It goes without saying that Hitler is a taboo subject in Germany, which is why it’s remarkable that a German novelist, Timur Vermes, has caused a sensation with his book about a time-travelling Fuhrer. In the Times, Janet Maslin reviews the first English translation of Look Who’s Back. You could also read Merve Emre on Ben Urwand’s book about Hollywood and the Nazis.
Adolf Hitler loved Mickey Mouse. Mickey’s Fire Brigade, Mickey’s Polo Team, Pluto Outwits Mickey — for Hitler, Mickey Mouse was magic. Hitler loved Mickey Mouse so much that, in 1937, Joseph Goebbels, the head of the Reich Ministry of Popular Entertainment and Propaganda, sent the Führer 12 Mickey Mouse films (plus “a wonderful art album”) for Christmas. The box set was a gift that Goebbels hoped would bring his dictator “much joy and relaxation” as Hitler proceeded with his plans to conquer Europe, systematically annihilating two-thirds of its Jewish inhabitants along the way.
Ben Urwand’s book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler begins with this startling juxtaposition. It is the unholy alliance of Hitler and Mickey that tees up Urwand’s central claim: from 1933 to 1939, the Jewish moguls who ran Hollywood’s studio system “collaborated” with the Nazi regime, censoring and even quashing films that represented the German state in a negative light.
According to Urwand, the studios were motivated by profit, pure and simple. In 1932, Germany represented Hollywood’s biggest foreign market, a business opportunity complicated by the fact that the German Foreign Office claimed the right to deny import permits to any film whose “tendency or effect” was “detrimental to German prestige.” It was no accident that Germany’s tightening oversight of its film imports came at precisely the same moment that writers and directors — ranging from Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz to Hitler parodist Charlie Chaplin — sought to expose Nazi evil on the silver screen. But markets trumped morals. Films like The Road Back (1937) and Lancer Spy (1937) were hacked up according to German demands, while anti-Nazi films like The Mad Dog of Europe and It Can’t Happen Here were relegated to dustbins on Hollywood Boulevard.
Urwand finds evidence of “collaboration” (Zusammenarbeit) everywhere. He finds it in the letters of studio heads, like Universal Pictures’ Carl Laemmle and MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, who allegedly pulled films that alluded to Germany’s “Jewish Problem.” He finds it in records of meetings between the Hays Office, Hollywood’s chief censorship organization, and a revolving door of German diplomats, each more unctuous than the last. And crucially for Urwand’s purposes, he finds it in Hitler’s incoherent scribblings on film and propaganda in Mein Kampf (1926). If Hitler “derived a lot of pleasure” from Mickey and friends, “he was also seduced by them. He believed that they contained a mysterious, almost magical power that somehow resembled his own abilities as an orator.” And so Urwand claims that “Hitler himself” sits “at the center” of the studio system’s complicity with the Third Reich, dictating from his private screening room in the Chancellery which movies were “good,” “bad,” or needed to be “switched off.”
Armed with an embarrassment of archival riches, Urwand draws a conclusion that would make Hannah Arendt sit up and pay attention were she alive today. Indeed, it seems impossible to read The Collaboration without hearing echoes of Arendt’s reasoning in Eichmann in Jerusalem — her indictment of the “Jewish ‘collaborators’” who “had cooperated [with the Nazis] because they thought they could ‘avert consequences more serious than those which resulted.” While Hollywood studios “had the chance to show the world what was really happening in Germany,” he argues, they were too busy kowtowing to the bottom line to “expose the brutality of the Nazi regime” in action. Although Urwand stops just short of offering his readers a full counterfactual history, his implication is clear. There is blood on Hollywood’s hands.
Since word of The Collaboration got out this past June, the hype surrounding it has given way to a firestorm of personal and professional trash talk. Perhaps it began with the cover letter that Urwand’s publicity team at Goldberg McDuffie Communications, Inc. sent to reviewers, which talks up The Collaboration while simultaneously dissing film historian Thomas P. Doherty’s Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, a strikingly similar account of the Third Reich’s dealings with the studio system that came out only six months earlier. “Whereas Doherty relied on flawed, superficial accounts in domestic trade papers, Urwand discovered a vast array of primary source materials,” wrote Urwand’s publicist, seeking to undermine Doherty’s far milder claim that, when it came to Nazism, “the motion picture industry was no worse than the rest of American culture in its failure of nerve and imagination, and often a good deal better in the exercise of both.”
