Nazis Go to Hollywood
A review of ‘The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler’
Nazis are bad dudes. Seriously, those guys are like the worst. And for years they’ve been the go-to bad guys for Hollywood. From Casablanca to Indiana Jones and well into the present, Nazis have been dependable antagonists. What would Hollywood do without these guys?
Actually, there was a time when the Nazis were not stock villains. In fact, throughout the 1930s, major Hollywood studios were often in direct contact with Nazi officials. And some of those Nazis exercised considerable control over the production and content of films.
This is the chilling subject of The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler by Ben Urwand.
Based on his archival research in the United States and Germany, Urwand reveals a shocking and largely unknown chapter of American history—one that complicates the traditional narrative of Hollywood as an anti-fascist force.
What’s really strange is that a big proportion of early studio founders and producers were Jewish. Many hailed from Eastern Europe and Germany, and a lot of them still had family in those places. In theory, they had every reason to oppose Hitler.
But as Urwand explains, there was one big, lucrative reason not to: access to the German film market.
Hitler loved movies. Urwand describes how the Nazi leader would watch a movie every single night after dining, and would insist that his housekeepers and any guests join him. He would watch in total, mesmerized silence.
Hitler’s love of film started early and profoundly influenced his worldview. He recognized how powerful movies could be—how films could influence culture and public opinion.
Before even becoming chancellor, Hitler instigated what would be called “The Film War” in Germany by launching a massive Nazi campaign to boycott the anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front.
Nazi members rioted and disrupted screenings of the film. Joseph Goebbels was present at one screening and stood up giving a speech denouncing the film as anti-German propaganda. A heavily censored version of the movie was eventually released.
Once the Nazis became the ruling power in Germany, their influence on the movies only grew. The Nazis installed a man in Hollywood to lead the party’s efforts. Georg Gyssling was stationed at the German consulate in Los Angeles.
One of his primary missions was to keep tabs on major Hollywood studios and their productions. In partnership with organizations like the German American Bund and with a large network of contacts in L.A. and New York, Gyssling exercised considerable sway over the American film industry.
Using a mixture of carrot and stick, Gyssling courted studio officials. The stick was often the invocation of Article Fifteen, a German law that blacklisted any studio that released a film deemed offensive to the German people. One false step, and a studio could be barred from making any money in Nazi Germany.
When the Nazis objected to Give Us the Night because of the film’s Jewish score composer, Paramount allowed it to be dubbed over by a German composer. When Jewish studio employees at branch offices in Germany were harassed, the studios simply replaced them with workers that Berlin considered acceptable.
In a roundabout sort of way, MGM even financed German weapons purchases, according to evidence Urwand presents.
Gyssling was able to outright kill projects like the Mad Dog of Europe and It Can’t Happen Here, anti-fascist productions the Germans vehemently objected to. Growing bolder, the Nazis pressured studios to scuttle any productions featuring overtly Jewish themes or characters.
Which is not to say that Jewish film professionals had no voice. Some studios including United Artists and Warner Brothers had already been blacklisted by the German government under Article Fifteen. As result, Gyssling had little sway over them. The result was films like Confessions of a Nazi Spy and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.
By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the relationship between Hollywood and the Nazis had already soured. The war provided Hollywood a whole slew of new opportunities with the production of newsreels and propaganda films and endless stories from abroad to mine for material. Hollywood backed government bond sales and, in a major reversal, rallied the American people to fight the Nazis.
Urwand’s book is a valuable addition to our understanding of America’s relationship with Nazi Germany in the pre-war years, as well as an often uncomfortable but necessary examination of the power of pop culture and its intersection with politics and propaganda.