has been dubbed “The Prophecy Speech [3]” and was delivered on January 30, 1939. The passage is famous. It is wheeled out in every documentary about the Holocaust as conclusive proof of the 6 million.

What is less famous is a passage from the same speech that came a few minutes after that: “And the announcement of American film companies of their intention to produce anti-Nazi — i.e. anti-German — films, will only lead to our German producers creating anti-Semitic films in the future.”

We can take away two things from that passage.

First, it implies that the arrangement between Hollywood and Nazi Germany had deteriorated by 1939. By then, word had reached Nazi Germany that several Hollywood studios had anti-Nazi movies in the works. 

The second thing we can take from that passage is that it implies a quid pro quo arrangement between the Nazis and the Hollywood Jews: “Don’t make any movies about us Germans and we won’t make any movies about you Jews.” Maybe it wasn’t just about the money. Who knows? Sure, Nazi Germany produced a ton of antisemitic books and pamphlets, but all of their classic anti-Jew films like Der ewige Jude [4] and Jud Süß [5] came after Hollywood drew first blood. Maybe Hollywood went easy on the Nazis to try to protect the Jews in Germany.

If I have one major criticism of Ben Urwand’s book on this subject, it’s that he did not explore this possibility at all even though Hitler’s quote highly suggests that this was the case. Instead, he portrays Hollywood executives as being motivated purely by greed. That would at least go some way towards explaining why some studios like Warner Brothers and United Artists continued to refrain from making anti-Nazi movies even after they had already been banned from Germany. That having been said, it would be those two studios that would be the first to break the truce.

There are actually a couple of other angles that Urwand did not explore as to why Hollywood might have gone easy on the Nazis.

First is the Production Code [6] itself. When most people think of the Production Code, they think of sex — and to a lesser extent, race. Most of the movies that brought about the Production Code dealt with prostitution, unwed pregnancy, and adultery. People also cry about the fact that the Production Code forbade displays of race-mixing between whites and blacks (although whites and other races were sometimes allowed). A lesser-known rule of Hays’ lists of guidelines was “International Relations: (avoid picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry)”. That rule kind of went out the window with WWII and stayed out the window with the Cold War.

[7]Urwand thinks it’s a tragedy that Hollywood did not make any movies criticizing Hitler. That’s true but then again, they also didn’t make any movies criticizing Stalin who was already murdering large numbers of people. The movie 1934 movie British Agent [8] borders on being Stalinist propaganda. It takes place in the Soviet Union during the revolution and Stalin’s nemesis Trotsky is the primary villain. In the movie, Lenin gets injured in an assassination attempt. Trotsky temporarily takes over and starts getting super-oppressive. It is only when Lenin recovers and ends the persecutions that the heroes are saved. Warner Brothers originally planned to shoot British Agent on location in the Soviet Union but that plan fell through. You can watch British Agent here [9].

The first truly anti-communist movie Hollywood made (other than some early Red Scare silents and the 1935 It Happened One Night rip-off Red Salute [10] which doesn’t count) was Ninotchka [11] which came out in 1939, the same year Hollywood released their first anti-Nazi movies.

It would stand to reason that the United States government would want American movies playing in as many countries as possible, because it gives those countries a positive impression of America and Americans. In the same way, it is good for Japan to have a lot of Americans watching anime and playing Japanese video games. It’s good for international relations to have other countries enjoying your cultural output.

Urwand also does not consider the role of Hollywood within the context of the Depression. People were struggling and suffering. They went to the movies to forget about their problems and they wanted to leave the theater in a good mood. They did not want to be lectured. They didn’t want to be preached to. They didn’t want to hear about someone else’s problems when they had plenty of their own.

This is why, in my opinion, the 1930s are the greatest of all movie decades. Films of the 1930s were apolitical and escapist. Once the United States entered WWII, Hollywood became the propaganda wing of the United States government and I don’t think that Hollywood has ever been able to recapture that spirit of escapist fun that it had in the 1930s. Maybe for a brief moment during the 1990s [12], but the talent available to filmmakers in the 1990s paled in comparison to the golden generation of actors and directors available to filmmakers in the 1930s. The 1930s was the master race of movie decades and I will die on that hill.

Anyway, let’s talk about the breakdown of the relationship between Hollywood and Nazi Germany.

One of the reasons for the breakdown is that the Nazis became more purist as the decade progressed. Initially, all they cared about was that Hollywood movies not have an anti-German bias. Initially, the Nazis didn’t really stress all that much over whether a movie had Jewish actors or about a particular actor’s political beliefs. As the decade continued, they started getting more nitpicky about stuff like that.

