Collaboration or negotiation?

A controversial tale of Hitler and Hollywood.

The Hollywood sign (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Hollywood sign
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In The Collaboration – Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler, Ben Urwand, an Australian-born and Chicago-educated scholar and historian, and a junior fellow at Harvard University’s Society of Fellows, claims that the Hollywood film studios reached a secret agreement with Nazis for the censorship of American films shown in Germany.
American films were highly popular in Germany, and more than 60 hit the Berlin screens between 1933 and 1941. According to the Urwand’s thesis, Hollywood studios collaborated with Nazi censorship by negotiating changes in American films, eliminating a few films altogether, and taking the Jewish characters, references and credits out of all of them.
The book has started a storm of accusations and counter-accusations in the US, and The New Yorker has claimed the book should not have appeared at all.
Urwand’s nine years of long research in American and German archives was prompted by American novelist Budd Schulberg, who commented in 1930 that Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), screened films to the German consul in Los Angeles and cut out all objections. In 1937, Newsweek had already alleged that the long arm of Hitler had reached Hollywood.
As a matter of fact, the matter was well-known during the 1930s; as such, during the ’30s, all American films intended for export to Germany were censored by both the American Hays Office and Nazi officials. It is also known that during these years, Hollywood was still dominated by its Jewish founders and producers like William Fox of Fox, Mayer of MGM, Adolph Zukor of Paramount, Harry Cohn of Columbia, Carl Laemmle of Universal, Jack and Harry Warner of Warner Brothers, and many others.
INDEED, OF 85 top men engaged in American film production in 1930, 53 were Jewish. They were all attracted to Hollywood because films were profitable, made them famous and were open to any investor with few resources and much imagination. An extra copy of a completed film cost them almost nothing, thus export was extremely profitable.
They also fueled, according to the author, the accumulated revenues in German armaments, as part of a deal to circumvent restrictions on repatriating the profits. But no statistics support this allegation.
Ever since World War I, the German government had placed import restrictions on motion pictures. On January 1, 1925, it had introduced a quota which stipulated that one foreign film could be imported for every German film that had been produced in the previous year. In 1928, it had further reduced the number of films that could be imported and in 1932 it introduced Article 15, which stipulated that the allocation of import permits would be refused for any company that manufactured and distributed films containing references or pictures damaging to German prestige.
Dr. Martin Freudenthal, a German agent, spent a year in Hollywood studying the American studio system. He found that most films based on World War I experiences had shown Germans in a negative light and used his contacts, including the Hays Office, to persuade producers in a casual manner how they could “improve” their films for German audiences. He was later replaced by a German Nazi diplomat, Georg Gyssling.
The collaboration started in 1930 when Carl Laemmle Jr. of Universal Studios agreed to significant cuts in All Quiet on the Western Front, based on Erich Maria Remarque’s pacifist novel. Despite the cuts the film was banned, after the SS demonstrated in Germany. Another American film, Hell’s Angels, was taken off the screen in Paris after French prime minister Pierre Laval’s visit to Berlin. Once films could be banned for political reasons, the producers had few scruples in treating their films as just another investment, a product offered for sale which could be cut, changed and adapted at will. Another significant act was when Warner Brothers removed the word “Jew” from the 1937 film Life of Emile Zola.
The MGM film Three Comrades, based on the explicitly anti-Nazi story written by Remarque and scripted by none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald, was completely changed by Joseph Bren in order to be accepted by Gyssling. On June 7, 1939, Gyssling expressed concern about two MGM films: Thunder Afloat, about German submarines, and It Can’tHappen Here, written by Sinclair Lewis about the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. MGM assured Gyssling that after changes nothing in Thunder Afloat would cause offense to Germany, and that it had abandoned It Can’t Happen Here completely.
Another film, written by John Howard Lawson, a talented Jewish screenwriter, based on Vincent Sheean’s memoir Personal History, described American reporters’ experiences abroad and touched on Jewish suffering. It was already being made, with Henry Fonda in the main role, when its production was postponed on June 28, 1938. It was renewed two years later as Foreign Correspondent, set in London, and did not refer to Jews at all. According to Urwand, the producers regarded films as their absolute property and felt free to do with it what they wanted.
