Confessions of a Nazi Spy

Confessions of a Nazi Spy is a 1939 American spy thriller film. It was the first blatantly anti-Nazi film to be produced by a major Hollywood studio.[1] The film stars Edward G. Robinson, Francis Lederer, George Sanders, Paul Lukas, and a large cast of German actors, including some who had emigrated from their country after the rise of Adolf Hitler. Many of the German actors who appeared in the film changed their names for fear of reprisals against relatives still living in Germany.[2]

Confessions of a Nazi Spy
Confessions of a Nazi Spy 1939 poster.jpg
1939 Theatrical Poster
Directed byAnatole Litvak
Produced byHal B. Wallis
Jack L. Warner
Robert Lord
Written byLeon G. Turrou (articles)
Milton Krims
John Wexley (screenplay)
StarringEdward G. Robinson
Francis Lederer
George Sanders
Paul Lukas
Music byMax Steiner (uncredited)
CinematographySol Polito
Ernest Haller
Edited byOwen Marks
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • May 6, 1939 (1939-05-06)
Running time
104 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.5 Million


Scotland, 1937 The postman asks Mrs. MacLaughlin to save him stamps from the letters she receives from all over the world. MacLaughlin forwards the contents of one envelope to Dr. Karl Kassel in New York City. Cut to Kassel (Paul Lukas), at the Café Nuremberg, haranguing an audience of German Americans. Most of the men wear the uniform of the German American Bund. He informs them that the Führer has declared war on the evils of democracy and that, as Germans, they should carry out his wishes and claim power. The crowd salutes, Sieg Heil!

Kurt Schneider (Francis Lederer), an unemployed malcontent, is inspired to become a spy and writes to Hitler's personal newspaper. German Naval Intelligence know he is not a double agent: The Americans don't have a counter-espionage system. Naval officer Franz Schlager, sailing to New York on the steamship Bismarck, is ordered to contact Schneider.

On board the Bismarck, we see the power of the Gestapo. Beauty operator Hilda Kleinhauer (Dorothy Tree) informs on her clients and carries material for Schlager.

An unnamed American Legionaire (Ward Bond) challenges Kessel at a meeting. He and others speaking out for democracy are attacked.

Schneider boasts to his pal Werner (Joe Sawyer), now a private in the Air Corps, that he receives instructions from Hitler. Werner gets the Z code and Schneider obtains medical records that will reveal troop strength in New York. Schneider proudly gives Schlager the information and receives $50 a month, Mrs. MacLaughlin's address, and a list of new objectives.

Kessel is called back to Germany and takes his mistress, Erika Wolff (Lya Lys), leaving his wife behind. The narrator provides a dramatic description of the fascist system of life. Kessel is put in charge of all Nazi activities in the United States. Under the slogan, “America for Americans,“ the country is swamped by propaganda while spies target military operations.

Thanks to the postman's curiosity, Mrs. MacLaughlin's role as a post office for a worldwide network of spies is uncovered by British Military Intelligence, and she is arrested. (In a moment that is chilling in hindsight, one letter is from Japan.) American military intelligence in New York consists of Major Williams and one assistant. Williams turns to the FBI for help, although they have never played this role before. FBI Agent Ed Renard (Edward G. Robinson) takes the case.

A horrifying scene shows Camp Horst Wessel, where German-American children are trained in Nazi ideals and military skills.

Schneider uses an alias, Mitchell, to obtain passports. He arouses suspicion, and the FBI follow the package and arrest him. Once they know his true identity, they realize that they have the letter he sent to MacLaughlin. Renard flatters his ego for hours, extracting a full, detailed confession. Through Schneider, Renard finds Wenz, Kleinhauer and Kassel. Kassel proudly shows Renard his files on important Americans, documenting racial impurity. He tries to burn the code key, but Renard stops him. Renard confronts him with Kleinhauer, who confirms his link with Schlager. When Renard reveals that he knows about Erika, Kassel tells Renard everything he knows about the German spy organization, revealing the intricacy and scope of the network. He is released. The Gestapo are waiting. He swears that he revealed nothing, but they are arrested outside his apartment building.

A federal dragnet captures many agents and their accomplices. On March 13, 1938, Hitler invades Austria. Renard warns Kassell's wife that the Gestapo men have made bail. Karl returns home from meeting Erika and lies to his wife. He packs, refusing to take her with him. She does not warn him, and when he goes out, the Gestapo capture him and take him to the Bismarck. In Germany, he is told to claim that he was tortured. In New York, Hilda is given the same instructions.

