08 November 2014

The vexed relationship between Hollywood film companies and Nazi Germany

In writing about Ben Urwand’s important book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler (Harvard UP 2013), Taylor Downing agreed that Hitler enjoyed watching films. As we can see from the photo. he watched a film every night after dinner with his men. And in the USA, Hollywood saw Germany as one of its biggest export markets. There was money to be made from dist­rib­uting films there.

It is here that we start Ben Ur­wand’s study of Hollywood’s relationship with Nazi Germany.

Control of the film industry was a central part of Hitler’s and Goebbels’ plan for propaganda in the Third Reich. Article 15 of a law regulating film imports made it clear that Berlin could censor American films or ban foreign film companies from working in Germany, if they produced a film that was offensive to German sensibilities. This gave the Nazi consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, considerable influence. His job was to vet, cut, change or veto if necessary, any film coming out of Hollywood that might be detrimental to German prestige. Apparently this was whether the films were to be shown only in Germany or shown internationally. 

Instead of kicking Gyssling out, Hollywood went out of its way to work with him. Urwand chronicles several occasions in which he was listened to intently. In fact some projects did not happen because of fear of his disapproval. A Paramount film about the sinking of the Lusitania was dropped. A more aggressively anti-Hitler film called The Mad Dog of Europe was scrapped because of fears that it would harm US business interests in Germany. When American films were banned in Germany, such as The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933) because it starred the Jewish actor Max Baer, the studios continued to do business with Germany.

After Kristallnacht, Goebbels produced a blacklist of 60 Hollywood figures whose work would not be allowed in Germany. The studios simply removed their credits from German versions and continued to distribute there up to the time when America entered the war. 

Ben Urwand's book, The Collaboration

The Hollywood studios agreed not to attack the Nazis AND they decided not to defend the Jews when changes were made. In The Life of Emile Zola (1937), for example, references to Alfred Dreyfus being a Jew were removed. Although The Mortal Storm (1940) finally dealt with the Nazi persecution of a minority group, all references to the fact that they were Jews were cut from the final version.

The whole story of how Hollywood made an accommodation with Nazi anti-Semitism seems even more bizarre because many of the studio bosses were themselves Jewish immigrants.

So this is a story about German censorship and the more frequent, sin­is­ter self-censorship by Hollywood. The notorious Hays Office put pres­s­ure on studio chiefs like Louis B. Mayer of MGM not to make certain films such as the anti-fascist It Can’t Happen Here, to avoid offend­ing the German government. The word used at the time to des­cribe the relationship between Hollywood film studios and Nazi Germany was "collaboration". By calling his book The Collaboration and implying that Hollywood collaborated with Hitler, Urwand has certainly created a storm in America.

Downing said Urwand’s book was well researched but was rather rambling, repetitious and made some strange statements eg it was daft for Urwand to say that Hitler controlled the German news reel industry, simply because the regime made a few corrections of newsreel scripts. And there was no mention of March of Time, which consistently warned cinema aud­ien­ces of the evils of the Nazi state. Still,  the story should be read by anyone interested in going behind the glamour of 1930s cinema, to study the shady politics of Hollywood.


I believe Urwand's writing is important because the Hollywood film executives could have stood up Breen and Gyssling, had they been prepared to risk their businesses. And they could have helped their own film-makers show honestly what was happening in Germany and in the occupied countries. Alas they did not. Three studios, Fox, Paramount and MGM, maintained a resolute commitment to the German market. Only Warner Brothers and Universal could hold their heads up with pride. Eventually.

Goebbels ordered Germans to disrupt screenings of All Quiet on the Western Front
photo credit: Daily Mail

I want to pursue two key issues that Taylor Downing mentioned. The word collaborate meant, in Nazi-run countries, locat­ing Jews or resistance fighters in hiding and handing them over to the Nazis for extermination. If Urwand was referring to normal business trans­act­ions (eg writing contracts, negotiating fees, agreeing on foreign language subtitles) between the Hollywood film studios and their markets abroad, that behaviour was VERY far from collaboration. Certainly the Jewish film makers knew, or should have known, that Dachau Concentration Camp opened in 1933 and that Jewish businesses and synagogues were destroyed in Germany during Krist­allnacht in 1938. But that they collaborated with the regime that would wipe out 6 million of their co-religionists was a implication that needed to be corrected by Ben Urwand.

The second is an issue raised by American academics, discussing an era of American history that is not at all familiar to me. Widespread anti-Semitism in the USA, right wing politics and strict censorship laws meant that film writers, directors and producers had very little freedom in their decision-making. The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, headed by the above-mentioned and very fearsome Will H Hays, was created way back in the 1920s to ensure all new films would be acceptable to the religious right. The Production Code Administration, headed by Joseph I Breen was even worse. In the 1930s, motion pictures possessed no First Amendment rights.