It was a different case on April 1, 1937, when Gyssling invoked Article 15 in reference to the sequel of All Quiet, a new film by the name of The Road Back. This was despite the fact that the studio carried out all 21 previously requested cuts and changes. Gyssling was still not satisfied and wrote 60 letters, threatening the director, the entire crew and even the wardrobe man that any future films in which they would participate would be banned in Germany. This time, the US State Department protested against this obvious attempt to terrorize the American workers.
German guests were invited to Hollywood studios for a “goodwill tour,” even if Harry Warner wrote at that time to MGM: “I just can’t believe that your people will entertain these whom world regards as murderers of their own families.”
The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League protested, and expressed its deep concern about German threats and intervention in American affairs.
Finally, independent producers of films like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, The Man I Married, Escape and many others displayed courage in exposing the Nazi cruelty. The German ambassador then protested against this anti-German campaign to the US State Department, which sent the protest to the Hays Office, which in its turn answered that these pictures were produced solely for the purpose of supplying theaters and their public throughout the world with amusement, and refused to interfere. Eventually most of the Hollywood studios were banned under Article 15, and the exporting of American films to Germany and German-occupied territories ceased completely.
ON THE eve of World War II, anti-Nazi films became so numerous that a special subcommittee of the US Interstate Commission accused Hollywood studios of drawing the country into the European war. And indeed, from 1942 to 1946, Hollywood lent its efforts to World War II, and produced a great number of excellent anti-German and anti-Japanese films.
There can be little doubt that Adolf Hitler stood at the center of the collaboration.
He was obsessed with movies and understood only too well how they shaped public opinion. He loved American films and watched one every night before going to bed. He liked Laurel and Hardy and Mickey Mouse, and was an admirer of Greta Garbo. Hitler made his own contribution to the German newsreels, and demanded that all film must be screened “for the welfare and purity of the German race.”
A great debate went on in Germany to ascertain whether the showing of King Kong, in which a huge, black ape holds a white woman in his arms, was fit for German audiences. It was finally approved as a “kitschy entertainment” – though 42nd Street was disapproved for its “leggy” scenes.
It was understood that all references to Jews had to be eliminated. One of the results of this demand was a significant elimination of Jewish names and subjects in American films, which lasted for almost 25 years – in vast contrast to the frequent treatment of Jewish subjects during the Roaring Twenties.
Urwand’s research ends with an extensive biography of Ben Hecht, and his prolonged and difficult struggle on behalf of European Jewry during the Holocaust. Hecht, a prominent Jewish screenwriter, and activist Palestinian Jew Peter Bergson (born Hillel Kook in 1915), did their utmost to appeal to American Jewry and the US government on behalf of their unfortunate European brothers. This was frequently against the efforts of some Jewish national organizations, which feared that such action might give rise to anti-Semitism, and justify the Nazi propaganda that it was the Jews who started the war now being fought on their behalf.
THERE CAN also be little doubt that American film producers, known as good Jews and Americans, cooperated during the decade of 1930-1940 with Nazi representatives in order to have their films shown to German audiences.
But this wasn’t due only to business considerations.
There were many reasons for such cooperation. Firstly, the studios enjoyed the support of the US State Department, which promoted the export of American films, particularly to Nazi Germany, since it didn’t wish to leave Central Europe, Africa and Asia at the mercy of Nazi films and propaganda. This was considered to be part of the cultural struggle between light and darkness.
Another reason was that producers felt the German market shouldn’t be abandoned; they also cared greatly about the fate of some 2,000 Jews employed in the film industry in Germany, and facilitated US visas for them.
Producers were good American Jews who may have made many mistakes, but they wished to remain in the good graces of the Hays Office and the State Department.
In an interesting twist, in 1945, after Hitler was dead, top studio executives were invited to Germany by Gen.
George C. Marshall. To witness the country’s destruction, they traveled the Rhine in Hitler’s yacht.
But the main question remains: Did the Jewish producers negotiate with the Nazis, or did they collaborate? It seems likely that in many instances, they did collaborate – and this remains a black spot on Hollywood’s history.