Archive for Josef Goebbels

Litvak in Anger

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 24, 2020 by dcairns

“[…] 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.

Inglourious Technicolor

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2009 by dcairns


Well, I will say that Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is unusual, imaginative and often funny and suspenseful, if a bit long. On the other hand, it made me feel ill. Where does this bad feeling come from? I first felt it when I saw the teaser trailer of Brad Pitt briefing his men. I’d like to address this without spoilers, and without engaging too much with what Tarantino has said about the movie, since that stuff is really too dumb to get into.

First off, I might as well admit to being one of those extremists who regards THE DIRTY DOZEN and WHERE EAGLES DARE as somewhat crassly exploitative — I think if you’re going to tackle something as serious and unpleasant as war, you ought to have something worthwhile to express about it. I think SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was basically a crock, but you could argue that the Normandy landing sequence gave people a fresh sense of what that conflict was like, and that is a worthwhile goal. Of course, the whole aesthetic was swiftly subsumed into the video game industry, which is a little, er, questionable, and perhaps shows a basic flaw in the Spielberg approach.

So INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is an entertainment based in a fictional version of WWII which does not respect actual events. In style and music choices (plenty of spaghetti western samples, plus David Bowie’s theme from the Schrader CAT PEOPLE) Tarantino makes it clear that this film is intended to be taken the same way as his previous work, a genre-splicing nasty romp which might test the audience’s endurance with some gore or cruelty, but intends for them to basically have a good time. If you cringe at the scenes of mutilation, you should think of it as an emotional workout rather than a meditation on man’s inhumanity to man. This movie is not a meditation on anything.

So I already have a problem with that. I might be willing to allow that a “Jewish revenge fantasy” might have some cathartic value, but Tarantino isn’t Jewish, so he would be basically pandering to somebody else’s fantasy, which seems less legitimate. What, in fact, is he doing?

The presence of Eli Roth, director of the QT-produced HOSTEL, as actor and director of the film-within-a-film (which, apart from being in black and white and 1:1.33 ratio, is an incompetently inaccurate recreation of 1940s cinema, featuring jump cuts and what look like Steadicam shots — wouldn’t the point here be to make a decent, convincing pastiche of Nazi cinema?) is a pointer. HOSTEL and its sequels have been called “torture porn,” but that’s not really accurate. The victims are the POV characters, and the film seeks to give the audience a vicarious experience of being harmlessly “tortured” — another emotional workout, an exaggerated and simplified form of the horror movie’s pleasures, a crude take on what Hitchcock called “putting the audience through it” — why you would really want to have that experience is beyond me, but there it is.

The striking difference in what Tarantino is up to is that in his film, the torturers are mostly the heroes, and by making their victims Nazis, he wants to give us permission to enjoy the torture and mutilation without guilt. We might still experience squeamishness, we might even question whether the Basterds are “right” to behave as they do, but this is all part of the emotional workout. Pretty much any response is fine with Tarantino. This is why the trailer made me feel… unhappy.

I’m not keen on Nazis myself. But I think that unless you can answer the question, “What would you do if you were a German drafted in the late ’30s?” — which none of us actually CAN answer — you probably don’t have the right to judge people just for putting on that uniform. At any rate, if you’re going to make a film celebrating war crimes enacted against Nazi soldiers, it might be good to provide at least some evidence that you’ve thought about this stuff. Otherwise you’re on the slippery slope to Auschwitz, the video game.


On the other hand — “It’s a film about cinema,” said Joe Dante, who was quite enthusiastic. Perhaps not a war film at all. Or a film about the victory of movies over war, somehow. Certainly, that’s literally what happens in the climax, which contains, all too briefly, the most beautiful image Tarantino has ever conceived or executed (no spoilers, but if I say “face in smoke” you will recognise it when you see it). The script drops some interesting names, which QT fans might check out and get a kick from, conceivably, which would be good (anything that leads audiences to Clouzot or Pabst would count as positive, for me), and is maybe the first to examine Goebbels (or “Gurble,” as Brad Pitt pronounces it in his hillbilly accent) as a movie exec, which he was, among other things. The movie stuff, which doesn’t really involve the Basterds themselves too much (it does seem a little like QT didn’t find his own creations interesting enough to sustain the film) gave me mainly a good feeling. And then there’d be another gross bit.