Litvak in Anger

“[…] very few studios at that time would dare to make a picture of that kind. Jack and Harry· Warner let me do it. I had trouble in inducing them to do it. They got scared many times — they got scared even practically before we started the picture — but they finally let me do it, which is the most important thing.” Anatole Litvak, oral history.

Screenwriter John Wexley told Patrick McGilligan: “[…] we had big problems with the German embassy and consulate and with the German-American Bund. Then Martin Dies, who started the House Unamerican Activities Committee […] came to Warner Brothers to try to change Nazi Spy so that it would include anti-Communists as well as anti-Nazis. But the Communists had not done any espionage, so we couldn’t include them — besides which, we were dealing with an actual case. […] I saw Dies going out of Warner’s office as I went in through an anteroom. I told Warner, ‘I saw Dies coming out of here. Are you knuckling under to that pipsqueak congressman from Texas?’ He said, ‘Oh, I told him off. But if you could work in something about the pinkos.'”

Ben Urwand, in The Collaboration, writes about chief censor Joseph Breen’s concerns: “[…] he understood that a controversial picture by Warner Brothers might endanger the business of other studios still selling movies in Germany. Nevertheless, after going through the script, he was forced to admit that the picture was technically within the provisions of the Production Code: it represented Germany “honestly” and “fairly” because it told a story of espionage that had not only been verified in a court of law but was also common knowledge throughout the United States.”

CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (1939), which I first wrote about here, is fairly famous now as the film which sparked an international incident that could, in theory, have brought the US into WWII two years early in a timely fashion. Yet this raised profile doesn’t seem to have done that much for the reputation of its director.

By happy chance I stumbled on a copy of Ben Urwand’s controversial The Collaboration in my favourite charity shop (St, Columba’s Bookshop) — he devotes a good few pages to this movie, seeing it as the exception that proves his thesis that the Hollywood studios bent over backwards to appease Nazi Germany.

To denigrate the courage of Warner Bros in making an anti-Nazi film, Urwand says, “Despite all the drama and secrecy, however, Confessions of a Nazi Spy was by no means a great film. Warner Brothers claimed to have spent over $1.5 million on it, but the actual figure was closer to $650,000.” Firstly, I don’t see that the budget has any direct bearing on the film’s greatness or lack thereof, and I feel amusement and affection regarding the typical crooked and cheap way the studio operated here. Urwand is plain wrong to call it an obvious B-picture — even though star Edward G. Robinson doesn’t appear until comparatively late in the show, his presence is enough to lift it to A-picture status, even without the bonus value of Francis Lederer, George Sanders and Paul Lukas.

I’m grateful to Urwand for reporting that Joseph Goebbels was apparently delighted to see himself portrayed in a Hollywood film by Martin Kosleck, as well he might be — Kosleck is adpet at creepiness but is much better looking that Goebbels. “I myself play a main role and not even a particularly unpleasant one,” JG gloated in his diary.

But Hollywood has never made propaganda films to have an effect on the enemy, but on the American public first and allies second. Goebbels wrote,”I do not consider the film dangerous […] It arouses fear in our enemies rather than anger and hate.” Far be it from me to belittle Joe’s expertise in this field, but very possibly Americans needed to be alarmed first, before they could be aroused to aggression. I mean, that’s why Pearl Harbour was such a smashing success, surely?

The movie isn’t my favourite Litvak but I love that he and Warners made it. It has an unusual structure, simply following the development and then rolling-up of the Nazi spy operation, which

This movie comes from the period when Don Siegel was running the Warners montage department, and, under the deranged influence of Slavko Vorkapich over at MGM, was pushing the studio’s montages in a more radical, symbolic and visual ambitious direction. He has several good stories about his work on Litvak films. How true they are is known only to the principle characters, who are dead.

On CONFESSIONS, Siegel wanted to show Nazi propaganda leaflets dropped onto a city street. He figured out that the best way to show the content of the leaflets and their distribution almost at once would be to start on a tight view of a single flier, then have it drop away from the lens, revealing many more identical fliers all falling down upon the outraged citizenry from an appropriately great height.

