Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)
May 21, 2020 | by Shannon
Edward G. Robinson Receives Death Threats from Nazis, Almost Joins the French Army, Is the First Movie Star in Normandy After D-Day, and Inspires the German Underground
1939’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy was a revolutionary film, the first major Hollywood production to overtly encourage US involvement in World War II. Based on FBI agent Leon G. Turrou’s real life takedown of a Nazi spy ring in America, the film was released two years before the United States entered WWII, and boldly displayed the dangers of Nazi Germany.
Almost all those involved in the making of Confessions of a Nazi Spy would receive death threats from Nazi sympathizers. The US State Department was told in no uncertain terms by the Nazi government to put an end to the production, and Joseph Goebbels himself threatened to produce damaging anti-American propaganda if the film was released.
Despite all these outside threats and influences, Warner Bros. would not be stopped: Confessions of a Nazi Spy was made, and the film became a personal favorite of Edward G. Robinson’s in the process.
If you missed the movie on TCM, it’s still available to watch on tcm.com. You can also purchase or rent the film here on Amazon [aff. link].
To the Plot!
It’s 1938, and German-American Bund leader, Doctor Karl Kassel (Paul Lukas) has been assigned by The Third Reich to rally Nazi support in America. Through his persuasive speeches, rhetoric, and propaganda pamphlets, Dr. Kassel inspires Kurt Schneider (Francis Lederer), a German immigrant disenchanted with his lack of worldly success in America, to become a spy. Schneider joins a spy ring, and begins passing US military secrets to the Nazi Party in Germany through Franz Schlager (George Sanders) and Hilda Kleinhauer (Dorothy Tree), two higher up members of the spy ring.
FBI agent Edward Renard (Edward G. Robinson) becomes aware of Nazi spy activity in America, and intercepts a communication between Schneider and the spy ring’s mail base in Scotland. Renard traces the letter back to Schneider, and brings him in for questioning.
Renard Takes Down the Nazi Spy Ring
After flattering Schneider’s ego, Renard gets a full confession about his espionage activities, and a lead to track down Schneider’s fellow spy, Hilda Kleinhauer.
Renard also gets a full confession from Kleinhauer, and he’s then able to successfully take down the other members of the spy ring one by one, including Dr. Kassel.
The SS finds out about Renard’s success, and manages to get Dr. Kassel and a few spies out of the US before they can testify in front of a grand jury. Undoubtedly however, the punishment awaiting Kassel and the others in Germany for confessing to Renard will be much worse than any espionage charge they would have received in the US…
In court, the grand jury finds all the spy ring members guilty. It’s a huge success for Renard, and the country at large.
America Wakes Up
The Nazi spy convictions receive large press coverage, and Americans begin to wake up to the menace of Hitler, and the necessity of the US entering the war. As U.S. Attorney Kellogg (Henry O’Neill), who prosecuted the spies in court, says to Renard at the end of the film,
“I don’t think Renard, that that kind of people [Nazis] are going to have much luck in this country. True, we’re a careless, easygoing, optimistic nation. But when our basic liberties become threatened, we wake up.”
And on that patriotic note, the film ends.
A True Story
Confessions of a Nazi Spy was based on the experiences of FBI agent, Leon G. Turrou. Turrou was known within the agency for his incredible linguistic skills, and worked at the FBI for ten years before he was assigned to lead an investigation into a Nazi spy ring. His writings on the takedown would be the basis for the film. An interesting note about Turrou’s interviews with the spies, it was reportedly one of the first times that polygraph tests, or as most of us probably better know them, lie detector tests, were used in an FBI investigation.
Warner Bros. producer Hal Wallis approached Edward G. Robinson about playing the lead in Confessions months before the film went into production. Even though Warner Bros. owned the story—which the studio actually bought before Turrou’s book was even published—there seemed to always be a reason why work on the film couldn’t begin.
As Robinson would recount in his autobiography [aff. link], Warner Bros. kept telling him that they really wanted start production,
“Only the script wasn’t ready. Only Warner’s couldn’t get the director they wanted. Only the studio was so busy, there were no stages available. Only—well, you know what was going on; they were scared to make it.”
