Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939): Anatole Litvak’s Controversial Anti-Fascist Melodrama, Starring Edward G. Robinson

Anatole Litvak’s sensationalistic melodrama Confession of a Nazi Spy is considered to be the first anti-Nazi film from a major studio, Warner.  As such, the movie called attention with great degree of alarm to the existence of spies in the U.S.

Starring Edward G. Robinson as a G-man busting a Nazi spy ring, the film, produced with the assistance of former FBI agent Leon G. Turrou, was a loose adaptation of a factual spy trial, which involved officials in the Reich and their American operatives.  The movie suggested quite bluntly that German consulates were fronts for waging secret warfare against the country.

Based on the true story of a German-American recruited into a pro-fascist organization, the film was co-penned by leftist writer John Wexley (who also wrote the James Cagney 1938 vehicle Angels With Dirty Faces). Wexley later claimed that HUAC chair Martin Dies had lobbied Jack Warner to make the script critical of the Soviets as well.

An agit-prop piece about the dangers of fascist ideology as opposed to the values of democracy, the film was instrumental in bringing about the “Hollywood war-mongering” charges.

Litvak, who directed the film with passion and commitment, which reflected the zeitgeist, cast the villains with top-notch actors on the order of Francis Lederer, George Sanders, and Paul Lukas.

For authenticity, he inserted into the film newsreel footage, ominous narration, and other “semi-docu” devices to increase the effectiveness of the message.

When U.S.-based German officials protested, the movie was banned by countries, which feared offending Germany.  Released in the U.S. just months before WWII broke out–on April 28, 1939–however, it was a moderate popular success, prompting other studios to produce quickly other anti-Hitler films.

The character and portrayed by Ward Bond (uncredited) as an American Legionaire is based on an actual event that occurred in late April 1938, when 30 WWI US Veterans stood up to the Bund in New York during a celebration of Hitler’s birthday. The vets were severely beaten and later Cecil Schubert, who suffered a fractured skull, was recognized for bravery by Mayor La Guardia.

The film was more popular when it was re-released in 1940 with scenes describing events that had taken place since the initial release, such as the invasions of Norway and the Netherlands.

Confessions of a Nazi Spy was banned in Germany, Japan, and many Latin American and European countries. Hitler in particular banned all Warner productions from being shown in Nazi Germany as a result of this film.

Anatole Litvak

Litvak, who was born in Russia in 1902 and began his career in the silent era, is better known for his later melodramas (“All This and Heaven Too,” with Bette Davis, “The Snake Pit,” featuring Olivia De Havilland, “Anastasia,” with Ingrid Bergman) and film noir (“Sorry, Wong Number,” co-starring Burt Lancaster and Barbara Stanwyck).

 

Credits:

Directed by Anatole Litvak.

Screenplay by Milton Krims and John Wexley, with Leon G. Turrou acting as technical adviser.

 

Cast
Edward G. Robinson as Edward Renard
Francis Lederer as Kurt Schneider
George Sanders as Franz Schlager
Paul Lukas as Dr. Karl Kassel
Henry O’Neill as U.S. Atty. Kellogg
Dorothy Tree as Hilda Kleinhauer
Lya Lys as Erika Wolff
Grace Stafford as Helen Schneider
James Stephenson as British Military Intelligence agent
Celia Sibelius as Lisa Kassel
Joe Sawyer as Werner Renz
Sig Ruman as Dr. Julius Krogmann
Lionel Royce as Hintze