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When Nazis Walked the Earth

'America Awake!' at LACMA chronicles Hollywood's efforts to rally the country against the Reich.

March 30, 1997|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

The term "Nazi menace" slides easily off the tongue in this cynical age. It's as if we don't want to fully recognize how serious a threat to global domination the Third Reich was, or how difficult a process convincing the American public of that danger turned out to be.

A chunk of that convincing was done by Hollywood, and "America Awake! Hollywood and the Nazi Menace," a fascinating and provocative new series about a little-seen corner of movie history, details the ways and means used to do it.

Opening Friday night at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and running concurrently with the museum's groundbreaking "Exiles and Emigres" exhibition, "America Awake!" focuses on 16 of the roughly 120 anti-Nazi films the studios churned out in a brief span of years.

Some of these, ranging from Bette Davis in "Watch on the Rhine" and Orson Welles in "The Stranger" to Alfred Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent" and Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," are familiar enough. But as always with a series like this, it's the lesser-known films that offer the most surprising and intense satisfactions.

The series appropriately begins with 1939's Edward G. Robinson-starring "Confessions of a Nazi Spy," the first of the studio anti-Reich films. Released two years before America's entry into World War II, when public opinion was still in an isolationist mode, "Confessions," though based on an actual case, faced serious challenges from both within and without the industry.

Opposition was so strong, in fact, that Warner Bros. engaged in unprecedented security arrangements during the shooting. Armed studio police guarded the set, the script was kept so secret many actors got their lines one day at a time and a dozen or so members of the cast and crew chose for safety's sake to live on the Warners lot for the duration of the filming. The German government was furious with the finished product, threatening to ban all future pictures made by participants, and the film itself was forbidden in some 20 countries.

Made with a sense of urgency and not afraid to hype its message, "Confessions" is intent on warning Americans about the enemy overseas ("the bacteria of aggressive dictatorship") as well as the enemy within. Much energy is expended chastising citizens for being so naive that a German official can say with confidence, "the Americans are a very simple-minded people. Why use a wolf when a weasel will do?"

The weasel who gets the call to spy is an arrogant, self-deluded German American layabout (Francis Lederer). He's aided by a German functionary played by George Sanders, almost unrecognizable in what now looks like a punk haircut, complete with a fade, and a German American Bund leader who rails against "the chaos that breeds in democracy and social equality." Government agent Robinson eventually gets on the case, and none too soon.

"Confessions' " marriage of melodrama and high purpose set the tone for many of the anti-Nazi films to come. The studios took naturally to the opportunity to add a meaningful pedigree to familiar plot twists and feints, and the reality of the threat to the Western world added punch and passion to these films on all levels.

Seeing the anti-Nazi pictures en masse reveals other, quirkier similarities. They all featured endless "Heil Hitlers" and created considerable work for every accented actor in Hollywood, from gnarled Maria Ouspenskaya to hearty Sig Rumann. Sometimes these stars played the "good Germans," whose existence the films were careful to acknowledge, sometimes rigid Nazis, totalitarian automatons who believed that "human feeling is a luxury a vital society can't afford."

These Nazis, when they were married, also had a penchant for two-timing their spouses; whenever a devoted party member said, "Don't wait up for me," you could expect the worst. And both Nazis and their enemies had little regard for the abilities of women: "This is a man's game" was a frequently heard sentiment on both sides of the ideological divide.

Perhaps most intriguing of all, given the continuing debate about when Americans found out about the existence of German concentration camps, is how often they were mentioned in these films. "You do not get out of Dachau that easily, it's not like an American prison," is a typical comment, and the prisoner referred to ended up dying of "acute appendicitis" even though his appendix had been removed years before.

That particular scenario comes from 1940's "The Man I Married," one of the festival's key surprises. Like "Confessions," it was made before America's involvement in the war. According to the American Film Institute catalog, it had its name changed from "I Married a Nazi" and its theatrical run shortened after threats from officials in Germany to curtail the distribution of 20th Century Fox films in that country.

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