The Film Nobody Would Make
Taking a step back, can you blame Warner Bros. for being so reluctant to make Confessions of a Nazi Spy?
It was 1938, and the US was not yet involved in the brewing conflict overseas. There was even great pressure from various groups within the country to keep the peace with Hitler and not get involved.
Confessions of a Nazi Spy would be the first overtly anti-Nazi, major Hollywood film: Warner Bros. had to have some worries about how Nazi Germany would react. And, there was probably some fear on a very personal level about offending The Third Reich with such a film, as so many in positions of power at Warner Bros. were Jewish, including the Warner brothers themselves.
It wasn’t until Herman Lissauer, head of research at the studio, found evidence of anti-Semitic actions by the German-American Bund—a pro-Nazi organization in the US—that Warner Bros. finally worked up the courage to get started on the film.
This, coupled with troubling pamphlets Lissauer discovered the Bund was distributing, with such frightening titles as “Nazi Instructions for Our Friends Overseas” and “Handbook for Foreign Germans,” were the final motivating factors for the studio. Hal Wallis informed Edward G. Robinson in December 1938 that it was full steam ahead.
Production would begin in January of 1939.
Almost immediately after work on Confessions of a Nazi Spy started, the cast, crew, and studio heads began to receive death threats. Jack Warner and his wife Ann were the first. According to the film’s producer Hal Wallis [aff. link],
“Threatening letters poured in. Robert Lord, Edward G. Robinson, and I all received letters from unknown people saying that if we proceeded, we risked death. We ignored them.”
The threatening letters and phone calls Robinson received were so profuse that Eddie had to change his telephone number—though the calls still made it through—and Warner Bros. hired body guards to watch him night and day. As Eddie shares in his autobiography [aff. link],
“During the filming of Confessions and in the months of its subsequent release, Warner Brothers were deluged with threatening mail. I myself received obscene letters and phone calls threatening me and my family with death. The studio put me under guard. I put Manny [Eddie’s son] under guard, and while I tried lightheartedly to dismiss the whole thing, I was worried.”
It was a harrowing time indeed, although in true Robinson form, Eddie would look back at this period, and make an incredibly hilarious and somehow elegant joke in his book about the hardest part of having a body guard:
“Going to the bathroom is probably one of the most difficult maneuvers when you are under security; my bodyguard told me it is one of the favorite targets of assassins, and I point it out only because it is an entertaining topic for dinner parties.”
I love how much personality and humor Eddie can put into even the most serious of situations.
Throughout filming, German government officials constantly met with Jack Warner to protest the film. The German-American Bund even threatened to sue Warner Bros. for $500,000 if the studio proceeded with Confessions. (The suit was eventually dropped when Bund leader Fritz Kuhn was jailed for embezzling Bund funds…)
Such threats so frightened some of the German members of the Confessions cast and crew that many requested their names be removed from the end credits. Hedwiga Reicher, the actress who plays Paul Lukas’ (Dr. Kassel) wife in the film, asked that a false name be used for her in the credits. That way, if the Nazis tried to retaliate against her for appearing in the film, they wouldn’t be able to harm her family that was still in Germany. (According to Wallis, Reicher was credited as “Mildren Embs” when Confessions was released.)
An Admirable Side Note
A quick side note that I absolutely love: while many Germans associated with the film understandably wished to keep their identities as secret as possible for fear of Nazi reprisals, there was one German superstar who wasn’t afraid to flaunt her anti-Nazi beliefs.
That star was none other than Marlene Dietrich.
Dietrich wanted desperately to be some way involved with Confessions of Nazi Spy, and hoped to play the role of hairdresser/Nazi spy Hilda Kleinhauer in the film. However, studio politics got in the way, and Marlene’s studio, Paramount, would not allow her to go to Warner Bros. to make the film.
Although I do think that Dorothy Tree, the actress who ended up with the part, does a superb job, how absolutely amazing would it have been if Marlene Dietrich had played the role?!!!!!
