In the Shadow of Jew Süss

Did Hollywood Collaborate with Hitler? A New Book Makes Bold Claims

A new book makes big claims for how Hollywood collaborated with Nazi censorship before World War II, but Christopher Bray says hold on.

In the preface to his essay collection Language and Silence George Steiner bemoans the knowledge “that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.” Ben Urwand’s new book has similarly daunting news for movie buffs. Adolf Hitler loved the silver screen too. In the company of his household staff and whatever guests he was entertaining, he would watch a picture every night, either in the private cinema he had fitted in the Reich Chancellery or in the great hall of his holiday home, the Berghof near Berchtesgaden.

His taste wasn’t bad either. He laughed at Mickey Mouse, he adored Greta Garbo, and he couldn’t get enough of Laurel and Hardy. On the other hand, he wasn’t much of a critic. His judgments never extended far beyond a Siskel and Ebert–style thumbs up (“good!”) or thumbs down (“bad”), though should he find a movie loathsome—Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, say, or the Charles Boyer race relations weepie Shanghai—he would stand up midscreening and order that the projector be switched off.

Ordering that projectors be switched off, Urwand makes clear, was standard Nazi practice. Back in 1930, three years before Hitler came to power, his henchmen caused such tumult in cinemas showing Universal’s All Quiet on the Western Front that the authorities closed the picture down on the grounds that it was an affront to German self-esteem. Certainly Hitler was affronted by Lewis Milestone’s Oscar winner. He despised it for showing war not as an arena of bravery and honor but as a locus of dread and fear. Far from burnishing the myth of comradeship Hitler retained from his own days in the trenches of the Great War, it showed the pant-wetting terror of young recruits being ordered to die for their country. Worst of all, the picture dared wonder whether the conflict might have been started by the Kaiser (“Every full-grown emperor needs one war to make him famous”), whereas Hitler knew everything was the result of the machinations of international Jewry.

Over in Hollywood, Universal’s president, Carl Laemmle, was distraught at the treatment All Quiet on the Western Front was getting in his home country. After re-editing the movie along the lines of Hitler’s critique, he sent new prints to Berlin in the hope of getting it rereleased. The German Foreign Office said yes—so long as his cuts were made to every print of the film in every country around the world. At which point Laemmle rolled over, and the stage was set for what the title of Urwand’s densely revelatory book calls The Collaboration. From now on, Urwand says, “all the Hollywood studios started making deep concessions to the German government.”

Deep they needed to be, because the Nazis could take offense quicker than a prudish Victorian spinster. They banned Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus, for instance, because it starred (German-born) Marlene Dietrich as a woman happy to be a single mom. They banned Rouben Mamoulian’s Song of Songs because it starred Dietrich as a hooker. They banned Howard Hawks’s first great picture, Scarface, because it “made crime seem like a legitimate profession” (a judgment not even that poker-faced hoodlum Goebbels could have pronounced without laughing). And they banned Alexander Hall’s Give Us This Night—to any sane viewer just another innocuous Paramount operetta—without giving any reason at all. At which point the top boys at Paramount lost their own sanity and performed the Laemmle maneuver. Was it, they wondered, Erich Korngold’s score that had offended? If so, they could easily have it replaced it with one written by a non-Jew...

From there, Urwand argues, it was a short step for the studios to confer with the Nazis on movies before they went into production. So it was that MGM’s prospective version of Sinclair Lewis’s anti-fascist satire It Can’t Happen Here was canned for being “not politically propitious.” That an acerbically anti-Nazi script based on New York Herald Tribune reporter Vincent Sheean’s Personal History was so tethered and tamed by politicking rewrites that it ended up as Foreign Correspondent—one of Alfred Hitchcock’s frothiest spy thrillers. That (Citizen Kane writer) Herman J. Mankiewicz’s screenplay The Mad Dog of Europe, an indictment of Nazi anti-Semitism, was never filmed for fear that the Hitler government “might place a ban on all American movies in Germany.”

