In the 1930's, Hollywood studios agreed to censor and sometimes cancel films in order to remain active in Nazi Germany. Bob talks to Ben Urwand, author of The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler about this oft-forgotten chapter of American history.
BOB GARFIELD: Looking back can not only yield fresh perspective on a familiar story, it can upend years of accumulated mythology about events. For example, if you think about Hollywood in the World War II era, most likely you'll think of its constant, often heavy-handed, support of the war effort. Such films as The Great Dictator, To Be or Not to Be, Confessions of a Nazi Spy and, of course, Casablanca were ruthlessly anti-German.
[NAZI SOLDIERS SINGING DIE WA CHT AM RHEIN]
HUMPHREY BOGART AS RICK: Play La Marseillaise, play it.
[AMERICANS SING LA MARSEILLAISE/DROWNING OUT GERMAN ANTHEM]
BOB GARFIELD: But as the story Ben Urwand reveals in his new book, The Collaboration, in the 1930s, both during and after Hitler's rise to power, Hollywood knowingly helped the Nazis. The major studios allowed the German government to censor their movies, not just in Germany but worldwide, to eradicate any negativity about the Third Reich. Irwin says the unholy collaboration began after a riot sparked by the Nazis during the Berlin premiere of 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
BEN URWAND: The movie was canceled that day, and then a few days later the movie was banned in Germany. And a censorship meeting was held and they suggested a series of cuts that should be made. One year later, Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Pictures, came up with a new version of the film that contained none of the objectionable scenes. And the German censor said, we will screen this film in Germany, if you agree to make these cuts in all of the versions that will be screened around the world, which, of course, included the United States. And Carl Laemmle agreed to do this. And that decision really set the scene for the rest of the decade.
BOB GARFIELD: It wasn't an anti-German film. It was an antiwar film. What were Goebbels and the brownshirts agitating over?
BEN URWAND: From our perspective, All Quiet on the Western Front was an antiwar film. It appeared to just be showing the horrors of war. It appeared to be a pacifist film.
LEW AYRES AS PAUL BÄUMER: You still think it's beautiful and sweet to die for your country, don’t you? Well, we used to think you knew. A first bombardment taught us better. It’s dirty and painful to die for your country! When it comes to dying for your country, it's better not to die at all. There are millions out there dying for their countries, and what good is it?
BEN URWAND: From the German perspective, however, this is not what All Quiet on the Western Front was about. The Hollywood studios had been making movies from World War I, which showed German aggression and German defeat. In the first World War, one of the most notorious films was, The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, which showed the German Kaiser committing all sorts of atrocities. The Nazis didn't believe that Germany had lost the war on the battlefield. The Nazis believed that the reason Germany had lost the war was because of propaganda that convinced German soldiers that they were losing. So this was a part, in their opinion, of a continuing propaganda effort against Germany.
BOB GARFIELD: There was a diplomat at the German Consulate whose sole job was to go over scripts and look for anything that could portray Germany and Nazism in a, in a bad light.
BEN URWAND: That's right. His name was Georg Gyssling, and he got involved in about 20 different Hollywood productions. The ones at the beginning of the decade were the most important, because those decisions really set the course for all of the 1930s. But he would meet with studio heads and he would dictate cuts that should be made to films after he’d been given personal screenings. And reports would then be sent out to all of the German consulates and embassies around the world. And then those representatives would go out and watch the movies, in their respective countries, and if there were any cuts that had not been made, that had been promised, measures would be taken against the Hollywood studios.
BOB GARFIELD: How could one country have been so important for Hollywood box office that the studios would so appease this nascent tyranny?
BEN URWAND: The Hollywood studios had been in Germany for decades, and they had these distribution offices in Berlin. They hired hundreds of people. And they felt that it was worth staying to preserve their investment. And, as the decade progressed, it seemed more and more likely that Hitler would start a European war. And if Hitler started a war and he took over other foreign territories, and they had left Germany, they might not be able to continue in those other territories, as well.
BOB GARFIELD: Oh, dear God. So you’re describing a hedge.
BEN URWAND: Right. And there are some very disturbing statements that I found when MGM, Paramount and Fox were finally expelled from Germany in the middle of 1940, where they said things like, maybe in the future we’ll be allowed to sell our movies in Germany again, under new conditions outlined by the Nazis. And the implication of that, of course, is that Hitler would win the war.
BOB GARFIELD: What you describe is horrifying on the face of it. It is even more mind-boggling, in view of the fact that the man you described earlier, the head of Universal, Carl Laemmle, Jewish, the heads of most of the major studios, Jewish, the creative ranks of all of the major studios, heavily Jewish. This was Jews appeasing Nazis. How?
