If you think Confessions of a Nazi Spy is an antiquated World War II propaganda flick that has no relevance to your life today, think again. Director Anatole Litvak's semi-documentary chronicle of an FBI sting operation that brought to justice several German-Americans determined to destroy American democracy searingly depicts the dangers of misinformation and political extremism. Warner Archive revitalizes this oft-neglected classic with a dazzling new transfer struck from the original nitrate negative, solid audio, and a couple of interesting extras. Highly Recommended.
Most movies speak for themselves, but a few possess backstories more fascinating than the action on screen. Confessions of a Nazi Spy is one of those films. Produced by Warner Bros in 1939 and released just a few months before the outbreak of World War II, this crackerjack chronicle of the FBI's efforts to bust a Nazi espionage ring in New York City made considerable waves in Hollywood and abroad and jeopardized the lives of the actors, craftsmen, and moguls who made it. Directed with flair in a semi-documentary style by Anatole Litvak and featuring impressive performances by Edward G. Robinson, Francis Lederer, Paul Lukas, and George Sanders, Confessions of Nazi Spy not only memorializes a turbulent, disturbing, and uncertain time in our nation's history, it also stands as a timeless warning against the insidious nature of fascism.
Based on an actual FBI investigation that blew the lid off a systematic plot to spread Nazi propaganda throughout the U.S. and tear down the pillars of our democracy from within, Confessions of a Nazi Spy was the first Hollywood movie to expose the Nazi threat and it premiered at a time when American sentiment toward Hitler was still ambivalent. The U.S. government had yet to officially condemn Hitler and his Nazi party and within America's large German-American population there existed a fringe group called the German American Bund that actively promoted Nazi ideas and ideals by holding rallies, sponsoring youth training camps, and recruiting operatives to change the mindset of a disaffected segment of America's population. (It all sounds crazy, but it's true.) Confessions of a Nazi Spy depicts the machinations of this band of zealots, their collaboration with the German government, and their ultimate capture, and it pulls few punches along the way.
Robinson plays the FBI agent who spearheads the investigation that exposes the nefarious spy ring and in a just-the-facts-ma'am manner Litvak chronicles his tireless efforts to nail those involved. With its laser focus on the serious issues at hand, Confessions of a Nazi Spy can feel rather dry at times. There's no romance, no manufactured chase scenes to add excitement, and little emotion to connect us to the characters. What we feel most is disgust, outrage, and fear...and that's the point. The men played by Lederer and Lukas aren't the kind of cartoon Nazi villains we'd see in Hollywood films during World War II; they're American citizens who actively work to reshape their country in Germany's image, and the venom they vigorously spew in an effort to infect and mold American minds is truly frightening. "National socialism is the hammer, not the anvil," a German official tells Dr. Karl Kassel (Lukas) upon entrusting him to carry out the Nazi agenda in America. "This new Americanism is a formless iron that we will beat into another swastika." If that doesn't get your attention, nothing will.
Warner Bros cut its ties to Germany and the lucrative German film market shortly after Hitler rose to power in 1933 (it took years for the rest of the movie industry to follow suit) and with Confessions of a Nazi Spy the studio sought to rattle the world's chains about the imminent threat of global fascism. Though Warner produced several social issue films throughout the 1930s (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, They Won't Forget, and Angels with Dirty Faces chief among them), none of them explored an existential threat to our freedom or attacked its subject with such unabashed vehemence. Like a ferocious attack dog, Confessions of a Nazi Spy lays out the facts in a valiant effort to stem the tide of misinformation, denounce a dangerous regime, and emphasize our nation's core democratic principles.
The production faced vociferous pushback from the German government and pro-Nazi groups. As a result, much of the movie was shot in secret to protect those involved, much of the cast was either unknown or used aliases to shield their identities and spare their European relatives repercussions, and several crew members, including composer Max Steiner, refused screen credit. Robinson, studio chief Jack L. Warner, and others received death threats and there were serious concerns the movie's opening would be marred by retaliatory violence. In his book The Warner Bros. Story, author Clive Hirschhorn writes, "At the premiere of Confessions of a Nazi Spy, there were almost as many policemen and special agents in attendance as there were customers."
