Harvard scholar Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler (Harvard/Belknap; $26.95), the product of exhaustive research in US and German archives, clearly intends to disturb readers with the force of its promised revelations. For me, though, there’s nothing in the book more unsettling than the banal fact that Adolf Hitler loved to watch movies before going to bed. He had a special fondness for American productions like Mickey Mouse cartoons and Laurel & Hardy comedies, and his underlings kept careful tabs on his responses, which fell into three categories: good, bad and “switched off.” Art doesn’t choose its audience, but of what value are good intentions when they provide comfort and joy to those who should only sleep badly? The Collaboration sounds a righteous lament about Hollywood’s inability to marshal the willpower to alarm the world about Nazism’s unspeakable horrors. But given Hitler’s own talent for selective perception, would it even have mattered?
The book’s indictment is pretty straightforward. Its thesis: throughout the 1930s, Hollywood studios—many of them operated by Jews—agreed not to make films attacking the Nazis or condemning their persecution of the Jews, in order to continue doing business in Germany after Hitler’s ascent. Urwand concentrates on MGM, Paramount and 20th Century Fox, three studios that kept making money in Germany through the early 1940s. (“Collaboration” is a bit of an overstatement, but Urwand insists that it is the exact term—Zusammenarbeit—used by both the studios and their Nazi interlocutors.) This is some serious revisionism, but The Collaboration won’t provoke fresh outrage in anyone already convinced of the sinuous durability of the profit motive. The studio bosses wanted to maintain their business, after all. Some of them privately feared that Hitler would win the war and wanted to preserve their interests accordingly. And some American Jewish groups, like the Anti-Defamation League, worried that overt protest concerning the situation in Germany would lead to intensified anti-Semitism at home. In 1933, this fear provided the studios with a perfectly high-minded justification for scuttling anti-Nazi entertainments.
Urwand places a great deal of moral emphasis on naming names. At one point, on considering the German reception of certain blandly antifascist American films, he admits that “even the movies that contained veiled references to fascism were useless: audiences in Germany could watch them and still come out with interpretations that suited their own purposes.” To wit, only the films that portrayed the Nazis as unambiguously evil could have an effect on the German populace, and only the films that named the Jews as the specific locus of persecution could awaken Americans to the impending genocide. Strangely, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), which looks even more audacious in this context, is discussed in little more than a footnote, and somehow sidelined for its overly earnest closing speech. Urwand is also less than convincing when he dismisses Confessions of a Nazi Spy, a 1939 Warner Bros. production so forthright about its aims that the advertising campaign referred to it as “The Film That Calls a Swastika a Swastika!” For Urwand, the film’s cheap and formulaic nature—and the fact that Joseph Goebbels didn’t mind the picture at all—invalidates it as an act of political courage.