BEN URWAND: My book really puts the various pieces of this story together. It's a complicated story. It's not one about a single Jewish voice, of the studio heads doing business with the Nazis. It's about conflict within the Jewish community in Los Angeles. at the time. It's also about individual screenwriters in Hollywood, who were Jewish, who felt that what the studio heads were doing was a terrible, terrible mistake and who tried to urge the studio heads to make movies about the Nazis. And the first screenwriter who proposed such a film was Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote Citizen Kane. And he drafted a script in 1933.
BOB GARFIELD: Mad Dog of Europe was the title of the script.
BEN URWAND: Yes. And Georg Gyssling went around Hollywood and said that if this movie were made, then the studios would no longer be able to do business in Germany. And Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, declared, we have a tremendous profit in Germany and, as far as I'm concerned, this picture will never be made.
BOB GARFIELD: Now eventually, in fulfillment of all of Goebbels’ worst fears, when United States entered the war, Hollywood was unleashed as a propaganda force against the Germans. When – when did the censorship end and the transition to anti-Nazi storylines take over?
BEN URWAND: Well, the myth up to this point has been that Warner Bros., which made Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939, declared war on the Nazis, and that ended Hollywood’s relationship with the Nazis.
ACTOR: I am a Nazi spy, I am one of thousands stationed in every part of the United States to steal the secrets of your national defense.
BEN URWAND: But this movie did not end Hollywood's relationship with the Nazis. MGM, Paramount and Fox all continued doing business with Nazi Germany all the way up to the middle of 1940. The reason the arrangement with Nazi Germany ended was not because Warner Bros. made its film, but because Hitler started a war in Europe. And after September, 1939, it became increasingly difficult for Hollywood to export movies in not just Germany, but also England and France, which were, at that point, much bigger export markets. And so, 20th Century Fox begins its first anti-Nazi film, which was called Four Sons. And MGM begins its first anti-Nazi film, which is a much more significant film, The Mortal Storm.
Georg Gyssling issues protests, as you would expect, but the studios, at this point, don't listen and they go ahead and make these films. And, by the middle of 1940, MGM is kicked out of Germany, then 20th Century Fox is kicked out of Germany and Paramount, which hadn’t made an anti-Nazi film, and had even pointed this out, was kicked out of Germany. And that was when the great storm of anti-Nazi films was unleashed.
BOB GARFIELD: Your, your book is about venality and greed and cynicism, moral compromise. But there is even evidence that the studios had real blood on their hands, because of German laws that restricted the expatriation of Reich marks from Germany for Hollywood films screened there. The studios had to take their proceeds, well and do what with them?
BEN URWAND: In 1933, the Germans passed a law that prevented all foreign businesses operating in Germany from withdrawing their Reich marks and turning them into foreign currency. What Paramount of 20th Century Fox did was they took the money from the proceeds from their films, they invested those Reich marks in German cameramen and they bought German film stock, and they shot images of the nationalistic events in Germany, and they made these newsreels, which were screened in Germany. The newsreels were essentially pro-Nazi in content. They then sent that footage back to Hollywood. And that footage was reshaped so that newsreels were made, not pro-Nazi in tone but neutral in tone, which showed what was happening in Germany. And those newsreels were then sold all around the world. I mean, this way Paramount and 20th Century Fox recouped their profits through the sale of these newsreels.
But MGM didn't make newsreels in Germany. And, as the decade progressed, the studio was unable to export its money and was steadily accruing a German bank account, full of Reich marks. And in December 1938, one month after Kristallnacht, MGM comes to an arrangement with the German government, whereby it can export its money only if it invests in German firms that are producing German armaments. And that is how MGM exported its profits from December 1938 onwards, by investing in the production of German armaments.
BOB GARFIELD: Louis B. Mayer, Nazi war profiteer.
BEN URWAND: The document that I found does not mention Louis B. Mayer specifically, but it leaves no doubt that that was how MGM was exporting its profits.
BOB GARFIELD: Ben, thank you very much.
BEN URWAND: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Ben Urwand, a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard, is the author of The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler.
[CASABLANCA CLIP/”AS TIME GOES BY”]:
DOOLEY WILSON SINGING:
And when two lovers woo,
They still say, "I love you."
On that you can rely,
No matter what the future brings,
As time goes by.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Laura Mayer. We had more help from Zac Spencer and Megan Teehan. And the show was edited this week by our Senior Producer Katya Rogers.
Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Dunne and Ian Turner. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s VICE President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Brooke Gladstone is attending her daughter’s wedding. Congratulations, Max. She’ll be back in a couple of weeks. I’m Bob Garfield.