A Team Effort
Confessions of a Nazi Spy was nothing if not a team effort. Warner Bros. kept it a strictly closed set, and it seemed that everyone working on the production realized that this film was something special: the message Confessions of a Nazi Spy delivered was far more important than any one person or ego.
Director Anatole Litvak, famous for his tardiness on set and penchant for doing multiple takes and printing each one—quite an expensive process—arrived at the Confessions set on time each day, and appeased Hal Wallis’ request for fewer takes and prints without complaint.
And though it was written into his contract at the time that Edward G. Robinson would have star billing above the title in any film he made, Eddie didn’t have to be asked twice to forgo star billing to keep with the docudrama style of the film.
“You can bill me anywhere you want,”
Eddie told Hal Wallis. Robinson also supported keeping his name off of advertisements for the film, believing that doing so would encourage the message of Confessions of a Nazi Spy to take center stage. These efforts of Eddie and Wallis would make Confessions one of the first Hollywood films where the stars willingly downplayed their names to allow the film itself to take prominence over the actors in it.
A Dangerous Premiere and Unique Reception
The much anticipated film finally premiered in Beverly Hills on April 27, 1939. Eddie helped drum up even more excitement with the public by insisting in press interviews that
“The film is tame compared to the truth.”
Three days before the Confessions premiere, a bomb squad was placed on top of the theater to ensure that nothing was planted on the roof to be detonated through chimneys or air vents during the premiere. Police and guards secured the perimeter of the theater, and plainclothes detectives secretly sat among audience members, just in case any threats by the Nazi government and sympathizers were carried out.
Very few in the audience had any idea just how may security measures were taken at the theater.
Confessions of a Nazi Spy received a standing ovation from the audience at the end of its premiere. But though the film would do well domestically, its success abroad was another story, due to the fact that it was banned in so many countries: Germany, Italy, Holland, Yugoslavia, Norway, Sweden, Japan, and many Latin American countries were among those that refused to show the film. Other European countries didn’t ban Confessions, but the consequences of seeing it were enough to keep many theatergoers from taking the risk: in Poland, two of the film’s distributors were actually killed.
There’s no doubt that Anatole Litvak’s inclusion in Confessions of a Nazi Spy of actual footage from Joseph Goebbels’ speeches, clips of a violent German-American Bund meeting in New York City, and even scenes from German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will made the Nazi government even more violently opposed to the film.
Robinson's Thoughts on the Film
Robinson himself thought the direction of Anatole Litvak an inspiration, and believed the only thing keeping Confessions of a Nazi Spy from being
“…an artistic triumph was due to the fact that the participating actors, including myself, were too familiar to be taken seriously…The picture suffered from the familiarity of its cast.”
Eddie is referring to himself, Paul Lukas, and Francis Lederer here as being too familiar to audiences for Confessions of a Nazi Spy to be effective.
But I must disagree.
The familiarity of Robinson’s face in particular drew me into the film: while watching, I found myself thinking, “this is Edward G. Robinson, and he’s going to take down some Nazis!” Robinson’s recognizable face made me feel invested and involved in the action on screen. If the main goal of Confessions of a Nazi Spy really was to encourage Americans to support US entry into WWII, then Eddie’s familiar face as an FBI agent bringing spies to justice was probably the most effective casting Warner Bros. could have asked for.
Regardless of Robinson’s feelings about the movie being short of an artistic triumph, Confessions of a Nazi Spy would list among the favorite films of his career.
An Interesting Vacation Choice...
Despite his political savvy and greater awareness than most of what was happening in Europe, Eddie decompressed after filming Confessions by taking his family on vacation to his beloved Europe in the summer of 1939, just months before Hitler invaded Poland in September. The Robinsons spent most of the trip in France, but as Eddie would recount in his autobiography,
“By now the acrid smell of war was in the air, and as it grew closer, I began making frantic efforts to get us all back to safety. We had return tickets on the Athenia…”
If you’re a history buff, you probably remember that the Athenia was the first British passenger ship to be sunk by German U-boats, or submarines, during the war. And Edward G. Robinson and his family were almost passengers on it.
