Movies and Nazism: the stories not told

Movies and Nazism: the stories not told

Drew U. conference focuses on Hollywood’s response to Hitler

Susan Carruthers, a professor of history at Rutgers-Newark, seated below a poster for The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin’s satirical 1940 film portrait of Adolf Hitler. Carruthers said the Production Code, which laid out strict regulations
Susan Carruthers, a professor of history at Rutgers-Newark, seated below a poster for The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin’s satirical 1940 film portrait of Adolf Hitler. Carruthers said the Production Code, which laid out strict regulations

Hollywood was slow to make anti-Nazi movies before World War II, and even more reluctant to show the reality of the Holocaust, according to scholars who assembled for a conference at Drew University.

While that may be strange for an industry led by a number of prominent Jews, it reflected the era’s politics, production codes, and business considerations, they said. 

“Hollywood produced 242 movies during the war referring explicitly to the Nazis and 190 referring directly to Hitler,” said Susan Carruthers, a professor of history at Rutgers University’s Newark campus.

However, she added, “Hollywood did a particularly woeful job” of telling Americans about the Nazi genocide. “The concentration camp isn’t [depicted as] a site of mass slaughter, and concentration camps as Hollywood depicted them aren’t particularly places in which Jews are the predominant inmates. There is no intimation of a holocaust.”

The conference, titled “Hollywood and Nazi Germany, 1933-1945 Stories Told/Stories Untold,” was held Nov. 13. 

Sponsored by the university’s Center for Holocaust/Genocide Studies, it drew a mix of scholars, survivors, film buffs, and members of the Jewish community to the Madison campus.

According to Joshua Kavaloski, assistant director of the Holocaust/Genocide Studies center, until the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, a key architect of the Nazis’ internment and extermination of European Jews, “few Americans understood the magnitude of the crimes committed by the Nazis and their allies.”

Because “the German market was an important market” for Hollywood studios, most of which were led by Jewish immigrants from Europe, American moviemakers treaded gingerly — if at all — in treating the rise of Nazis and the persecution and murder of European Jews, according to Thomas Doherty, professor of American studies at Brandeis University.

Even before the Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935 to deprive Jews of of their rights as German citizens, “Adolf Hitler quickly called on the studios to not employ Jews in their German offices, said Doherty. Paramount, 20th Century Fox, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer complied with Hitler’s demand, while smaller studios such as RKO, United Artists, and Columbia closed down their offices in Berlin.

Warner Brothers, however, cut off relations entirely with Germany. “They said, ‘Screw you; we’re leaving,’” said Doherty.

As a result, “there were very few images of Nazis on the screen, and from feature films, Americans had very little idea of what Nazism was” in the 1930s, he said. Part of the reason was that studio heads felt it necessary “to be a little quiet about this so we don’t enliven American anti-Semitism and we don’t want to have blowback on our fellow Jews in Germany.”

Movie moguls also had to contend with the studio-imposed Production Code, a strict set of content guidelines for American movies. Aside from its limits on expressions of sexuality, the Code banned “willful offense to any “nation, race, or creed” and “picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry.” 

Banks would not approve financing for films perceived to be in defiance of the code.

“This basically means you can’t criticize any people on the planet,” Doherty pointed out. “You can’t go after a regime.”

Carruthers said the Code prevented anti-Nazi films until 1939, when Warner Brothers produced Confessions of a Nazi Spy. It was based on an FBI investigation of Nazi spy rings operating in the United States before America’s entry into World War II.

But enforcers of the Production Code took issue with the film. “To represent Hitler only as a screaming madman and a bloodless persecutor and nothing else,” said Code official Karl Lischka, “is manifestly unfair to his phenomenal public career, his unchallenged political and social achievements, and his position as head of the most important continental European power.”

No further anti-Nazi films were shown until June of 1940, when MGM released The Mortal Storm. It was essentially a love story between an anti-Nazi German man and a woman who is presented as a “non-Aryan.” The word “Jew” is never spoken. 

New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called the film “blistering anti-Nazi propaganda,” but suggested it should have been made much earlier. 

And, said Carruthers, the author of the book upon which it was based, Phyllis Bottome, said she regretted that “MGM had so diluted the potency of her novel by refusing to announce a leading character’s Jewishness.”

Similarly, The Man I Married, released by 20th Century Fox in August 1940, concerned an American woman who weds a Nazi Party member, but, Carruthers noted, “its promotional posters made no allusion to Nazi Germany whatsoever.”

One audience member cautioned about judging the studios in the context of what we know today.

“Before we criticize the Jewish Hollywood studio moguls for not making more anti-Nazi movies, we have to remember that as glamorous and powerful as the studios appeared, they were nothing more than factories whose products were movies, preferably ones that were highly entertaining,” Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest, told NJJN. “They were manufacturers whose funding depended on Wall Street bankers, most of whom were not Jewish or predisposed to invest in films that might bomb at the box office.”

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