[13]The first time Hollywood really attempted to “fight back” against Nazi censorship was in 1934.

Max Baer was a famous Jewish boxer. You might remember him as the villain in the 2005 James Braddock biopic Cinderella Man starring Russell Crowe. In 1933, Max Baer defeated German boxer Max Schmeling by a 10th round TKO. Before the match, Baer had a huge Star of David embroidered on his trunks, so that if he won, it would be obvious in all the newspaper photos that the German Schmeling had been defeated by a Jew.

MGM hoped to capitalize on the publicity of this match. After the fight, they approached Baer about starring in a boxing-themed movie. That movie would become The Prizefighter and the Lady [14]and it also featured then-current champ Primo Carnera and former champ Jack Dempsey. In the movie, Baer plays Steve Morgan, a bar bouncer who is discovered by a washed-up boxing manager. The manager talks Baer into entering a prizefight. Baer wins and this starts a meteoric boxing career. But as Baer rises up the boxing ranks, he starts “going Hollywood.” He starts drinking heavily and gallivanting with fast women. At the end of the movie, he fights the champ and there’s a happy ending.

MGM sent a subtitled version of the film to the German censors and it was approved, so they dropped a large sum of money on creating a German dubbed version and resubmitted it. This was standard practice, as dubbing was highly expensive, making it wise to submit the subbed version first and only dub the film after it passed.

The Nazi censors rejected the dubbed version. MGM thought that was complete bullshit, because they had already passed a subbed version. So what happened in between?

Elisabeth Bergner [15] was an Austrian Jew who had been a film star of some renown in Germany. In 1933, she married Hungarian Jewish director Paul Czinner and then moved to Britain. In Britain, the two made the movie The Rise of Catherine the Great [16]. At a performance of the film in Berlin, a group of Nazis showed up and pitched a fit, throwing stink bombs and whatnot — the same as with All Quiet on the Western Front a few years before.

Let me restate, the Nazis usually did not stress too much about Jewish actors. After all, the previous year, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang was the 5th most popular movie in Germany, and it starred Jew Paul Muni. This Day and Age was successful in Germany and that movie featured a sympathetic Jewish character. I imagine that the objection with this movie is that Catherine the Great, while being the monarch of Russia, was a German-born ethnic Prussian. A Jew playing an American was one thing. A Jew playing a legendary German monarch was another. As with All Quiet On the Western FrontThe Rise of Catherine the Great was banned in Germany after the protests.

The issue with Max Baer is that he was not an actor who just happened to be Jewish. Unlike, say, Edward G. Robinson, Max Baer made his Jewishness a central part of his public persona, especially in the leadup to his fight with Max Schmeling. And while he wasn’t literally playing himself in The Prizefighter and the Lady, he was playing a Max Baer-type character and everyone knew Max Baer was Jewish. You couldn’t do suspension of disbelief and pretend he’s gentile Steve Morgan. So when his Max Baer-type character was going around gallivanting with gentile women, what you could not help but see on the screen was a Jew having intimate relations with shiksas.

It sort of reminds me of the controversy around the 1979 Polish movie The Tin Drum [17]. Some people considered it child pornography because it showed a child having sex with an adult. Defenders noted that while the actor was a child, the story was about a person who doesn’t age and the character in the movie was actually an adult that looked like a child having sex with another adult.

I have to sympathize with MGM here. If the Nazis had a problem with the film, they should have said so when MGM submitted the subbed version, not after MGM dropped $25,000 on having it dubbed. The subbed version even premiered in Germany and played for a few weeks. It did good business and caused no controversy. But then the Nazis decided to ban that version as well.

So MGM decided to push back. They threatened to pull out of Germany. Doing so would leave a couple hundred Germans out of work and a large German film development firm would have lost its best customer. Plus, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst owned a stake in MGM. He had been a Germany sympathizer and a France critic, so banning the film might get Germany on Hearst’s bad side. The Nazis decided to call MGM’s bluff. In the end, the film remained banned in Germany and MGM continued doing business in Germany. But as the decade continued, the Nazis became a bit more aggressive in their demands.

By 1937, only the three biggest Hollywood studios still doing business in Germany: MGM, Fox, and Paramount. Universal was looking to get back in the game. By then, Carl Laemmle was out as president of Universal and had been replaced by gentile John Cheever Cowdin. Universal had hoped that having a gentile in charge would make the Nazis more open to working with them.

