Thursday 18 January 2018

Hitler and Hollywood

The Nazis wanted to muzzle the influence of US movies, but how much control did they exert over 1930s Tinseltown?

Mein Fuhrer: Bruno Ganz as Hitler in 'Downfall' and, inset left, 'All Quiet on the Western Front', which Universal agreed to cut to make it more palatable to the Nazis
Mein Fuhrer: Bruno Ganz as Hitler in 'Downfall' and, inset left, 'All Quiet on the Western Front', which Universal agreed to cut to make it more palatable to the Nazis

Paul Whitington

In 1933, when the Nazi Party came to power in Germany, all seven of the major Hollywood studios were either owned or run by Jewish immigrants. Not the kind of folk, you'd imagine, who'd be keen on doing business with Hitler and his henchmen, but a controversial new book by a noted Harvard scholar claims that studios like MGM, Fox and Paramount effectively collaborated with the Nazis to gain access to the lucrative German market.

In The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler, Ben Urwand sets out to prove that Jewish studio heads like Louis B Mayer, Adolph Zukor, Carl Laemmle and Jack Warner happily played ball with Hitler's government in order to retain a foothold in cinema-mad Germany.

Major villain: Conrad Veidt in 'Casablanca'
Major villain: Conrad Veidt in 'Casablanca'

According to Urward they cut scenes from films, avoided reference to controversial subjects – especially Jewishness – and even suppressed entire movies both in Germany and at home in order to keep the Nazis happy, and only began to change their tune once it became obvious that America was about to enter the war.

Hitler and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had long been aware of the potential power of cinema in swaying public opinion, and once they came to power would control Germany's film industry with a rod of iron, pumping out mindless propaganda features that reinforced their crazy supremacist logic.

But the Nazis also realised that Hollywood movies were hugely popular in Germany, and Hitler quickly sought to muzzle the influence of American films in the Third Reich. As early as 1930, Goebbels was orchestrating protests against Lewis Milestone's masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front because of its anti-war message.

Nazi rioters let off stink bombs and released white mice at early screenings of the film in Munich and Berlin and, remarkably, Goebbels' tactics worked. Even though the Nazis weren't yet in government, Laemmie, the German-Jewish head of Universal Studios, agreed to cut All Quiet on the Western Front to make it more palatable.

Laemmie's needless volte face sent Hitler and Goebbels a clear sign that the Hollywood studios could be bullied into compromise, and through the 1930s the Nazis exerted a remarkable influence in tinseltown.

Hitler even had an unofficial Hollywood consul, Goerg Gyssling, a former Olympic bobsledder who regularly visited sets on the studio back lots to keep an eye on films being made that might be prejudicial to the Nazis.

Urwand alleges that Gyssling and Berlin came down hard on a project called The Mad Dog of Europe, a 1933 production that included dramatisations of Nazi persecution of Jews. The film was never made. Neither was It Can't Happen Here, a 1936 MGM production that unfavourably compared fascism with democracy and had Hitler's emissaries in Hollywood hopping up and down.

Another Jewish studio mogul, Jack Warner, ordered that the word 'Jew' be removed from all dialogue in the 1937 film The Life of Emile Zola, for fear of offending the German administration.

Ben Urwand's book offers many other examples of how studio bosses bent over backwards to accommodate the Nazis, and even includes the claim that MGM helped finance German rearmament by buying government bonds. But he's not the first to consider this subject, and other historians have accused him of sensationalism and inaccuracy.

The word 'collaboration' is particularly emotive, and summons up images of Quislings and turncoats and the wartime betrayal of innocent Jews in Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and France. Urwand seems to have picked the word from a quote by MGM's Louis B Mayer, who spoke of a "satisfying collaboration on both sides".

But to equate this quote with collaboration's wartime meaning seems disingenuous, even obtuse, because Urwand must know that Mayer and the other Hollywood moguls were pragmatists, not monsters.

It seems certain that they played ball with the Germans in order to get their films released, but to them Nazi Germany was just another market to be milked as efficiently as possible. The attacks on Jews there during the early and mid-1930s will have been troubling but not especially so to men who'd grown up listening to stories from their parents and grandparents about pogroms in their eastern European homelands.

There's no way the studio bosses could have foreseen that events like Kristallnacht would lead directly to the factories of death, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest that some of them helped Jews once they realised what was going on.

Carl Laemmle, the Universal Studios' chief who'd been so co-operative with Goebbels about All Quiet on the Western Front, later helped hundreds of Jews secure visas to the US, a fact Urwand is forced to acknowledge in his book.

MGM's "financing of rearmament" may merely have been a way of getting blocked currency out of Germany, and others have argued that Hollywood's supposedly compliant films contained numerous implied slights against the Nazi regime.

Brandeis scholar Tom Doherty, who recently published a book on the same subject called Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939, says Urwand's use of the word collaboration constituted a slander. "I don't see sinister, greedy monsters," Doherty has said.

"I see people trying to cope with this bizarre anomaly and negotiate in a way that made sense to them. Most people thought that once Hitler came to power he would moderate this crazy anti-Semitism and the rational German temperament would return. But of course it never does."

And historian Stephen Ross has found evidence that the studio heads actually financed an anti-Nazi spy ring in Hollywood at the same time as they were complying with German censorship demands.

It does seem that Urwand might have overstated his argument in order to attract attention to his book. The hard-bitten movie moguls were just behaving like the canny, pragmatic businessmen that they were, and once the worm had turned the studios began pumping out films involving memorable Nazi villains.

Warner Brothers were the first to openly criticise the Nazis, and as early as 1937 the studio was satirising fascism in the crime drama Black Legion. Humphrey Bogart played an embittered factory worker who gets out of his depth when he joins an anti-immigrant secret society that seemed a kind of cross between the Ku Klux Klan and the SS.

But it wasn't until 1939 that Hollywood openly attacked Hitler's ideologies by putting identifiable Nazi villains on screen in Warner Brothers' Confessions of a Nazi Spy, which starred Romanian Jew Edward G Robinson as a dogged FBI man on the trail of German infiltrators.

After that the gloves were off, and goose-stepping Germans became the stock villains of hundreds of Hollywood crime thrillers and B-pictures. Charlie Chaplin enraged Hitler by openly satirising him as a ludicrous popinjay in his 1940 comedy The Great Dictator, but by then it was clear that Franklyn D Roosevelt's government was siding with Britain in the war America would shortly join.

Thereafter, European character actors such as Conrad Veidt and Paul Lukas played sadistic and obnoxious German soldiers who met sorry ends in action films with an increasingly pro-Allied bias. The sneering Nazi would remain a much-loved Hollywood cliché for many decades to come.

Curiously, though, all of the big studios avoided the subject of Jewish persecution and the death camps like the plague. Even after the full extent of Nazi war crimes became known, Hollywood fought shy of confronting the full horror of the Holocaust head on.

It was touched on obliquely in 1960s and 1970s thrillers like The Pawnbroker and Marathon Man, but it wasn't really addressed directly until 1993, when Steven Spielberg decided to dramatise the life of perhaps the most sympathetic Nazi Party member of all – Oskar Schindler.

pwhitington@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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