So: a sturdy plank was projected from the roof of a tall building with a camera on the end of it, pointing straight down. An operator was to hold a leaflet in front of the lens, then let it go at the appropriate moment while assistants tossed hundreds more leaflets off the building, then he had to rack focus quickly from VERY CLOSE to INFINITY. This was being done without any permissions and so the hope was they’d be able to see genuine passers-by picking up the falling papers and reacting to them for real.

Siegel is asked if he wants to check the shot. Not wanting to “yeller out” in front of the boys, he agrees. So he squats on the plank and edges very carefully out over the void, the plank bouncing cheerfully with each movement of his (clenching, perspiring) buttocks.

Trembling, he looks through the viewfinder. Can’t see a damn thing, Maybe it’s not racked properly.

“Looks great!” he declares, and inches tremulously back to terra firma, or its nearest Los Angeles equivalent. He never knew if the operator was onto him. But the shot turned out fine, he says.

It’s not in the film, though — only the latter part of it:

CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY stars Dr. Clitterhouse; Count Dracula – posing as Bellac Gordal; Addison DeWitt; Dr. Dohmler – Psychiatrist; Col. Dodge; May Emmerich; Angela Merrova; Woody Woodpecker; Howard Joyce; Spectator at Stoning (uncredited); Mike O’Reilly; “Concentration Camp” Ehrhardt; Captain Schultz; Reinhard Heydrich; Mrs. Barryman; Father Peter Lonergan; Norman Bissonette; Will, the Groundsman; Dwight Severn; Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls; and Adolf Hitler as himself.

Thanks to Karen Green and Columbia University for finding and supplying the Anatole Litvak oral history quoted above.

14 Responses to “Litvak in Anger”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    One of the few things that Syberberg’s otherwise specious “Hitler: A Film From Germany” makes clear is that Der Phoey saw his life as a virtual movie — much as Hitler wannabe Donald Trump sees it as a TV show on FOX. Goebbels really hoped Fritz Lang would stay on in the “homeland” as his ex-wife Thea Von Harbou (who penned many of his early films) was a Nazi. Zarah Leander was promoted to replace Marlene Dietrich (whose opposition to Hitler was throughgoing and absolute). Hitler loved musicals. His favorite was “Broadway Melody of 1940.” He had his own print andacreened it in te bunker over and over as his world collapsed around him.

  2. I still haven’t watched Lives of a Bengal Lancer, said to be Hitler’s all-time favourite movie…

    I’ve also not seen a really good analysis of what the hell the Nazis could have seen in Lang & Harbou’s Die Nibelungen. Sure, it;s a grand presentation of Nordic myth, but no one is sympathetic and it ends in the absolute destruction of everybody. It’s a great film, but what does it say about them if they perceived this as a flattering allegory? A psychological reading of the Nazi death cult through the lens of this nihilistic epic could be really interesting…

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I doubt they thought about it that deeply. What they saw was Lang’s enormous technical skill and growing world fame. Had they paid more attention “Dr. Mabuse the Gambler” they would have known he was their enemy.

  4. Well, they objected strongly to The Testament of Dr Mabuse and banned it, and they apparently weren’t sure about M either.

    Lang’s work was always technically astonishing, but they seem to have fixated on Die Nibelungen. I’m sure they DIDN’T think about it deeply, but something in it drew that enthusiastic response, and it intrigues me.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Well the answer to that is Richard Wagner. Take a gander at Chereau’s rendition of the “Ring” cycle. It tells the whole story. And for desert, Syberberg’s “Parsifal” Personally Hitler preferred Richard Strauss. But ideologically Ricky Wagner (as Comden and Green put it> was his man .

    Never forget, “It’s not over until the fat lady sings.”

  6. I think the Nazi — and more generally the German nationalist –appropriation of Die Niebelungenlied preceded Lang’s film, so from their perspective it may have been something he served up just for them. I never read the original poem, but I think “everybody dies” is baked into it, as is also the case of the Norse myths Wagner drew on — even the Gods die! And Siegfried is an asshole there too.