[18]

Universal was planning to release a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front called The Road Back [19]The Road Back was about a group of German soldiers returning home from the Great War and the struggles they faced in a Germany now in social turmoil. Universal bent over backward to make sure it did not contain anything upsetting to Nazi sensibilities. They even included some potshots at socialists and war profiteers. The Nazi’s point man in Hollywood, Georg Gyssling, was still not satisfied and demanded an outrageous number of cuts from the film. One of the things he demanded was that the name of the author, Erich Maria Remarque, be removed from the credits. Remarque had been banned in Germany but was still a prestigious and respected figure in America. Universal agreed to most of the cuts (but kept Remarque’s name in) and had to do extensive reshoots. Many people believe that the demanded cuts ruined the movie. Director James Wales walked out of the project in disgust.

At one point, Gyssling threatened to blacklist anyone who worked on the movie if the cuts were not made. This was a new precedent. Germany had threatened to ban studios, but threatening to blacklist individuals was new. In the end, Universal was still not allowed back in Germany.

[20]In 1938, MGM released another sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front called Three Comrades [21]. Whereas The Road Back dealt with the immediate aftermath of the Great War, Three Comrades covered the late 1920s. They hired none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald to write the first draft, which was explicitly anti-Nazi and featured explicitly Jewish characters. But due to the meddling of Gyssling (who again threatened blacklists) and Joe Breen of the Hays office, all references to Jews, Nazis, and swastikas were removed. The film was still a critical and commercial success but it was felt that it had been politically neutered. Hollywood was starting to get annoyed.

Another problem with doing business in Germany is that by German law, Hollywood studios were not allowed to take their profits out of the country. Any money they made in Germany had to be spent in Germany. A perfectly sensible law.

Most studios took the profits that they made in Germany and used the money to make new reels which they could then show all over the world. However, MGM was not in the newsreel business, and so they had to find some other way to get their money. In his book, Ben Urwand makes a very bold claim about how MGM did this:

Only one method up to this point had been successful: MGM had managed to sell its blocked Reichsmarks to a German bank in exchange for American currency. In the conversion process, however, MGM had incurred massive losses. In December 1938, one month after Kristallnacht, MGM discovered a way to export its profits more effectively. An American trade commissioner explained the process: MGM first loaned the money to certain German firms where credit was “badly needed.” MGM then received bonds in exchange for the loan and finally sold these bonds abroad at a loss of around 40 percent — which was a substantial improvement over previous losses. There was just one catch, and it had to do with the firms that were receiving MGM’s money in the first place. “The firms in question,” the American trade commissioner said, “are connected with the armament industry especially in the Sudeten territory or Austria.”

In other words — the largest American motion picture company helped to finance the German war machine. [1] [22]

Look, he said it, not me. Maybe that’s true. I only slightly doubt it because the claim seems just a little too perfectly villainous.

Krystallnacht would be a turning point in the relationship between Hollywood and Nazi Germany. Shortly afterward, the Nazis released a blacklist of actors, directors, and other figures who would no longer be appearing on German screens. Hollywood had for some time suspected that Nazis had an unofficial secret blacklist and were banning movies because Person X was involved. There had been several occasions when movies were rejected that contained nothing remotely improper and the only likely explanation is that they had a problem with a particular director or the star.

Additionally, if the motive for Hollywood going easy on the Nazis was to protect Jews in Germany, Krystallnacht signified that policy was not working. Shortly afterward, two studios began work on what would be two of the first anti-Nazi movies. Warner Brothers started work on Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Over at United Artists, Charlie Chaplin had already been writing what would become The Great Dictator. There were rumors around this time that Chaplin had considered abandoning the project on the grounds that the situation had become so serious that it would be inappropriate to make a comedy about it.

Confessions of a Nazi Spy was the first to come out (watch it here [23]). It was based on the real case of Günther Rumrich, a German immigrant who deserted the US army and began selling secrets to the Nazis. The movie was based on a series of articles by FBI agent Leon Turrou [24] who is played by Edward G. Robinson in the film. While the movie makes Turrou out to be a master detective, he actually screwed the case up badly. He was ultimately fired from the FBI for leaking details to the process and allowing many of the suspected spies to slip through his fingers and flee the country.

It’s a very silly film. It’s an attack on not just the Nazis but also the America First movement and the German-American Bund, which it presents as a fifth column hive of traitors and spies. And, of course, both of the main Nazi baddies are played by Jews: Paul Lukas and Francis Lederer.