Luckily for the Robinsons, something happened with their reservations, and they were told they’d have to book passage home on another ship. What a tragic end to Edward G. Robinson’s life and career it would have been, had his reservations on the Athenia not been lost.
Eddie would say in his autobiography that
“Deep in my heart, I would have liked to remain in France. I felt like a coward leaving. I wanted to join the French Army, help man at the Maginot Line and even made a stab at it. I was not laughed at—at least, not in my presence.”
Eddie's Contributions to the War Effort
Though Eddie didn’t join the French Army and would not see combat due to his age—he was nearly 50 years old by the time the US entered the war in 1941, Robinson’s contributions to the war effort were great.
In September of 1942, Eddie received a wire from the Office of War Information asking if he’d be willing to fly to London to broadcast morale-boosting speeches to the British, German, Romanian, Russian, French, and people of any occupied country whose language he spoke. Eddie was so eager to assist in the war effort, his excitement over receiving the wire is absolutely contagious:
“They wanted me! And I never wanted to do anything so much in my life.”
Robinson’s broadcasts in German were perhaps the most challenging, as Eddie feared his German would be infused with too much Yiddish–yet another language he spoke–to be audible. But as members of the German Underground would be risking their lives to listen to Eddie’s broadcasts at previously scheduled times, on illegal radios no less, there was no time for him to practice.
He needn’t have worried though, for Eddie’s German was clear and fluent, so much so that he was told he should even speak a little more “gutturally and colloquially” in his broadcasts.
At the time, Robinson had no idea if his messages would even get through to the German Underground:
“Did I get through? Was there an Underground in Germany that listened? Was I talking into thin air—jammed thin air, at that? I did not know for years. Then, when the war was over, I began getting letters from Germans who praised my wartime broadcasts, told me I had given then hope.”
How amazing that must have been for Eddie to finally know, years later, that his voice and encouraging messages had brought hope to people during one of the most challenging and tragic times in history.
Little Caesar Entertains the Troops
In addition to his broadcasting, Eddie would also entertain the troops during WWII. He was the first film star to visit Normandy after D-Day. Though he wished to express his appreciation for all those who risked their lives protecting freedom and liberty daily, Eddie discovered that what the troops really wanted was not his emotional thanks and gratitude, but Little Caesar.
So Eddie enlisted Jack Benny’s help to put together a few routines that would incorporate some of the mannerisms and catch phrases so identified with Eddie and his gangster persona:
“Pipe down, you mugs, or I’ll let you have it. Whaddaya hear from the mob?”
was a particularly popular line Eddie delivered, always to great laughter and applause. He even wore a fedora and trench coat to further make Little Caesar real for the troops.
He was an undeniable favorite.
Despite his great patriotism and contributions to the war effort, Eddie’s involvement in several Anti-Nazi organizations beginning in the late 1930s would put him on the FBI’s radar: ironically, Eddie’s staunch anti-Nazi stand would worry some in positions of power within the US government that he was soft on communism, or may even be a communist himself.
How unspeakably frustrating is that?
The way Robinson saw it, the matter of greatest importance during the war years was to stop Hitler. As Eddie himself would say,
“I have made no bones about the fact that I belonged to and supported every organization that was opposed to Hitler.”
If some of the people working alongside him in those organizations happened to be communists, Eddie continued,
“…so be it, I would deal with that later. The first and prime consideration was major and undiluted opposition to the Third Reich.”
Sounds like a completely realistic and pragmatic approach to me.
Unfortunately, when the House Un-American Activities Committee began its blacklisting and communist witch hunts in the post war years, HUAC would view Eddie’s intents and affiliations during the war with a suspicious eye that would prove almost detrimental to his career.
Only a man of Edward G. Robinson’s strong character and fighting spirit could get through the tough years ahead.
More Robinson Next Week!
And that’s it for Confessions of a Nazi Spy.
And be sure to join me next week as I review not just one of my favorite Edward G. Robinson films, but one of my very favorite films ever, 1944’s Double Indemnity.