The Magazine

Screen Test

How the movies did business with the Third Reich.

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By J. P. O’MALLEY
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Between 1942 and 1945, Hollywood produced a plethora of antifascist movies. Of the 1,500 titles released during this period, over half of them referred to the Second World War; 242 made reference to the Nazis, and 190 mentioned Adolf Hitler. The role American movies played in helping the United States defeat fascist Germany—in the populist version of history—reads almost like a screenplay: Brave producers and directors invested time and money on motion pictures that stood for freedom and democratic principles, Hollywood was declared a bastion of democracy, and Hitler was defeated. The End. 



Casablanca (1942) fits perfectly into this narrative: The plot involves two lovers sacrificing their romantic friendship in order to continue the fight against tyranny. Shortly after its release, Variety commended Casablanca for its “anti-Axis propaganda.” But if one is to analyze the actual history of Hollywood’s relationship with fascism, a more sinister picture emerges. Ben Urwand’s study is the result of nine years of research, much of which he accumulated from German censorship records and the dusty archives of various Hollywood studios. His thesis is a controversial one: arguing that the Hollywood studio system, by using motion pictures as a propaganda tool, actively assisted the Nazis to fuel their campaign of anti-Semitism in Germany during the 1930s. There is irony in this, of course, since the powerful executives who supposedly put Reichsmarks before moral values were all Jews. 

To help the reader understand how the decade-long relationship between Hollywood and the Nazis developed, Urwand recalls a forgotten moment in Hollywood history: the first public showing of All Quiet on the Western Front in Germany.

The premiere was due to take place in the Mozartsaal cinema in Berlin on December 5, 1930. Three hundred Nazi protesters bought tickets for the performance and started a riot as the curtains came down. Joseph Goebbels, who would go on to become propaganda minister in the Hitler regime, described All Quiet—based on the bestselling work by the German novelist Erich Maria Remarque—as an attempt to destroy Germany’s national prestige. After just six days, it was withdrawn from German cinemas. A year later, Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures, offered the German Foreign Office a “revised” version of the film; it was approved and became a roaring success. 

From this moment on, the moguls of Hollywood began to make concessions to the German government, ensuring that all movies met its standard of approval. When Hitler became chancellor in 1933, the Nazis employed a permanent representative to Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, whose job was to educate and train Hollywood studios about German “pride” and “tradition.” 

Gyssling also played a key role in invoking Article 15, a legal clause that the German government had imposed on the film industry the year before. Its aim was simple but effective: threaten American studios with the loss of their import permits for the German market if they distributed any movie that was considered anti-German. 

As long as dollars kept pouring in from Germany, studio bosses were happy to keep meeting Nazi demands. A letter that Urwand produces here confirms this. It was sent in January 1938 from the Berlin branch of Twentieth Century-Fox directly to Hitler’s office. “We would be very grateful,” it says, “if you could provide us with a note from the Führer in which he expresses his opinion of the value and effect of American films in Germany. .  .  . Heil Hitler!” Even as late as December 1938, one month after Kristallnacht, MGM, then the largest motion picture company in the United States, was receiving bonds in exchange for loans it provided to German arms companies.

All of this ended, of course, when America entered the Second World War and the studios began investing in antifascist propaganda.

The facts presented here are all true: Hollywood was guilty of appeasing Nazi Germany—as long as it yielded profits—throughout the 1930s. But Urwand’s argument is not placed in any kind of historical or cultural context. The actions of the moguls were, indeed, brutal and selfish; but Urwand seems to miss a very salient point: The studio bosses were ruthless businessmen aiming to make money in what they felt was a healthy marketplace. They were not, as Urwand’s title suggests, “collaborating” with Nazis. Their decision to do business in Germany was based on practical, rather than ideological, principles. It is also difficult to believe, as Urwand suggests, that the studio heads derived some sense of schadenfreude from witnessing the misfortune of fellow Jews.