When Hitler’s Henchman Called the Shots in Hollywood
Long before Russia subverted American social media, the Nazis did the same in Hollywood.
When Germany, Japan, and Italy formed the Axis alliance in November 1937, four months after Japan invaded China, the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo partnership appeared poised to take on the rest of the world.
With the Reich on the move, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels tightened his command over his government’s image at home and abroad. In April 1937, he transferred control of all German film companies to the government and appointed himself as overseer of all productions. Henceforth, the content of domestic films would “fulfill with distinction the National Socialist idea.” As Fritz Wiedemann, now vice president of the Reich Film Chamber, boasted, “There is no such thing as public taste; we can shape that as we will. We have determined political taste; we can do the same with artistic taste.”
Goebbels wanted to keep the United States neutral for as long as possible. That meant stopping Hollywood from producing films intended to sway American public opinion against the Hitler regime. The propaganda chief knew there were many kinds of battles to be fought during the course of war, and he considered the battle to control the mind among the greatest. Goebbels understood a basic truth about the power of cinema: Movies matter the most about the things that people know the least. Many Americans got their first glimpse of what a Nazi rally or storm trooper looked like by watching movies or newsreels. Whether they thought of these people and their ideas as good or bad might well be determined by what they saw and heard on the screen.
By shaping the content of American films, Goebbels hoped to shape the ways in which Americans thought about Hitler and his policies.
With movies being seen by 88 million Americans a week in 1937, and by 150 million people throughout the world, Goebbels feared that a powerful anti-Nazi campaign by Hollywood studios could prove disastrous to German ambitions. Consequently, the propaganda minister turned to Georg Gyssling, German general consul in Los Angeles, for help in manipulating the American psyche. Gyssling cajoled, threatened, and did everything in his power to ensure that the Jewish-dominated studios followed Production Code Administration (PCA) regulations and made no film attacking Hitler or his government.
By 1937 the motion picture business reigned as the nation’s fourth largest industry, with over $2 billion in capital investments. Lavishly paid movie industry leaders accounted for 40 of the 63 Americans earning more than $200,000 in 1937. Topping the list was Louis B. Mayer at $1.3 million, making him the highest paid employee in America. The MGM head earned more in salary that year than the entire U.S. Senate combined. As the number of American films shown in Germany steadily dropped from 61 in 1933–34 to 36 in 1936–37, the moguls were forced to deal with Gyssling if they wanted to protect their studios’ bottom lines and their own high salaries.
During his first three years as consul, Gyssling repeatedly used the threat of imposing Article 15, which refused permits for any film deemed “detrimental to German prestige,” to hammer the moguls into compliance. As German military aggression increased after the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Gyssling became even more aggressive with Hollywood, intimidating individual actors and studio employees. When he heard that Malvina Pictures was preparing to release I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany in July 1936, Gyssling contacted the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association and demanded they stop the filming. Based on a true story, the movie recounts the harrowing experience of American journalist Isobel Steele, who was arrested and imprisoned by Nazi authorities on charges of espionage in August 1934. Steele spent four months in solitary confinement at Berlin’s infamous Moabit prison and was deported only after the intervention of the U.S. State Department. Upon her return home, the celebrated journalist wrote numerous stories describing her experiences in Nazi Germany.
When MPPDA officials told Gyssling they had no jurisdiction over independent companies such as Malvina, the consul sent Isobel Steele a letter on German consulate stationery, threatening her for participating “in the making of a film allegedly dealing with certain experiences of yours in Germany.” He warned Steele that if the film were released, any future production in which she might appear would be banned. Similar threats were sent to every cast member, warning that they too would be permanently banned in Germany if they appeared in the film.
Gyssling also summoned the movie’s German actors and actresses to the consulate. Seated at his desk with a massive portrait of Hitler behind him and swastika flags throughout the office, the six-foot-three consul appeared a daunting figure to his nervous visitors. He let the actors know reprisals would be taken against family members living in Germany if they appeared in the film. The movie’s cast took Gyssling’s threats seriously. Following their meeting, a number of actors quit, while others agreed to continue under the condition that their names did not appear in the credits.
When producer Alfred Mannon approached industry censor Joseph Breen about getting the seal of approval needed to book I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany into first-run theaters, the Production Code Administration head agreed with Gyssling and rejected the movie on the grounds that it violated the Code provision “which directs that ‘the history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry of other nations shall be represented fairly.’” The PCA’s board of directors in New York overruled Breen; however, without a major studio backing it, the film soon disappeared from circulation.
Although he ultimately lost this battle, Gyssling won a larger war by letting Hollywood’s German community know they could not escape the long arm of Adolf Hitler. The PCA might have defied Gyssling, but who would protect their relatives in Germany if actors and actresses dared do likewise?
Gyssling had considerably more success in forcing changes in two major films that promised to be far more critical of the Nazi regime, The Road Back (1937) and Three Comrades (1938). Both were based on novels by German writer Erich Maria Remarque, the fervent anti-Nazi who lived in exile and had published All Quiet on the Western Front in 1929. Hitler hated Remarque’s antiwar novel so much that he banned the author and his books from Germany. Although Three Comrades was released after The Road Back, it was the first of the two productions to catch Georg Gyssling’s attention. Set in late-1920s Germany, the novel told the story of three disillusioned German World War I veterans, Robert, Otto, and Gottfried, fighting to survive in an economically devastated nation. In the film, which is filled with critiques of the German government, the left-wing hero Gottfried is eventually killed in a street clash with Nazi thugs.