Robinson doesn't even appear until the 42-minute mark, but he makes his mark instantly. Typical of a stoic, square-jawed G-Man, he plays his part with little flourish, but he always commands the screen. The big attention-grabbers are Lederer as an arrogant opportunist willing to sell his soul to the Nazis (until he gets caught), an up-and-coming Sanders as a fierce German naval officer, and the always marvelous Lukas as the incendiary leader of a pro-Nazi propaganda organization. Ironically, Lukas, who fully embraces his despicable role, would win a Best Actor Oscar four years later portraying a member of the Nazi resistance in Watch on the Rhine.
Confessions of a Nazi Spy scored a moderate success in the U.S., and though it didn't receive any Oscar nominations, the National Board of Review named it the Best Picture of 1939. That's saying something, considering 1939 was the banner year that spawned such classics as Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. The board also cited Lederer and Lukas for their excellent performances.
It would be easy to dismiss Confessions of a Nazi Spy as a historical snapshot, but watching it today amid all the unrest in our global society, it's impossible to ignore the many striking parallels that keep it eerily relevant. The warnings the film espouses bear repeating and many of the issues it raises have reared their ugly heads once again (if they ever went away at all). Some movies get flak for hammering home their messages, but Confessions of a Nazi Spy would be nothing without its message, and it survives and remains noteworthy because of it.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Confessions of a Nazi Spy arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. The version of the film included on the disc was amended a year after its 1939 release to include additional footage of the Nazi invasion of Norway, Belgium, and Holland. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand new 4K scan struck from the original nitrate negative yields a magnificent 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that faithfully renders Sol Polito's naturalistic cinematography. Grain is beautifully resolved, but the crystal clear picture still exudes a lovely film-like feel. Dense blacks, bright yet stable whites, and nicely graded grays produce a vibrant picture that's packed with detail and exhibits surprising depth. The texture of costumes, paper, and stone are vivid, while sharp close-ups capture fine facial features well. Excellent shadow delineation and striking silhouettes also distinguish this superior presentation that's free of any nicks, marks, and scratches. I haven't seen the 2009 DVD, but it's impossible to imagine Confessions of a Nazi Spy looking any better than it does here.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound. Music comes at a premium in this semi-documentary film that contains a score by an uncredited Max Steiner, but a wide dynamic scale embraces all of its highs and lows whenever it crops up. Sonic accents like ringing telephones and doorbells, telegraph machines, car horns, plane propellers, and fisticuffs are crisp, and though some of the thick German accents obscure a few lines, most of the dialogue is easy to comprehend. Silences are clean and no age-related pops or crackle intrude.
The 2009 DVD only included the film's original trailer. For this Blu-ray release, Warner Archive adds a slideshow and vintage short.
Back Story Slide Show - This fascinating text-based slideshow provides essential background information on the film and includes a lengthy excerpt from Harry Warner's testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate Commerce in which Warner defends the picture against allegations of "propaganda." Reading these notes before watching the film will enhance the viewing experience.
Vintage Short: Meet the Fleet (SD, 20 minutes) - This 1940 Technicolor two-reeler salutes the U.S. Navy and stars Robert Armstrong of King Kong fame, a pre-Superman George Reeves, and a pre-Dennis the Menace Herbert Anderson. Location shooting at a naval base in San Diego highlights this rah-rah, lighthearted look at the rigors of training. One unintentionally sober moment occurs when the recruits learn they'll be stationed at Pearl Harbor.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview highlights the tale's political and paranoiac aspects and calls Confessions of a Nazi Spy "the most electrifying screen sensation of any year." The trailer closes with this bold statement: "It was our duty to make it...It's your American privilege to see it!"
Still scary after all these years, Confessions of a Nazi Spy remains a stirring indictment of fascism that continues to be relevant more than eight decades after its premiere. Director Anatole Litvak's semi-documentary chronicle of a real-life FBI investigation explores disturbing themes and contains stellar performances from Edward G. Robinson, Francis Lederer, Paul Lukas, and George Sanders. A stunning transfer struck from the original nitrate negative, excellent audio, and a couple of noteworthy extras distinguish this top-notch Warner Archive release. Highly Recommended.