Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Nazi Agent

Nazi Agent (Jules Dassin, 1942) The first film of director Jules Dassin—for no less a studio than M-G-M—was a tough one to start with, both technically and politically. Nazi Agent was released in March of 1942, just four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii—the U.S. only declared war on Nazi Germany (and Imperial Japan) on December 11, 1941. It was certainly in production before those events (filming started in November of 1941). Even after the Nazi's invaded Poland in 1939, Hollywood kept fairly silent on the subject, even if British films were more vocal. Before Pearl Harbor, there were Chaplin's The Great Dictator, Hawks' Sergeant York (obliquely promoting vigilance), Confessions of a Nazi Spy, and A Yank in the R.A.F. (written by Darryl F. Zanuck under a pseudonym). There was a reason for this: there was a strident line of isolationist viewpoints in the U.S.—"America First," if you will—that very publicly urged against the intervention of the States in any conflict in Europe—among them were British Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy and famed pilot Charles Lindbergh—either because they saw Hitler as no threat or because the government needed to concentrate on issues at home (America was still re-building its economy after 1929 stock market crash). President Roosevelt was under constant pressure to keep the U.S. out of the conflict, even while European allies were urging him to take action (before the shipping of supplies, that is).

Things were such that the U.S. Senate launched an investigation in September of 1941 into any attempt Hollywood might be making to try and fan the flames of war, citing that "at least twenty pictures in the last year designed to drug the reason of the American people, set aflame their emotions, turn their hatred into a blaze, fill them with fear that Hitler will come over here and capture them." It was pointed out that the heads of the studios were mostly Jewish and might be suspected of promoting some sort of propaganda over alleged "holocausts." Imagine that. In fact, the studio's were quite mindful of the criticisms and deliberately chose a path of least controversy for fear of offending European audiences and even firing "non-Aryan" employees of the German offices at the Reich's request.

So, you can see why making a film like Nazi Agent might be a concern.

On the other hand, it is also a daunting first film in that it relies on a "trick," both artistic and technical: the story of twin brothers—one now a naturalized citizen and the other, a Nazi spy using his position as the German consul to the U.S.—it relied on the lead actor to play two different parts of different temperaments, as well as for the gentler of the two to pose as his more ruthless brother for a time; the film required trick photography with the actor portraying different characters on different sides of the screen, conversing with each other, meeting each others' eye-lines—this was well-done by a veteran director like John Ford in The Whole Town's Talking, but for a first-time director like Dassin?

To say it is credible work—to the point where you don't question it—says a lot. Dassin has an able ally in lead actor Conrad Veidt—he would play the Nazi Major Heinrich Strasser in Casablanca in a few months and played a similar role, shortly before, as a U.S. Nazi ring-leader (also with Bogart) in Warners' All Through the Night—who had been acting in films since 1916, appearing in the landmark The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and top-lined in films on both sides of the Atlantic, playing both romantic leads and villains.* Veidt manages to clearly delineate each brother instantly with expression and body language (he did start in silent films, after all) and, when the "good" twin takes over the role of the "bad" one, is just capable enough to pull off the masquerade to convince his fellow German spies without betraying to the audience that he is still the same man that we have sympathy for. 

It's an amazing performance of the "prince-and-pauper" variety and Dassin's technical skills complete the illusion by never calling attention to the trickery, keeping the set-up's dramatically neutral and focusing on the performances (uh...performance?) which is where the real magic is happening.

In the meantime, the film manages to deliver the intended message—Nazi's look just like us. So be vigilant.

And in 2017, they still do. And now is not the time to let your guard down.

* Veidt acted in Germany until he fled with his Jewish wife Ilona to Britain in 1933. He moved to Hollywood in 1941—donating his life savings to the British government for their war effort—in the hopes that he would be cast as Nazi's (he had it in his contract that they should always be villains) to encourage the making of films promoting the U.S. entering the war. After Casablanca, he would make one more film before dying of a massive heart attack while playing golf on April 3rd, 1943.

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