Thursday, September 23, 2010
"Confessions of a Nazi Spy" starts off as a documentary-style revelation of secret Nazi spies in the U.S. meeting and gathering information to send back to Germany. By the end it becomes less a narrative film and more a message about the dangers lurking in the dark. It's interesting enough but falls short of greatness.
This 1939 release was apparently the first major studio release to attack the Nazi party, and Germany was none too happy with Warner Brothers for doing so. The foreign markets were still open, although it was becoming clear what would soon be happening. And since the film made money, other studios followed with their own Nazi-themed stories.
I must admit the trailer is a lot of fun and I love the ending tagline, "It was our duty to make it, it's your American privilege to see it!" That's marketing gold.
The movie opens without the usual credits that typified almost all movies of this time. It goes right into the silhouette of the narrator setting up the story, much like a radio announcer or radio newsman, giving everything an authentic feel to what's going to happen next. And indeed it does unfold -- an international spy ring where messages are funneled through a contact in England, where Dr. Kassel (Paul Lukas) gives rousing pro-Nazi talks to loyal Germans living in the U.S., where Germany plots how to infiltrate the U.S. and gather its secrets, where children are groomed to be good Nazis.
The film also makes it clear that a majority of Germans in the U.S. were loyal to America. About halfway through the film G-man Ed Renard (Edward G. Robinson) is put on the case, and America can breathe easier. While Robinson is great -- I mean, what Nazi is gonna win out over Little Caesar? -- this also takes some of the wind out of the story, because Renard is so competent that the outcome is no longer in doubt. Plus, the last half hour becomes so predictable that the intriguing characters lose any dimension.
In hindsight, the film would have worked better had the audience learned more about some of the characters. Why did they decide to become a spy? Why did they leave Germany in the first place? Giving them some dimension may have made the piece stronger rather than relying on black-and-white depictions of good and evil.
But ultimately this film is about selling the goods, even if they are obvious. The title is a giveaway that the filmmakers are going for sensationalism. And, since this was the first film to go this route, why not? Unfortunately, 70 years later, it's more of a curiosity piece than a classic with some good performance (George Sanders in particular, clearly showing the suave devil he would play so well in the future). "Confessions" is very watchable but not as daring as it once was.