Confessions of a Nazi Spy
1939 Theatrical Poster
Directed byAnatole Litvak
Screenplay byMilton Krims
John Wexley
Based onNazi Spies in America
1939 book
by Leon G. Turrou
Newspaper Articles
1938-9 stories in The New York Post
Produced byHal B. Wallis
Jack L. Warner
Robert Lord
StarringEdward G. Robinson
Francis Lederer
George Sanders
Paul Lukas
Narrated byJohn Deering
CinematographySol Polito
Ernest Haller (uncredited)
Edited byOwen Marks
Music byMax Steiner
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • May 6, 1939 (1939-05-06)
Running time
104 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.5 Million

Confessions of a Nazi Spy is a 1939 American spy political thriller film directed by Anatole Litvak for Warner Bros. It was the first explicitly anti-Nazi film to be produced by a major Hollywood studio,[2] being released in May 1939, four months before the beginning of World War II and two and a half years before the United States' entry into the war.

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.[3] Harry, Albert, and Jack Warner, who then owned Warner Bros, were Jewish.[4]

The film's story is based on a series of articles by FBI officer Leon G. Turrou, recounting his investigation of Nazi spy rings in the United States. Parts of the film are drawn from the Rumrich Nazi spy case, the first major international espionage case in American history.


A silhouetted narrator connects the film to recent events, beginning in a quiet corner of Scotland in 1937. A postman delivers letters from all over the world to a Mrs. MacLaughlin, who forwards the contents of one envelope to Dr. Karl Kassel in New York City. Later, Kassel harangues an audience of German-Americans at the Café Nuremberg. Most are wearing the uniform of the German American Bund. He tells 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, an unemployed malcontent, is inspired to become a spy and writes to Hitler's personal newspaper. German Naval Intelligence knows that he is not a double agent because the Americans have no formal counterespionage system. Franz Schlager, a naval officer sailing to New York on the steamship Bismarck, is ordered to contact Schneider. Meanwhile, beauty operator Hilda Kleinhauer informs on her clients to the Gestapo and carries material for Schlager.

An American Legionnaire challenges Kassel at a meeting. He and others speaking out for democracy are attacked.

Schneider boasts to his friend Werner, a private in the Air Corps, that he receives instructions from Hitler. Werner gets the Z code, and Schneider obtains medical records that 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.

Kassel is called back to Germany.  He takes his mistress, Erika Wolff, and leaves his wife behind. The narrator provides a dramatic description of the fascist way of life. Kassel is put in charge of all Nazi activities in the United States. Under the slogan, "America for Americans," the country is flooded with propaganda while spies target military operations.

Thanks to the postman's curiosity, British Military Intelligence uncovers Mrs. MacLaughlin's role as postmistress for a worldwide network of spies. American military intelligence in New York, consisting of Major Williams and one assistant, turns to the FBI for help in exposing spies, although it has never played that role before. FBI Agent Ed Renard takes the case.

Upon his return to the United States, Kassel visits Camp Horst Wessel, where German-American children are trained in Nazi ideals and military skills.

Schneider is instructed to use an alias to obtain passports, which arouses suspicion. The FBI follows the package containing the passports and arrests him. Learning his true identity, they realize that they have a letter that he sent to MacLaughlin. Renard flatters him for hours and extracts a detailed confession. Through Schneider, Renard finds Wenz, Kleinhauer and Kassel aboard the "Bismarck" in port. Kassel proudly shows Renard his files on important Americans that document their 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 confesses everything about the German spy organization, revealing the intricacy and scope of the network. He is released, and the Gestapo are waiting. He swears that he revealed nothing, but the men are arrested outside his apartment building.

A federal dragnet captures many agents and their accomplices. On March 13, 1938, Hitler annexes 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.  The Gestapo capture him and take him to the Bismarck. He is told to claim that he was tortured by FBI agents and forced to sign a false confession. In New York, Hilda receives the same instructions.

Eighteen people are indicted for espionage. Four are in custody: Schneider, Wenz, Kleinhauer and Helldorf. US Attorney Kellogg describes the role of a network of German fifth columnists in the United States and in the Nazi conquest of Europe. He calls for Americans to take a lesson, reviewing Hitler's march through Europe, demonstrating “the supremacy of organized propaganda backed by force.” The spies are convicted.

Over coffee, Kellogg and Renard discuss events in America and Europe. Renard describes Nazis as "insane." Kellogg believes that "when our basic liberties are threatened, we wake up."

The credits roll to America the Beautiful in march time.



Casting notes

Several actors in the film were expatriates from Germany and other European countries living in the United States, some of whom had moved to flee Nazi oppression. To prevent retaliation against their relatives still living in Germany, many appeared in the film uncredited or under aliases. These actors were Hedwiga Reicher ('Celia Sibelius'), Wolfgang Zilzer ('John Voigt'), Rudolph Anders ('Robert Davis'), Wilhelm von Brincken ('William Vaughn'), and Martin Kosleck (uncredited).

