A weird little movie with some sweeping facts

Netflix has been letting me down lately.

I’m tired of the stuff it’s pushing at me. Currently, my “Naomi Is Watching” string is very long. Most of the things I’ve started, I’ve exited after about ten minutes. I can’t figure out how to delete them, or move them into obscurity. So they sit there in my face, wasting my time and patience.

The other night, I escaped the insistent string by going to TCM, where I found a movie bearing the grimace-causing title, Confessions of a Nazi Spy.

The initial oddness was the film’s date, 1939. How could a movie filmed (presumably) no later than 1938 deal with Nazi spies before WWII began and several years before Pearl Harbor pushed the U.S. out of uneasy neutrality and into the battle?

So at the start, I was thinking some of this had to be sensationalist fiction, even slightly futuristic fiction. But it’s not. In fact, the story is based on a real pre-war Nazi spy round-up by some FBI agents, even though the FBI did not then have a counter-espionage division.

I was aware that Edward G. Robinson, playing the central FBI man, and Anatole Litvak, the film’s director, were Jewish. After a trip into Wikipedia, I confirmed that so too were Paul Lukas and Francis Lederer, the actors playing two key American Nazis. And several other actors, emigrants from Europe like Lukas and Lederer, used pseudonyms because they had family in Europe, against whom Hitler could retaliate.

The excellent actor who played Goebbels chose not to be credited at all.

In one sense it’s an intimate film. The setting are small apartments, some actual New York street scenes, a beer hall, FBI and military offices. And the format, of course, meant the film came nowhere near to filling my TV. The film was a small, black-and-white square somewhere in the middle of the screen.

But Litvak also used news footage of huge Nazi rallies in Germany, and broadened the American scenes to include chilling Nazi “camp” functions, with young uniformed kids marching and saluting, and German-American Bund gatherings with loud orations and Sieg heils.

Then, as the film was being readied for release, the Nazis invaded Poland and went on. So the filmmakers added some graphics and documentary footage to the end, showing Germany sweeping into one country after another.

Yes, some of the performances in the film seem like theatrical caricatures, until mixed in with the documentary footage, when it becomes pretty clear the loud drumming and shouting were not conventions of that age’s filmmaking; they represented 1930’s reality.

Let’s get to all the comparisons to certain realities of 2021 America.

Most of the time, I’m contrarian when people draw dark comparisons between the US today and Germany in the 1930s. The conditions in the Weimar Republic, a nascent but shaky effort at a democracy, were not our conditions now.

All these dark warnings have had one salutary effect, at least on me. I’ve pulled off the shelves my Third Reich histories and have been reading about the Weimar Republic. What I’m learning is the comparisons between the two decades of Weimar and the more than 200 years of the United States are even more off than some people believe.

However, one repeated theme — and word — in Confessions of a Nazi Spy did grab my immediate attention: propaganda.

The word itself, as well as the import conveyed by the Nazi propaganda, acts as another sort of drumbeat throughout the film. In vehement speeches, on posters, on leaflets tossed from planes, in a scene with Goebbels, who orders an underling to disperse Nazi propaganda in America, which will thus learn that the Nazi ideals are the best way for America to go…

Propaganda.

Did Nazi propaganda work here? Did Nazi propaganda sell so many Americans — who had not been thinking this way — on the Nazi ideal, our government collapsed and a collaborationist like Quisling took power?

No. And Nazi ideology was at its most, uh, attractive, in the 1930s.

I do agree with the worriers that Goebbels-type propaganda is loud in the U.S. now, using the same lies, the same screams, the same demonizations of the same minorities, albeit via contemporary channels. And anyone who read the Mueller Report understands that a lot of this propaganda was generated by Russia.

But neither Russia nor the American crazy right has reconfigured the model, the Goebbels model, which anyone even only vaguely aware of 20th century history can dissect with half a brain. It’s the same old same old.

Whenever I think about this propaganda in the United States, I wonder how many people buy into it, are screaming for an overthrow of a democratically elected government and the installation of an autocrat who will punish all their enemies.

But the more important question to me is: how many people can be convinced of, dragged into an ideology they did not previously embrace?

And then I consider how many people reject the propaganda in favor of our pulsating diverse culture and our many centuries’ habit, long fought for, called elections.

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