    (Space here to recommend Neil Gaiman’s retelling of Norse myths, superbly read by Gaiman himself on audiobook. I can’t help but find Wagner’s operas gorgeous, but Gaiman really brings out how wild and original the source stories are.)

    I think there’s plenty in “Dr. Mabuse the Gambler” that the Nazis might have liked — at least, a Nazified take is possible. The case for shapeshifter Mabuse — psychiatrist, gambler, financial speculator, master stringpuller — representing the many faces of The Jew is disconcertingly good, although I doubt that it was Lang’s conscious intention. And the overall portrayal of Weimar society was in the Nazi wheelhouse.

  7. Katya beat me to it – I think the Weimar right wing embraced Lang’s film because its source material was a core part of their cultural mythology. I half-remember reading (in what source I forget) that the left wing intellectual film critics of the time despised the movie(s) for similar reasons – the choice of material was considered pandering to the right, and besides and/or consequently, the resulting film was considered by them to be kitsch on an aesthetic level as well.

    With the source story being so culturally/politically charged, the nuances of Lang’s particular interpretation were probably lost on both sides.

    That said, I remember the thing that surprised me the most about KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE is the way Lang ironically emphasizes that the “barbarian” from the East ends up being the kindest and most reasonable of the major characters. That would seem to tell against Nazi interpretations, but nobody ever said they were a particularly perceptive bunch, and besides, their attitudes towards kindness and cruelty were a bit different from yours and mine in ways that are sometimes hard for us to process.

    I did read “The Nibelunglied” last year, and, yes, the fatalism is baked into the original story, and is rather exalted and glamorized. I went on a bit of a Norse mythology kick for a brief time, and also read the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda. Andy Orchard’s translation of the former is stunning – the beauty and strangeness really come through – it isn’t quite like anything else I’ve ever read. Thanks to Katya for reminding me to give Gaiman’s retellings a look (or a listen) sometime soon.

    Katya also expressed precisely my thoughts on possible fascist interpretations of MABUSE. Katya, are you my long-lost twin?

  8. The Nazis banned Kriemhild’s Revenge and re-released the first part.

  9. Sonorized with Wagner, no doubt.

    Thanks, all, that helps clarify things. The left hated Metropolis, by and large, too, not just for the “compassionate capitalism” ending, but for promulgating a cinema of sensation some thought would leave the poor, ill-educated audience completely incapable of rational thought.

  10. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Interesting that the Nazis saw “Dr. Mabuse the Gambler” as “The Jew” only to reject “Testament of Dr. Mabuse” due to his resemblance to Hitler and company. His last iteration is “Dr. Emilio Lizardo in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai

  11. In Lang’s films, Mabuse becomes increasingly diffuse, separated from any true identity, a zeitgeist, and then in the sequels by other hands he’s just a comic book Fu Manchu type. If you were going to revive the character, I think you should make him even more abstract, maybe a fictional character that’s entered reality but is still amorphous…

  12. In matters Germanic, Michael W., we are DOPPELGANGERS. I’ll look into Andy Orchard for more Norse myth exposure.

    In Spione, Lang/Harbou remove the supernatural powers from the Klein-Rogge character, but provide him with an elaborate secret lair and IIRC a private militia. In other words, he’s the proto-Bond-villain.

  13. Definitely! Although Fu Manchu is in the mix for Fleming’s baddies too (in the movies, both Goldfinger and Fu employ Burt Kwouk).

  14. elekeikBrent – Ah, I’d forgotten that the Nazis later released a butchered version with the second half excised (and Dcairns’s surmise that it was sonorized with Wagner is correct). That accords with my instinct that the tragic second half where the Germanic ubermenschen destroy their kingdom out of bloodthirsty vengeance doesn’t fit comfortably with Nazi ideology. It was also ironically prescient, which I can’t believe I just noticed.

    Katya – You didn’t get a papercut the other night, did you? One just mysteriously appeared out of nowhere on my left index finger.

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