Anatole Litvak’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy is an entertaining and informative docudrama dealing with espionage activities in America prior to the beginning of World War II.
The Production: 3.5/5
You have to hand it to Warner Bros. During Hollywood’s Golden Age, it was the studio who most zealously mounted productions of sociological or historical importance bringing eye-opening and sometimes horrifying information to the attention of Americans otherwise too caught up in the Depression or the uneasy European theater of the 1930s. Make no mistake, the studio took the information and fashioned cinematic entertainments to be sure, but its slate of pictures from Little Caesar and The Public Enemy to I Am a Fugitive from the Chain Gang and G-Men invariably contained ugly truths made fascinating by its canny cinematic knowhow. Perhaps foremost among the studio’s accomplishments in this domain was Anatole Litvak’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy, the first anti-Nazi film produced by an American studio. Based on a true story, the movie shows the inner workings of a Nazi cell working circumspectly to gather information and generate propaganda to destroy America from within even before war had been declared in Europe.
Dr. Karl F. Kassell (Paul Lukas) is the fanatical leader of a German-American bund in Manhattan tasked with rousing German-Americans to pledge loyalty to the Fatherland. He helps recruit foot soldiers in their espionage operation led in America by martinet Franz Schlager (George Sanders). One of those underlings is Kurt Schneider (Francis Lederer) who’s been promised money and position to obtain Z codes, blueprints, passports, and other top secret plans through any means he can gather using friends and family in his efforts to aid the Germans. When arrogance gets the better of him and he bypasses Schlager who he feels isn’t paying him enough money for all the chances he’s taking, he’s discovered by the FBI whose top agent Edward Renard (Edward G. Robinson) begins an investigation that topples the entire house of cards in America and one-by-one, the agents begin confessing in the hopes of saving themselves.
The screenplay by Milton Krims and John Wexley was based on a series of articles written by former FBI agent Leon G. Turrou after four Nazi spies were captured and tried in 1938, and director Anatole Litvak uses a docudrama approach to the film’s presentation using off screen narrator John Deering to chronicle in step-by-step fashion the bund’s early successes and the missteps made which allowed the FBI to uncover the espionage as it’s happening. Events later in the film suggest that the FBI operation wasn’t completely successful despite the four spies being successfully convicted in court in an abbreviated trial sequence presided over by Henry O’Neill’s Attorney Kellogg (we see several of the principals in the spy ring rescued from incarceration and taken back to Germany to suffer even worse fates for their failures). We’re also treated to some appallingly eye-opening pro-Nazi bund meetings (Ward Bond gallantly tries to disrupt one of them), galling celebrations of Hitler summer youth camps in America, and a breakdown of Joseph Goebbels’ (Martin Kosleck) propaganda and espionage tree as it branches all across America to garner information from the largest cities to the smallest hamlets.
Star Edward G. Robinson doesn’t appear for the first forty-two minutes as Litvak and the screenwriters set up the Nazi bund and set the espionage targets into motion. Once there, Robinson delivers a cool, controlled performance, never raising his voice or threatening dire punishment even when faced with bald-faced lies by the captured perpetrators. Francis Lederer actually gives the film’s most interesting performance as Kurt Schneider, a small timer who becomes more arrogant as he tastes a little success with his early snooping, only to become the first sniveling confessor as soon as he’s confronted with the proof of his guilt. Paul Lukas is quite effective too, as Dr. Karl Kassell bellowing his loyalty and devotion to his Führer early on but wilting later under pressure of discovery and ultimately meeting his fate at the hands of the Gestapo. (How ironic that he’d earn an Oscar a few years later as a freedom fighter against the Nazis in Watch on the Rhine.) George Sanders is icily dictatorial as Franz Schlager who doesn’t suffer fools like Kurt Schneider gladly. Two other captured spies, Dorothy Tree’s Hilda Kleinhauer and Joe Sawyer’s Werner Renz, are likewise effective in their notable roles. One’s heart goes out a bit to two wives who are kept in the dark of their husbands’ activities: Grace Stafford’s Mrs. Schneider and Celia Sibelius’ Mrs. Liza Kassell, the latter especially telling since she knows her husband is involved in an affair with the much younger Erika Wolf played by Lya Lys.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is faithfully presented in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. This is a beautiful presentation with exacting grayscale that presents deep blacks and clear, crisp whites. Sharpness is excellent throughout, and there are no visual anomalies in the image. The movie has been divided into 36 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is typical of its era but offers solid fidelity throughout its range. Dialogue is always easy to understand, and Max Steiner’s music and the various sound effects have been combined with it to splendid effect. There are no problems with hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Back Story Slides: several pages of text offering information on the film’s background, production, and reception.
Meet the Fleet (20:21, HD): 1940 Technicolor two-reeler (with famous faces like Robert Armstrong and George Reeves) detailing the training for seaworthy sailors before the start of World War II for the United States.
Theatrical Trailer (3:21, HD)
Anatole Litvak’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy is an entertaining and informative docudrama on espionage activities in America prior to the beginning of World War II. The Warner Archive Blu-ray disc presents the film in a beautiful video and audio encode that does the film justice.
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