Based on a true story

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, quit the FBI and continued publishing articles on the topic that J. Edgar Hoover had largely ignored and tried to prevent from publication.[5][6] Authors Paul Buhle and David Wagner of Radical Hollywood wrote that it "treated a real-life case" and that Warner Bros. had been warned by the Dies Committee "against slurring a 'friendly country'".[7]

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.[7][8][9] The FBI said the Rumrich Nazi Spy Case was their "first major international spy case" and that Leon Turrou "was placed in charge" but had later been fired by FBI chief Hoover. In fact, Turrou had first quit and been retroactively fired to strip him of benefits.[6] Guenther Gustave Maria Rumrich was arrested on February 14, 1938, and charged with spying for Germany.[10] 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][11] 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 Kassel 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.[citation needed]


The Production Code Administration, led by notorious antisemite[4] Joseph Breen, first recommended shelving the film citing concerns about losing access to the German market and saying it unduly criticized a particular world leader (Hitler), but later acquiesced after alterations including removing any mention of Jewish people, Hitler's big lie.[6] The PCA was heavily lobbied by the German government, particularly from their consulate in L.A., to prevent the release of anti-Nazi movies.[4] After the release of the film, they announced that they would not permit the release of any other anti-Nazi films.[4]

Many actors turned down roles out of fear of repercussions including violence, and nobody would play Hitler no matter the pay,[6] so the script was altered so that he was only present in newsreel footage.[4] A 60-pound boom had been sabotaged to fall down on the set, nearly killing one of the main actors.[6]


The film was the first anti-Nazi film from a major American studio. At the premiere, there were almost as many policemen and special agents in the audience as customers.[12] 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.[7][9][13][11] 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.

Pushback from Nazis and their local supporters saw theaters around the U.S. being picketed or vandalized, limiting the release.[6][14] Fritz Kuhn, leader of the German American Bund, sued Warner Bros for $5 million.[4]

Confessions of a Nazi Spy was banned in Germany, Japan, and many Latin American and European countries.[12][15] Norway also banned it in 1939.[16] 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.[3]

In the United States, it had a month-long rolling open.[4]

Louis B. Mayer required all MGM employees to attend Lionel Barrymore's 61st birthday celebration, broadcast live on Good News of 1939, in order to prevent their attendance of the premiere.[4]


It won the 1939 National Board of Review Award for Best Film. 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. Rachel Maddow called the film one of the most important of the 20th century.[6]

See also


  1. ^ "How a New York Post series helped Hollywood take on Hitler". April 3, 2015.
  2. ^ D'Onofrio, Joseph. "Confessions of a Nazi Spy". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on March 12, 2007. Retrieved January 23, 2006.
  3. ^ a b "Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939): Trivia". IMDb.[better source needed]
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Maddox, Rachel (2023). Prequel (1st ed.). Crown. pp. 144. ISBN 978-0-593-44451-1.
  5. ^ Fox, John (FBI historian) on Turner Classic Movies broadcast, 24 July 2008
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Maddow, Rachel (2023). "Chapter 12: Hollywood!". Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism (Audiobook). ISBN 978-0-593-86831-7.
  7. ^ a b c Buhle, Paul; Wagner, David (May 1, 2002). Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America's Favorite Movies. The New Press. pp. 211–213. ISBN 978-1-56584-718-7. Retrieved November 11, 2023.
  8. ^ a b "Rumrich Nazi Spy Case". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved November 11, 2023.
  9. ^ a b Adams, Nene (June 12, 2013). "#7 Guenther Rumrich's Passport Ploy". 10 Nazi Spies and Their Espionage Plots In America.
  10. ^ "Chapter One". FBI Studies. December 18, 2012. Retrieved November 21, 2023.
  11. ^ a b "Chapter One from "The Origins of FBI Counterintelligence" by Raymond J. Batvinis". FBI Studies. December 18, 2012.
  12. ^ a b Hirschhorn, Clive (1979). The Warners Bros. Story. New York: Crown Publishers. p. 198. ISBN 978-0-517-53834-0.
  13. ^ Morella, Joe; Epstein, Edward Z.; Griggs, John (1973). The Films of World War II. Secacus, NJ: Citadel Press. pp. 27–28. ISBN 978-0-8065-0365-3.
  14. ^ Birdwell, Michael E. (February 1, 2000). Celluloid Soldiers: Warner Bros. Campaign Against Nazism. NYU Press. p. 78. ISBN 978-0-8147-9871-3.
  15. ^ Anker, Daniel (2004). Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust. (documentary film).
  16. ^ Werenskjold, Rolf (September 2019). "German pressure: Spy films and political censorship in Norway, 1914–40". Journal of Scandinavian Cinema. 9 (3): 366. doi:10.1386/jsca_00009_1 – via ResearchGate.