Joseph Goebbels managed to get ahold of a copy of the film and was amused to find that he was in it. “I myself play a main role and not even a particularly unpleasant one.” He concluded, ”But I do not consider the film dangerous otherwise. It arouses fear in our enemies rather than anger and hate.”

He’s overstating the importance of his character in the film. He is only in one scene, but it is a humdinger of a scene. There is a part where the leader of the German-American Bund visits Goebbels in Berlin to get his instructions. Goebbels tells him: 

There is to be a slight change in our methods. From now on National Socialism in the United States must dress itself in the American flag. It must appear to be a defense of Americanism. But at the same time, our aim must always be to discredit conditions there in the United States and in this way make life in Germany admired and wished for. Racial and religious hatred must be fostered on the basis of American Aryanism. Class hatreds must be encouraged in such a way that the labor and middle classes become confused and antagonistic. In the ensuing chaos, we will be able to take control.

That plan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If anything, the citizenry fighting amongst themselves strengthens establishment power. There was an anti-communist movie released in 1951 called I Was a Communist for the FBI [25] which has a lot of similarities to this movie and the communist baddies had the exact same strategy for taking over America as Goebbels does in this movie:

  1. Get all the various ethnic, religious, and class groups in America fighting with each other.
  2. ???
  3. Communist takeover.

It’s funny that when the establishment switched from anti-Nazi to anti-commie, they used the exact same propaganda narratives but just switched a few words around.

Shortly after the release of Confessions of a Nazi Spy, war broke out in Europe. This severely disrupted film distribution and ticket sales. A few Hollywood films were shown in Nazi Germany all the way up until 1940 when the last Hollywood studio, Paramount, was banned. Of all the Hollywood studios, Paramount had the best relationship with the Nazis. They never attempted any anti-Nazi movies and never had any serious run-in with Mr. Georg Gyssling.

By the time the last Hollywood studios were banned, the blow was tougher than it would have been a few years earlier. Getting banned by the Nazis then meant that you weren’t just banned in Germany, but also in Austria, Poland, and Norway.

Still, Nazi filmmakers learned a lot from Hollywood and those lessons would prove to be valuable. As the war started going badly for the Germans, the films they produced became increasingly escapist so as to liven the spirits of the nation facing increasing suffering. German filmmakers would increasingly draw inspiration from the Americans who were the masters of escapist entertainment. Little known fact: around half [26] of all the movies made in Nazi Germany (47.8%) were comedies.

If you would like to see an example of the American influence on Nazi cinema, a good place to start would be the 1943 film Münchhausen [27]. You can watch it here [28] (you might have to turn the subtitles on). It’s a family-friendly Technicolor fantasy film based on the fictional Baron Münchhausen [27], who had been the hero of German children’s stories since the 18th century. Münchhausen was meant to be Nazi Germany’s answer to The Wizard of Oz. They also look to Gone With the Wind and British Technicolor film The Thief of Bagdad as visual benchmarks to be surpassed. It includes a lot of American-style goofiness.

Many people today consider the 1944 film Die Feuerzangenbowle [29] (The Punch Bowl) one of the greatest German comedies of all time. Despite its connections to the Nazi regime, it is still enormously popular in Germany. You can watch it here [30].

The film opens with a famous young writer Johannes Pfeiffer (with 3 f’s) talking with his friends about their youth. His friends recall all the fun and mischievous pranks they enjoyed in their school days. Johannes, however, never had such experiences, as he was homeschooled. Johannes decides to disguise himself as a teenager and enroll in school so he could see what he was missing out on. Once there, he gains a reputation as a class clown and excels at pulling pranks.

Most of the teachers at the school are old buffoons and are meant to represent the old Wihelmian Germany. However, there is one younger teacher, Dr. Brett, who is there to represent the new modern National Socialist Germany. Interestingly, Dr. Brett is “the cool one“ and acknowledges that he was a bit of a prankster himself as a youth. Instead of getting flustered by the kids’ youthful pranks like the older teachers, he is quietly amused. He is also the only teacher that the students respect. 

So that’s my series on Hollywood and Nazi Germany. I hoped you enjoyed yourself. If you would like to see more content like this, consider making a donation to Counter-Currents today. Articles like these are made possible by the financial support of Counter-Currents viewers like you.

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    Notes

    [1] Ben Urwand, The Collaboration (p. 147). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.