I was looking forward to watching the 1939 film Confessions of a Nazi Spy, which won the National Board of Review Best Film Award the year it was released. It stars Edward G. Robinson as a G-Man, and its plotline about spies and intrigue is based on a true story of a Nazi spy trial in 1938. Too bad this WWII propaganda film is so heavy-handed that my brain felt like it had been pounded with a not-so-subtle sledgehammer as the end credits rolled.
It was a controversial film, as it was the first major Hollywood production to have the word “Nazi” in the title, while also promoting American participation in World War II. The irony that the film about the bad effects of Nazi propaganda is itself a propaganda film is lost amidst its leaden style. It could also have used a lot more Robinson, as well, as his role turns out to be a supporting one.
The structure of the film is based around the narration of a radio broadcaster, seen only in silhouette. As narrated by voice actor John Deering, this structure attempts to give credence to the newspaper accounts by Leon G. Turrou the film is based on. However, both the voice and writing style are so over-the-top that it actually drags down the plot.
But no rest for the weary — on to the reel librarian! In a very brief scene about seven minutes into the film, one of the Nazi spies, Schneider (Francis Lederer), goes to the New York Public Library.
The tone-deaf narrator informs us that, “During the month of March, 1937, a young man appeared several times at the New York public library and referred to a copy of the book entitled German Espionage in the Last War.”
[FYI, I couldn’t find a record of a book with that title in WorldCat, the most comprehensive listing of library collections worldwide. And yes, I didn’t think twice about looking that up just to check.]
Instead of a camera angle featuring the back of the librarians’ head (see my post on 1933’s The Good Companions for this common camera trick introducing reel librarians), we get a wide angle of the entrance to the library’s periodicals room. This side view reveals a reference desk to the left of the entrance, outfitted with standard library props of a desk lamp and card file, and a tall, inset bookcase is visible just to the left of the desk. The reel librarian seated at the reference desk looks quite young and conservatively dressed in a dark suit and tie.
The (uncredited) reel librarian only gets an opportunity to point, as the narrator keeps speaking, “Describing himself falsely as an ex-officer in the United States Air Corp with access to military and aviation secrets, Schneider offers his services as a Nazi spy […]. “
The wide camera angle follows Schneider as he walks across the room, and we see more of the periodicals room, complete with leather chairs and long tables.
The newspaper that Schneider writes to is the Völkischer Beobachter, and a closeup of this title ends the brief library scene. OF COURSE I looked this title up — and indeed, it was a real newspaper! Originally founded in 1887 as a four-page Munich weekly, the Münchner Beobachter, it became the public face of the Nazi Party from the early 1920s through the fall of the Third Reich in 1945. The title translates to “People’s Observer” in English.
Even though the library scene was early in the film, I did watch the entire 104 minutes (oy) plus the trailer that was included in the DVD. But there were no more mentions of the library, or how Schneider deceived the librarians of his identity. The film winds up in the Class IV category, the uncredited reel librarian pointing his way to an Information Provider role.
And below is the film’s trailer, for those interested in the “5 most shocking words ever hurled from the screen”! 😉
- Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Dir. Anatole Litvak. Perf. Edward G. Robinson, George Sanders, Paul Lukas. Warner Bros., 1939.
- “Völkischer Beobachter.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 July 1998.