But Urwand’s team seems to have forgotten that all publicity is good publicity, especially where academic historians are concerned. So baited, Doherty struck back in the pages of The Hollywood Reporter. Urwand’s charges of collaboration were “scandalous and ahistorical,” Doherty argued, an irresponsible retro-projection of the Vichy and Soviet government’s political collaboration with the Nazis onto the Hollywood studio system. He was, however, much nicer in print than Hollywood heiresses Cass Warner and Alicia Mayer, the latter of whom attacked Urwand’s “sickening claims” on her blog Hollywood Essays. “I need your help,” Mayer begins her petition to blacklist Urwand’s book. “Imagine for a moment that your family has been accused of collaborating with Hitler and the Nazis…How could one book destroy the amazing legacies left by my family and those of the Warners, the Goldwyns and others?” Spurred on by her outrage, Mayer calls on Doherty along with film historian Michael Greco and director Quentin Tarantino to strike down Urwand’s “terrible libel.”
By now, Urwand has surely realized that someone had blundered by riling up Doherty, who proves a far better critic than Urwand. Hollywood and Hitler is a tighter, more riveting read than The Collaboration, and Doherty displays the methodical prowess of a historian who doesn’t have to scandalize to sell his story. More importantly, Doherty’s unwillingness to stretch the limits of interpretation throws into relief The Collaboration’s many sleights of hand, the dark magic of a historian’s misreadings across a series of otherwise fascinating archives.
At its best moments, The Collaboration covers ground well tread by Doherty and others, offering by-the-book sketches of the Nazi riots at the 1933 screening of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the failed anti-Nazi film The Mad Dog of Europe, and the proto-fascist spectacle of films like Gabriel Over the White House (1933). At its worst, The Collaboration proceeds by insinuation rather than proof, clumsily contorting its archival findings to fit Urwand’s agenda of character assassination. Consider, for instance, how Urwand treats Twentieth Century Fox’s Oscar nominated movie The House of Rothschild (1934), an attempt to allegorize the rise of anti-Semitism in the twentieth century by narrating the history of Mayer Rothschild’s banking empire. Politically incorrect by today’s standards, The House of Rothschild was praised at the time of its release by rabbis and Jewish affiliates of B’nai B’rith. Six years after The House of Rothschild premiered in the U.S., the Nazis spliced footage from The House of Rothschild into The Eternal Jew (1940), a vicious piece of anti-Semitic propaganda directed by Fritz Hippler. From this, Urwand concludes that The Eternal Jew was “unthinkable without The House of Rothschild,” as it “provided structure to what otherwise would have been the regime’s usual anti-Semitism.” But Urwand fails to tell us how long this footage lasts — a mere 4 minutes — nor does he draw attention to the long history of “The Eternal Jew” as a folklore figure, a Yiddish-language play, a British film, a 1937 anti-Semitic book, or a Nazi art exhibit, all preceding or contemporaneous with the American film. If the actual details of The Eternal Jew deflate much of Urwand’s overblown rhetoric, they’re also beside the point. To label Hippler’s cut-and-paste job an act of collaboration between Hollywood and the Nazis is a little like calling shoplifting collaboration between a thief and a shopkeeper.
The Collaboration is littered with such analytic missteps. Pick a page, and read it carefully, and some thread of Urwand’s argument is bound to unravel in your hands. There are conclusions that feel shaky the instant you land upon them — for example, his claim that Germany’s ban on Warner Brothers’ film Captured! (1933) somehow scared the other studios into “collaborating with Nazi Germany” seems both vague and implausible. There are instances where Urwand cites anecdotal evidence only to undercut it, only to rely on it in pushing his argument forward. His introductory chapter “Hitler’s Obsession with Film” is especially troubling in this regard, as he introduces his sustained analogy between Hitler’s oratorical skills and movie magic on the testimony of Hitler’s friend Reinhold Hanisch, an account he first flags as “dubious in several respects.” And finally, there are whole chapters in which Urwand’s fascinating and contradictory strands of evidence are muted by an overly pat conclusion. When, for instance, Urwand can’t find any solid proof that Louis B. Mayer personally pulled Sinclair Lewis’s anti-fascist film It Can’t Happen Here for fear of the Third Reich, he reads Mayer’s “no comment” as an obvious admission of his guilt. Of course, this ignores Urwand’s earlier evidence that Mayer repeatedly “decided to push ahead with It Can’t Happen Here” despite the German government’s protests.
All of this is simply to say, if you only read one book this year on Hollywood and the Nazis, don’t read this one. And it’s a shame, really, because there’s an extraordinary book to be written using the evidence that Urwand extracted from his German and American sources. As a critic, the best part of reading The Collaboration is fantasizing about the book it might have been — something less sensational, but more patient and responsible with its raw materials. I was beckoned time and again by flashes of archival mystery: Hitler’s childish fascination with not just Mickey, but the slapstick of Laurel and Hardy and the sentimentality of musical theater; the genesis of national typecasting in Howard Hughes’s World War I film Hell’s Angels; the unspecified and fluid relationship between the studio centers in Hollywood and their foreign branches. The list goes on, but it matters little. After all, critics can’t be collaborators.