Taken aback by that use of the conditional? Get a load of the next sentence: “It is uncertain whether [Georg] Gyssling [Hitler’s consul in Los Angeles] actually did this at this particular point in time—the evidence is inconclusive—but he probably did.” “Uncertain,” “inconclusive,” “probably”—one would be alarmed to read such nervous gossip in a hack showbiz biog. But to read them in a work by a historian who is a junior fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University is shocking and shameful. The fact is Urwand cannot say why The Mad Dogs of War was never filmed. It might have been because Hollywood was afraid of a German ban on its product. Then again, most screenplays never get filmed—and that goes all the more for screenplays about politics. Politics of whatever hue have never been big in a business that makes its money by taking people’s minds off the cares of the world.

Nor do one’s qualms about Urwand’s book end there. In fact they start with its front cover. To be sure, the word “collaboration” has more than one meaning. In a creative field such as the movies it means a cooperation of labor. We say that with Jimmy Stewart as his star Anthony Mann made four or five of the best Westerns ever, that when Bernard Herrmann scored a Hitchcock picture it was usually a classic, that comic genius though he undoubtedly was, Hitler’s beloved Stan Laurel would have been nothing without Oliver Hardy. So I suppose we could just about call the Hollywood studios running their ideas for movies past the Nazi government a form of collaboration.

But collaboration can mean cooperation with the enemy in times of war, too—and it is such treachery Urwand’s title hopes to imply. Now, there’s no denying that The Collaboration is full of sordid tales of graft and greed. Thirties Hollywood was run largely by Jews, but there was precious little anti-Nazism to be found in the movies of the decade. Why? Because Germany was Hollywood’s biggest European export market, and the studios were keener to ensure it remained open to them than to take issue with the hooliganism and gangsterism and racist beatings a glance at the papers could have told them Hitler was fomenting. But hooliganism and gangsterism and—yes—even racist beatings are not the Holocaust. And since most of the studio heads were old enough to remember Europe’s then only recently vanished golden age, it must have been easy for them to think of Hitler as a historical aberration. After all, a historical aberration is exactly what he was.

But even if you’re willing to go along with Urwand and condemn the studios for their dealings with the Nazis, it’s a stretch to call them collaborators. Cowardly and grasping though certain movie moguls might have been, they weren’t out to help Hitler’s cause. They weren’t out to hinder it either—but you have to be mighty confident of your own courage to mark them down for cowardice for that. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that with the exception of Foreign Correspondent, all of the scripts or movies Urwand focuses on were written or released before the start of the Second World War. And worth remembering that from the moment the war began, Hollywood was on message with anti-Nazi propaganda. Like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca, the movies came good when they needed to.

In this year’s Iron Man 3 our hero found himself up against a master villain called the Mandarin. In the original Marvel comic books, the Mandarin was born and bred in China, a descendant of Genghis Khan no less. As played by Ben Kingsley in the picture, though, the Mandarin is less your yellow peril than your average multicolored master of movie mayhem. Barking his super-villain orders in a mid-Atlantic drawl so deep and rumbling it makes Johnny Cash sound like a tenor, he’s about as Oriental as a burger and fries. Which is hardly surprising when you consider that before a single scene of Iron Man 3 was shot, its screenplay had been vetted by the Chinese authorities.

For the same reason, the commie-kicking kids in the recent remake of John Milius’s Red Dawn weren’t up against hordes of invading Russians (as they were in the original film), nor against hordes of invading Chinese (as they were in the script’s first draft). They were up against hordes of invading North Koreans—because after China’s biggest selling paper, the Global Times, got wind of the project, the script was quickly rewritten to make it more market friendly. Similarly, should you go and watch the latest Bond movie, Skyfall, in China you’ll notice that the scenes in which the picture’s villain Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) complains about having been tortured by the Beijing authorities have been cut.

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Were these collaborations between Hollywood capitalism and Chinese state communism? I don’t think so. The fact is that China is now the world’s second-largest market for movies, and if you want your picture to be shown there it had better not offend the country’s sensibilities. If not wanting to offend China’s sensibilities offends your own sensibilities then so be it, but don’t start bemoaning the amorality of the film business. All business is amoral. The movies are an industry before they’re an art form, and industry exists to make a profit. Most of the movie industry’s profits come from making pictures about white-hatted goodies and black-hatted baddies. Out in the real world, though, there are no blacks and whites—only a riot of grays. Urwand’s book is full of fascinating factual finds, but they don’t add up to the simple morality tale he would have you believe.