And if thinly veiled or explicit anti-Semitism was going to be directed at any single industry in the USA, it was going to be most directed at the media and entertainment industry. Ben Urwand’s Hollywood should have been analysed within this very difficult historical context in the USA. 

Urwand's book has become a very controversial area for debate. I recommend interested readers should read these blog discussions: Hollywood and Hitler, Hitler in Hollywood and
Hollywood’s Creepy Love Affair With Adolf Hitler.

Hollywood and Hitler, by Thomas Doherty

Prof Thomas Doherty's book Hollywood and Hitler (Columbia UP) came out in 2013. As Europe became deeply enmeshed in war, a proxy battle waged in Hollywood. The issues were how to conduct business with the Nazis, how to cover Hitler and his victims in the newsreels, and whether to support, ignore or bitterly oppose Nazism in Hollywood feature films.


Andrew said...

Jump forward to 2014, could such control happen again? Of big movie production houses, oh yes. Would populations remain ignorant? No, thanks to independent film makers, down to people making films with their phone camera.

Joe said...

If Georg Gyssling thought that Hollywood scripts or newly completed films were detrimental to German prestige, he would write a letter detailing cuts that he wanted made, before the film was released. The list was sent not to the film companies concerned, but to the Hays Office which administered the Production Code.

The film companies may have cooperated in order to promote their films in Germany, but it was the Hays Office who was responsible for all censorship decisions in the USA.

Hels said...


I wonder how free independent film makers, writers, internet site owners etc truly are. Certainly they can get their material out into the public quickly. But I suspect that if they have angered the authorities, they will pay a VERY heavy price.

Julian Assange will be a fugitive forever (or a murder victim) because he published material than was supposed to remain hidden.

Hels said...


It would have made perfect sense to go straight to the Hays Office *nod*.

I have only read excerpts from Screen Enemies of the American Way, so make of this what you will. "Joe Breen was head of the Hays Office. Breen saw anti-Nazi films as warmongering Jewish propaganada. The idea that intervening in Europe would mean fighting in a Jewish war was a common one at that time."

Sydneysider said...

Ben Urwand was born in Sydney in 1977 and did his degree at Sydney University. Maybe that is why he has been braver than his American colleagues have been, at least about American history. Australians can be awesome.

Hels said...


I think you are correct about outsiders being braver or freer to comment on a nation's history than locals. Urwand is being savaged, not because his analysis was right or wrong, but because he dared to analyse an ugly period in American history.

Compare this to Pasikowski, the director of the Polish film Aftermath. He opened a light on a very ugly time in Polish history, but because he was a local film man and not an outsider, he had to go into permanent exile.

Motion Picture Production Code said...

The Code enumerated a number of key points known as The 11 Don'ts and The 26 Be Carefuls. Special care had to be exercised in:
2. International relations (avoiding picturising in an unfavourable light another country's religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry).

When Warner Bros. wanted to make a film about concentration camps in Nazi Germany, the production office forbade it, citing the above-mentioned Be Careful, with threats to take the matter to the federal government if the studio went ahead. This policy prevented a number of anti-Nazi films being produced.

Hels said...

Thank you. That was a very respectful Be Careful.

I wonder if the Code examiners were as respectful of Russia and other socialist or communist countries. Or were the Nazis specially privileged?

Monash University, Faculty of Arts said...

A cultural historian with a special interest in Hollywood cinema, Thomas Doherty is a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University. His most recent book is Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press. 3024). Professor Doherty will be in Melbourne as ACJC Visiting Scholar and to participate in the Australia New Zealand American Studies Association Conference mext week.

His public lecture at Monash will be called "Hollywood and Hitler".
7:30 pm - 9:00 pm
Caulfield Campus

Hels said...

Thank you. I went to Prof Doherty's lecture on Hollywood and Hitler. He did not mention the Nazi consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, having a strong influence. But he did mention the vast money to be made from dist­rib­uting Hollywood films in Germany. Naturally Prof Doherty emphasised the influence The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America had under Will H Hays, and The Production Code Administration had under Joseph I Breen. And he clearly noted that motion pictures possessed no First Amendment rights.

But apart from the moral stance upheld by Warner Brothers, all the other studios did not seem to be very concerned about Nazism, at least between 1930 and 1939. In Depression-America, audiences wanted light, enterntaining films, not documentaries about looming war and annihilation in distant Europe.

I added Prof Doherty's book to the post. Many thanks