Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)
Directed by Anatole Litvak this straightforward anti-Nazi propaganda film was based on real events involving a New York spy ring and four of its members that were convicted of spying on behalf of the German government. After about 45 minutes of set-up and character establishment Edward G. Robinson is introduced as the FBI agent who ends up unraveling the ring. Francis Lederer George Sanders Paul Lukas and Sig Ruman among others play various Nazis whereas Henry O’Neill plays the U.S. Attorney who prosecutes the four accused. The film’s historical value lies in its telling of actual events which occurred in the same time period (the growth of Nazism in Europe) its relating the obviously flawed Nazi philosophies & methods and in its alerting the American audiences at that time of the very real dangers which existed within the United States (e.g. “loose lips sink ships”).
The story begins at a meeting being held in a room which adjoins a German restaurant in New York. Dr. Kassel (Lukas) a committed Nazi party member is telling his fellow German Americans in attendance that their loyalty should be to their fatherland. That their fuhrer (Adolf Hitler) has declared war against all democracies and that it is their duty to carry out his wishes. Ward Bond uncredited appears as an American Legionnaire in attendance who objects to the rhetoric and is promptly thrown out. Kurt Schneider (Lederer) an out of work language teacher is so caught up in proceedings that he writes letters to Germany hoping Nazi party leadership will consider using him as a spy. Franz Schlager (Sanders) accompanied by an assistant Hilda Kleinhauer (Dorothy Tree) who regularly cross the Atlantic on the Bismarck visit Schneider to see if he’s gotten the information he’d been ordered to obtain by those in Germany. By using his daring and his live-in friend Werner Renz (Joe Sawyer) Schneider had; he’s given $50/month for his troubles and eventually is assigned more difficult tasks. Frustrated by not being given more responsibility and pay for his wife (Grace Stafford) is pregnant Schneider writes a letter to the liaison (Eily Malyon) in Scotland which when its intercepted by British Military Intelligence (James Stephenson) begins the spy ring’s downfall.
FBI agent Ed Renard (Robinson) quickly realizes the significance of what the letter means and the amateur nature of its author. John Hamilton appears uncredited as an FBI chief. He is also able to (all to easily) capture Schneider when he’s daring enough to try to obtain 15 blank passports for Schlager. Using Schneider’s vanity against him Renard’s questions lead him to Hilda and then Kassel who’s affair with another woman (Lya Lys) contributes to his undoing. Renard’s simple techniques for obtaining confirmation of his suspicions and the Germans willingness to confess their deeds make the story rather incredible. Schneider’s wife (Hedwiga Reicher) inadvertently leads him into the Gestapo’s hands and Krogman (Ruman) gaffes by admitting to Renard that the suspects are operating on orders from the German government. In any event some of the guilty parties (the characters played by Lederer Tree Sawyer and Hans Heinrich von Twardowski’s Max Helldorf character) are successfully prosecuted whereas Kassel and draftsman Westphal (Wolfgang Zilzer) are returned via the Bismarck to face penalties in their own country at the hands of the Gestapo (Lionel Royce & Henry Victor). Another German American Greutzwald (Willy Kaufman) had been dealt with earlier for disagreeing with Kassel’s speeches. Selmer Jackson John Ridgely Regis Toomey and Charles Trowbridge are all recognizable in small uncredited parts.