Eighteen people are indicted. Four are in custody: Schneider, Wenz, Kleinhauer and Helldorf. Meanwhile, Hitler's march continues, as “the democracies are given still another demonstration of the supremacy of organized propaganda backed by force.” U.S. Attorney Kellogg describes the role of fifth columnists in the Nazi conquest of Europe, calling for the United States to take a lesson. After a long trial, the spies are convicted. Over coffee, Kellogg and Renard talk about the “nightmare”. Kellogg observes that “when our basic liberties are threatened, we wake up.”

The closing credits roll to “America the Beautiful”.



Screenwriter John Wexley based his script on real events and the articles of former FBI agent Leon G. Turrou, who had been active in investigating Nazi spy rings in the United States prior to the war, and lost his position at the Bureau when he published the articles without permission.[3] Authors Paul Buhle and David Wagner of Radical Hollywood wrote that it "treated a real-life case" and that Warner Brothers had been warned by the Dies Committee "against slurring a 'friendly country'".[4]

Parts of the movie were a fictionalized account of a real-life espionage case, the Rumrich Nazi Spy Case, and the eventual trial in 1938 involving individuals convicted of spying for German government.[5][6][7] The FBI says Rumrich Nazi Spy Case was their "first major international spy case" and that Leon Turrou "was placed in charge" and eventually fired. Guenther Gustave Maria Rumrich was arrested on February 14, 1938, and charged with spying for Germany. He came to the FBI's attention when he attempted to obtain 50 passport application forms from the Passport Office in New York City.[8][9] In the film, Francis Lederer, as Schneider, plays the role equivalent to the real Rumrich.

The scene where an unnamed American Legionaire played by Ward Bond challenges Kessel at a meeting, is supported by others speaking out for democracy, provoking an attack by Bundists, is based on an actual event that occurred in late April 1938. when approximately 30 World War I American Legion Veterans stood up to the Bund in New York City during a celebration of Hitler's birthday. The veterans were severely beaten and later Cecil Schubert, who suffered a fractured skull, was personally recognized for his bravery by Mayor La Guardia.

The film was the first anti-Nazi film from a major American studio. At the premier, there were almost as many policemen and special agents in the audience as customers.[10] Wexley's script made a point of following the facts and real-life events of the Rumrich Nazi Spy Case whose participants went to trial in 1938.[11][12][13][14]

Reception and banEdit

The film failed at the box office.[15] Nonetheless, it won the 1939 National Board of Review Award for Best Film. The film was re-released in 1940 with scenes describing events that had taken place since the initial release, such as the invasions of Norway and the Netherlands. Scenes from Confessions of a Nazi Spy are shown in War Comes to America, the last of the Why We Fight propaganda film series, as well as the 2004 documentary film Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust.

Confessions of a Nazi Spy was banned in Germany, Japan, and many Latin American and European countries.[16][17] Adolf Hitler in particular banned all Warner Bros. productions from being shown in Nazi Germany as a result of the studio's work on the film.[18]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Joseph D'Onofrio. "Confessions of a Nazi Spy". Archived from the original on 2007-03-12. Retrieved 2006-01-23.
  2. ^ "Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)".
  3. ^ Fox, John (FBI historian) on Turner Classic Movies broadcast, 24 July 2008
  4. ^ Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America's Favorite Movies Hardcover – May 1, 2002 by Paul Buhle (Author), David Wagner (Author) (publisher) The New Press ISBN 1-56584-718-0 PPS 212-213
  5. ^ "Rumrich Nazi Spy Case".
  6. ^ Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America's Favorite Movies Hardcover – May 1, 2002 by Paul Buhle (Author), David Wagner (Author) (publisher) The New Press ISBN 1-56584-718-0 PPS 212-213
  7. ^ #7 Guenther Rumrich’s Passport Ploy
  8. ^ "Rumrich Nazi Spy Case".
  9. ^ "Chapter One". 2012-12-18.
  10. ^ The Warners Bros. Story, Clive Hirschhorn, ISBN 0-517-53834-2, 1986 edition, Crown Publishers pg. 198
  11. ^ Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America's Favorite Movies Hardcover – May 1, 2002 by Paul Buhle (Author), David Wagner (Author) (publisher) The New Press ISBN 1-56584-718-0 PPS 212-213
  12. ^ #7 Guenther Rumrich’s Passport Ploy
  13. ^ The Films of World War II (1973) by Joe Morella (Author),
  14. ^ "Chapter One". 2012-12-18.
  15. ^ Birdwell, Michael E. (1 February 2000). Celluloid Soldiers: Warner Bros. Campaign Against Nazism. NYU Press. p. 78. ISBN 978-0-8147-9871-3.
  16. ^ Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust, 2004 documentary film, Daniel Anker
  17. ^ The Warners Bros. Story, Clive Hirschhorn, ISBN 0-517-53834-2, 1986 edition, Crown Publishers pg. 198
  18. ^ "Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)" – via

External linksEdit