One of the qualities that made Gyssling so effective was his ability to find out about potential film projects long before most people in Hollywood. That was because he had his own spy, the handsome, fun-loving, and very popular Werner Plack. Gyssling hired the Berlin-born actor and wine salesman, his daughter Angelica recounted, “to go around to the nightspots and the bars and pick up Hollywood gossip” and information about the latest productions. “He kept an eye on all of the émigrés, all of those creative people who came over from Berlin.” Dividing his time between film sets and swanky Los Angeles night-spots such as the Swing Club on North Las Palmas Avenue, the jovial Plack plied his informants with enough alcohol to loosen any inhibitions.
Little surprise, then, that in the fall of 1936, well before the film went into production, Joseph Breen received several letters from the German consul, undoubtedly tipped off by Plack, expressing his country’s concern that MGM was turning Three Comrades into a film. When the studio sent the PCA a highly polemical script written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ted Paramore, Breen responded to Gyssling’s earlier threats by meeting with Louis B. Mayer and producer Joseph Mankiewicz. The MGM pair agreed to eliminate content deemed offensive to the Nazi regime. The subsequent draft they sent the PCA contained no references to the threatened status of democracy in post–World War I Germany, no images of swastikas, and no references to Brownshirts or Jews. After the film was completed in May 1938, Breen arranged a special screening for the German consul, who convinced the studio in his subtly threatening manner to cut three scenes. MGM agreed they would do “nothing to indicate in any way that the story is a reflection on the Nazi government.” The only resistance came when Mankiewicz refused to turn the film’s Nazi villains into Communist villains. The movie opened in June 1938.
Gyssling succeeded in turning Remarque’s anti-Nazi critique into a harmless love story stripped of its dissident political edge. As the opening page of the film’s press book declared, “3 Comrades is not a propaganda picture. The locale might be any large Central European city and the time is the present. It is not political or controversial, and its turbulent scenes could happen in any country.” Americans would learn nothing about the Nazi threat from this film, which was precisely what Gyssling wanted.
The able representative of the Nazi government also fought to depoliticize The Road Back, Remarque’s sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front. The 1931 novel told the story of a shell-shocked squad of German veterans forced to deal with the economic and political chaos of postwar Germany. When Gyssling learned that Universal Pictures was turning the book into a film, he contacted Breen with his usual objections: “It would beyond all doubts lead to controversies and opposition on the part of the German government as the story gives an untrue and distorted picture of the German people.” He urged Breen to use his influence to kill the project.
Breen did not kill the film, but he did ask director James Whale to meet with Gyssling. Sitting in the German’s office, surrounded by portraits of Hitler and Nazi flags, Whale recalled how “Consul Gyssling was, characteristically, never openly threatening in his attitude . . . He simply insinuated ‘he’d be sorry to have to take counter measures.’” Whale told Gyssling that the story took place immediately after World War I and said nothing about Hitler or the Nazi government. Their conversation ended with the consul again warning that “he would be very sorry to have to be forced to report to his government that the picture was unsatisfactory.” Several weeks later, Gyssling visited the Universal studio lot, watched an early version of the film, and then sent Breen his suggested cuts.
When Universal Pictures refused to comply with the consul’s requested changes, he sent registered letters to 60 actors working on the film. Adopting the same language as in the past, he warned: “With reference to the picture, The Road Back, in which you are said to play a part, I have been instructed by my government to issue you a warning, in accordance with Article 15 of the German decree of June 28, 1932, regulating the exhibit of foreign motion pictures.” Gyssling threatened to refuse permits for any future film featuring any actor who participated in The Road Back.
This would be one of the few times when Gyssling’s threats met with outrage from the Hollywood community. A copy of his letter was reproduced in the Hollywood trade press, in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League’s News of the World, and in newspapers across the nation. Calling Gyssling’s missive “one of the most insidious examples of Nazi interference in the lives of American citizens,” HANL leaders sent a telegram to Secretary of State Cordell Hull condemning the consul’s intimidation tactics and calling for his immediate deportation.
For once, the notoriously anti-Semitic State Department agreed with the protestors and lodged a formal complaint with the German Foreign Office. It was one thing for a foreign government to threaten studios with a loss of business, but quite another to threaten individual actors, many of whom were American citizens. Concerned about potential backlash, German ambassador Hans-Heinrich Dieckhoff issued a formal apology and promised that Gyssling’s strong-arm tactics would not be repeated. The consul, he explained, had been following orders from former ambassador Hans Luther. A not-so-contrite Gyssling told a Los Angeles Times reporter, “I did just what I was advised to do in an order originating in Berlin.” Reports that he received a rebuke from his government, he added, were “just fiction and fabrications not based on any facts.”
The Nazi consul had the last laugh. Whatever Universal officials may have said publicly, they ultimately caved in to German demands. The final version of The Road Back was a neutered rendering of the polemical novel. As New York Times film critic Frank Nugent complained, “the spirit of the book has been lost, its meaning changed”; the novel’s “tragic impact has been vitiated by a meandering conclusion.” Berlin had little to fear from this production.
Gyssling also achieved a number of smaller victories along the way. After news leaked out that Warner Brothers was planning to make The Life of Emile Zola (1937), a film about Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer wrongly convicted by anti-Semitic officials of transmitting French military secrets to the German government in 1894, Gyssling called the studio and spoke to the film’s associate producer. Several days later, Jack Warner ordered several lines cut in which Dreyfus was referred to as a Jew. The word “Jew” was never spoken in the film.
Gyssling’s power over Hollywood was clear. More often than not, the German diplomat succeeded in convincing studios to delete scenes his government would find offensive. The moguls hated Gyssling but understood that the cost of ignoring his demands went far beyond any one film; he had the power to keep their productions out of every theater in the rapidly expanding German empire. Despite their bitterness, most movie executives just shrugged and chalked it up to the cost of doing business.
Excerpted from Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America by Steven J. Ross. Copyright 2017 by Steven J. Ross. Published by Bloomsbury Press.