Apr 24, 2013

Book Review: When Hollywood Met Hitler

Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939
Thomas Doherty
Columbia University Press, 2013

Whenever I used to think of Nazis in Hollywood, I'd have visions of Bugs Bunny mocking the Führer or newsreels trumpeting the progress of US battles in World War II. I never thought of the period leading up to war, where the world slowly became aware of the horrors unfolding overseas.

Though you wouldn't know it from its screen output, the relationship between Hollywood and Hitler began long before the war began in 1939. Doherty explores this little-discussed period, where studios tread lightly when it came to the rise of Hitler, but resistance to Nazi power increased.

In the early thirties, Nazi Germany began to purge its film industry of Jews. Since this meant also disposing of valuable talent, the Hollywood press responded in baffled wonder, at first casually calling it "the Hitler anti-Jew-thing." Tossing out skilled movie professionals was like throwing away money--and why on earth would you want to do that?

The move crushed the German film industry. While US voices were rising against the Nazis in the early thirties, a pro-Führer film could just as easily be rejected for screenings in American theaters because of poor quality. Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels was a firm believer in the power of film to deliver Nazi messages. He was infuriated by the pathetic output caused by his own anti-Semitic dismantling of the industry.

Enter Lena Riefenstahl. The sturdy actress, athlete, dancer and filmmaker made a pair of poetically beautiful films, Triumph of the Will (1935) and the two-part Olympia (1938), with the purpose of boosting the Reich. Even the strongest anti-Nazi voices had to admire the beauty of Riefenstahl's fluid, striking work. While she claimed to the end to only be a freelancer, and not a member of the Nazi party, she was one of the most famous faces associated with the Reich.

Leni Riefenstahl directs
Doherty devotes an entire chapter to Riefenstahl, and it is one of the most fascinating in the book, because it demonstrates how easy it could be to become seduced by the power of the Nazis and justify an association with the Reich. The filmmaker seems to have been completely confused as to why she received a hostile reception when she brought Olympia to Hollywood in the thirties.

While Hollywood did give the cold shoulder to Riefenstahl, it was slow to protest the Reich. When Hitler first came into power, Warner Bros. quickly understood the horror of the situation and closed its German office. Other studios were reluctant to give up profits, when this whole Nazi thing might blow over and business as usual could resume. As tensions rose, more offices closed, with some Jewish employees running for their lives. MGM held out the longest, determined not to lose its profits.

Partly because of Hollywood reluctance to offend Germany, Hitler was a rare sight on screen in the thirties. The subject was practically non-existent in films, and mostly avoided in newsreels. Theater owners also knew that audiences were going to the movies to escape their troubles, and assumed that they would not want to see the troubles the Jews endured under Nazi rule. Still, there were some early anti-Nazi films, such as the docu-drama Hitler’s Reign of Terror (1934) and I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany (1936), which in a great publicity stunt actually starred the captive in question.

Nazis hovered over Hollywood in the thirties, keeping track of, and occasionally trying to influence activities in the film capital. Often, they would find they had no power. In one incident, Georg Gyssling, the Nazi consul in Los Angeles, sent threatening letters to the cast of an anti-Reich flick, telling them to withdraw from the movie, or else. The move backfired, as the letters were instead published in local trade press to a huge uproar.

Hollywood was a haven for escapees of Nazi rule. The industry welcomed these talents, from the world-famous director Fritz Lang, to lesser-known screenwriters, composers and performers, though it couldn't always give them the same prestige they had in their homeland. Germans like Marlene Dietrich and Ernst Lubitsch used their resources to help as many new arrivals as they could. The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League formed in 1936, and became an influential voice, while actors including Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield and Gale Sondergaard used their influence to fight against Nazi influence.

By the late 1930s, the violence overseas was impossible to ignore. As it had always been difficult to smuggle film out of Nazi Germany, audiences began to stay home to get more detailed and up-to-date information from radio reports. Hollywood eventually caught up though, and by the time war broke out officially in September, 1939, it was open season on Nazis. Adhering to the belief that "aggression undeterred is aggression encouraged," tinsel town started up its propaganda machine and began to edge its audience towards war.

I hadn't expected to be so captivated by Hollywood and Hitler. Despite the horror of its details, it was a riveting tale. I was encouraged to learn of the people in the film industry who fought the Reich throughout this period, often against impossible odds, through activism, filmmaking and support of the victims of the Reich. Even under pressure, there were plenty who refused to remain silent and I found that inspiring.

This tough, fascinating read is bolstered by Doherty's always impeccable research. Hollywood and Hitler is sure to be an enduring reference for this tense period in history.

Many thanks to Columbia University Press for providing a review copy of the book.

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