Book review: The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler

Ben Urwand’s new book argues that in order to maintain profits, Hollywood executives censored their films to protect Germany’s Nazi regime from hostile representation

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Thu, Jan 23, 2014 - Page 11

In the 1920s Hollywood produced around 800 feature films a year, 80 percent of the world’s output, and Germany was one of its biggest export markets. A majority of US film executives were of Jewish extraction but, as this book argues, in order to maintain profits, these same executives during the 1930s were willing to censor their own products to protect Germany’s Nazi regime from hostile representation on screen, and to avoid any direct reference to the atrocities being inflicted on Europe’s Jews.

The Collaboration is a sensational title, and it’s not surprising that in its details the story is more complicated than the above outline suggests. You only have to think of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, in which Chaplin plays an absurdist parody of Adolf Hitler, to realize that anti-Nazi satire was alive and well in at least some Hollywood quarters. But that film came out in 1940, and although the US hadn’t yet entered the war, much of Hollywood’s markets in Nazi-occupied Europe had already been lost.

In a trenchant review of this book in London’s TLS, the UK novelist, scriptwriter and sometimes pro-Israeli commentator Frederic Raphael argued that no one should really be surprised that Hollywood put profits first, and that the bigger picture of Roosevelt and Churchill’s failure to help the Jews trapped in Germany to any significant degree was the real context in which this film-industry spat should be viewed. But either way, the book’s combination of money, entertainment, ethnicity and politics during the 1930s was bound to be explosive. What, then, are the events on which it focuses?

The first big occasion was the appearance in 1930 of All Quiet on the Western Front, an anti-war film about WWI, made in the US but based on a German novel. Nazis staged riots outside Berlin cinemas, not because the film was anti-German, but because it failed to show German soldiers as heroic fighters. Urwand continues, “As a result of the riots, the German government” — not yet Nazi-controlled — “told the Hollywood studios that they could only do business in Germany if they did not harm German prestige in any of their films.”

After the Nazis came to power in 1933, the principle was applied to films that attacked the core principles of Nazism. “The first crucial moment in the studios’ dealings with the Nazis,” continues Urwand, “was one of pure collaboration.”

He describes how a proposed movie The Mad Dog of Europe, attacking both Hitler and Nazi anti-Semitism, was never made through lack of financial backing, despite the idea having originated from Herman J. Mankiewicz, the man who was later to write the script of Citizen Kane. Mankiewicz and his producer had wanted the film to have major stars and to awaken the whole world to what the Nazis were doing, but it was not to be.

Urwand then goes on to consider the ways in which The House of Rothschild (1934) managed to face both ways, incorporating both a caustic look at anti-Semitic prejudice, but also the traditional stereotype of the ruthless Jewish financier. This latter element was so well-suited to Nazi attitudes that a clip from the film was included in their notorious anti-Jewish propaganda film Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) of 1940.

Considerable space is devoted to the plan to film Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 anti-fascist novel It Can’t Happen Here. Again, Hollywood got cold feet, and Jewish lobbyists even got involved, though there were no Jewish themes in the book. They argued that anything that drew attention, however indirectly, to the fate of the European Jews might make their situation even worse. When plans for the filming were finally cancelled, Lewis wrote complaining that “… a film cannot be made showing the horrors of fascism and extolling the advantages of liberal democracy because Hitler and Mussolini might ban other Hollywood films from their countries if we were so rash.” This, of course, is the theme of much of this new book.

One of Urwand’s heroes is the prolific script-writer Ben Hecht, who was to put the finishing touches to the script of Gone with the Wind (1939). He wrote and published newspaper advertisements attacking US inaction over the fate of the European Jews. In December 1942 Roosevelt met US Jewish leaders — it was his only known meeting with them, and only lasted half an hour. The State Department had actually known that millions of European Jews were being murdered since at least the summer but had suppressed the news. It wasn’t until January 1944 that the US government finally took action. “By the end of the Second World War,” Urwand writes, “the War Refugee Board had helped save around 200,000 Jewish lives.”

Once the US entered the war in December 1941, Hollywood got onto a war footing. Casablanca, in which Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart subordinate their feelings for each other to the task of defeating fascism, was the top-grossing film of 1942. There were hundreds of anti-Nazi films made during the war, Urwand writes, but still almost no reference to the fate of Europe’s Jews. The author’s conclusion is a stark one — that the Hollywood studio heads had become so habituated to excising Jews from their movies to please the Nazi authorities that they remained unwilling to indulge in what they thought might be interpreted as special pleading.

The most interesting feature of this book is the way it moves from considering Hollywood’s attempts to keep its German markets to the broader issue of why many Jewish Americans didn’t try very hard to save their European brethren. Why was this? A cynic might say that they were largely rich and the Europeans largely poor, or that they feared arousing latent anti-Semitism at home. Certainly the government thought it had a war to win, and that helping “refugees” was a side-issue.

All in all, even the term “holocaust” didn’t enter the popular consciousness until the US TV series of 1978. And it was a long time before Hollywood was ready to make Schindler’s List in 1993.