Hitler's influence on 1930s Hollywood
Hollywood's Pact With Hitler
By Ben Urwand
Reviewed by Lisa Jarvinen
To comfort children, and perhaps ourselves, when disturbed by frightening images on the screen, we often say, "It's just a movie."
Ben Urwand's new book, The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler, serves as a reminder that motion pictures were not only the greatest artistic innovation of the 20th century - they were also a deadly serious business.
Urwand recounts how Adolf Hitler liked to unwind at the end of every day by watching the newest American films, which he frequently preferred to German productions. His minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, likewise admired the artistry and light touch that Americans brought to their pictures. Both men firmly believed that movies - especially fiction feature films - were a uniquely powerful means of persuasion, because they spoke directly to people's emotions.
The best-remembered film production of Nazi Germany is Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, a piece of propaganda that used the 1934 Nazi Party Congress to showcase Hitler's power to mesmerize crowds. While a work of technical genius, it is no one's idea of subtle. Despite Goebbels' best efforts, German movies never fully succeeded in winning over audiences, who adored American popular culture.
Thus, it comes as little surprise that during the prewar years, the Nazis would invest considerable effort in trying to control the kinds of American films that played on German screens. What is surprising is just how far Hollywood went in accommodating them.
In Urwand's account of the relationship between the American film industry and the government of Germany in the 1930s, he shows that Hollywood studios put profits ahead of scruples in their dealings with the Nazis. He further asserts that this amounted to collaboration.
In doing so, Urwand has created considerable controversy. Most notably, film critic David Denby of the New Yorker has denounced Harvard University Press for publishing a book that Denby describes as deeply flawed by a partial and presentist perspective that makes the moral choices of the 1930s seem far easier and more obvious than they actually were.
By the 1930s, Hollywood dominated the global film industry. This gave the Americans great power, but it also made them dependent on their overseas markets. Representatives of foreign governments frequently pressured studios to avoid making films that might offend local sensibilities. This was one of the few effective ways for countries whose screens were dominated by Hollywood to push back against the onslaught of American culture.
While this is an important context for understanding the relationship between Hollywood and Germany - and one not fully explored in this book - Urwand argues that the Nazis were not just another customer.
When studios suppressed films such as the unproduced screenplay The Mad Dog of Europe that might have exposed audiences to the dangers of Hitler's rise to power, they did so to avoid losing market share in Germany. When the industry veered from releasing the 1934 House of Rothschild, which included anti-Semitic stereotypes, to subsequently eliminating almost all references to Jews in films, it was an attempt to accommodate both Nazi sensibilities and pressures from American Jewish organizations, which protested misrepresentations but also feared that movies emphasizing "the Jewish question" might produce a backlash against Jews.
The crux of the matter for Urwand is that the majority of American studio executives were Jewish. He refers to the work of Neil Gabler in An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, which showed how this hardworking set of Jewish immigrants responded to pervasive American anti-Semitism by building a powerful industry based on the projection of the most mainstream American values. Indeed, the 1930s are often considered Hollywood's Golden Age, in part for masterful films such as those of Frank Capra that celebrated American democracy, in spite of its many contradictions.
Urwand rejects the notion that the double bind faced by Jews in America excused the failure of the studios to address directly the increasingly disturbing news of the persecution of European Jews. As an alternative model, he holds up the career of the successful Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht, who came to terms with his own Jewish-American identity in the late 1930s by devoting himself to the cause of trying to save the Jews of Europe.
Hecht showed great courage and determination in his attempts to arouse the American public and government to action. Hollywood studios did not. In contrasting the two, Urwand tells a good story.
But do cowardice and accommodation equal collaboration? Urwand's title, and his book, tries to suggest that they do. A full reading of American society during the 1930s and '40s - one that takes into account the strength of isolationism and the complexity of the pressures on the film industry - might more accurately suggest otherwise.
Lisa Jarvinen is an associate professor of history at La Salle University, the author of "The Rise of Spanish-Language Filmmaking: Out from Hollywood's Shadow, 1929-1939," and a contributor to "Cinema and the Swastika: The International Expansion of Third Reich Cinema."