Cinema Judaica: The War Years, 1939-1949

On View:

February 8 – July 7, 2007

Reception and Lecture:

Wednesday, April 25, 5:30 – 7:30 p.m., Lecture at 6:30 p.m., by Ken Sutak, producer of “Cinema Judaica,” and Laura Kruger, curator

Gentleman's Agreement Cinema JudaicaThis unprecedented exhibition of iconic Hollywood film posters from 1939 to 1949 illustrates how the motion picture industry countered America’s isolationism, advocated going to war against the Nazis, influenced post-war perceptions of the Jewish people and the founding of the State of Israel, and shaped the face of contemporary Jewish life.

The exhibition begins with the Hollywood studios’ compliance with the Nazis’ control of the motion picture industry in Germany, the ban on Jews from employment within it, and their restrictions on the American distribution of films shown in Germany and throughout Europe. All but two of America’s eight largest American studios, facing the loss of 30%-40% of their revenues from Europe, complied with the Nazis’ restrictions. United Artists closed down its German exchanges rather than fire its Jewish employees, but accepted German content restrictions and arranged for its films to be shown in Germany through another distributor. Only one studio, Warner Brothers, refused to comply with any of Goebbel’s demands and withdrew from the German market. As Jewish characters disappeared from American films, Harry Warner and his brothers committed themselves to make anti-Nazi movies to alert the nation to the Nazi threat.

Sword in the Desert Cinema JudaicaLacking First Amendment protection, according to a 1915 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which allowed any state, city, or town board that objected to its content to censor a film, the Hollywood studios set up the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) and established a Production Code of Administration (PCA) that prohibited causing affront to foreign states, including Germany. Thereafter, films required a seal of approval from the MPPDA. At the same time, the PCA worked with the U.S. State Department to ensure that American movies did not violate a series of Neutrality Laws enacted by the Roosevelt administration to keep American citizens safe in European and other war zones. Thus, anti-Nazi screenplays and clearly defined Jewish roles, which would not pass the certification process, were transformed through allegory, character name changes, and other disguises and glosses by Warner Brothers and other like-minded independent producers.

By July 1938, the discovery of a Nazi spy ring that had been operating in the Northeast under the order of the German government in addition to the Nazis’ annexation of Austria, the appeasement agreement in Munich signed by England’s Prime Minister Chamberlain, the take-over of Czechoslovakia, and the anti-Semitic Kristalnacht pogrom throughout German-occupied Europe led to the PCA approval of the first openly anti-Nazi shooting script, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy.”

None Shall Escape Cinema JudaicaThis exhibition chronicles the period of the “Great Debate” films of 1939-1941 during three years of vigorous public argument in the media, in open forums sponsored by political organizations, and in Congress about American intervention against the Nazis in Europe. When it began, 60% of Americans believed it had been a mistake for the U.S. to enter World War I. The exhibition reveals the role of the first anti-Nazi films within the context of the battle between Charles Lindbergh and America First Committee isolationists and the Fight for Freedom interventionists, the attempt by Ambassador Joseph Kennedy to block anti-Nazi films, and threats from isolationist Senators to regulate the motion picture industry. In addition to “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” featured films include “Sons of Liberty,” “Pastor Hall,” and “The Great Dictator,” among others.

By August 1941, a Senate sub-committee investigated Hollywood’s violation of Neutrality Laws by warmongering in such films as “Sergeant York,” about a noted World War I pacifist who later became a leading advocate for intervention against the Nazis. Included in the exhibition are the documents relating to a “Freedom Rally” at Madison Square Garden, protesting the hearing, whose program cover art was contributed by Walt Disney and included anti-Nazi declarations by Roosevelt.

With the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and America’s declaration of war, Hollywood produced patriotic movies, in the guise of “platoon” films, which reflected on the melting pot tradition of American ethnic diversity and helped instill a unified fighting spirit. Included are posters for World War II espionage and concentration camp escape melodramas set in Germany or another Nazi-occupied country such as “To Be or Not To Be,” plus films about Nazi Germany’s accountability such as “Address Unknown,” “Tomorrow the World,” and “Hotel Berlin.”

Following the war, the “Exodus” films addressing the attempt by European war refugees to rebuild their lives and cultures after the Holocaust include “My Father’s House,” “The Illegals,” “The Search,” and “Sword in the Desert.” Post-war Hollywood films also addressed anti-Semitism on the home front on the part of the Christian Front and its notorious founder, Father Coughlin, and the Christian Mobilizers, who blamed the Jews for the war, called for the defeat of England, and attacked Jewish citizens, stores, and synagogues in major northeast cities. These films, in which an Italian American or Irish American authority figure condemns anti-Semitism, stops an assault, or solves a racist murder, include “The House I Live In,” “Crossfire,” “Open Secret,” while “Gentleman’s Agreement,” addresses the related subject of White Anglo Saxon Protestant anti-Semitism.

Read the Catalog:

Cinema Judaica: The War Years, 1939-1949, by Ken Sutak, 104 full-color pages, illuminates how the Jewish-themed movies from 1939-1949 prepared Americans for war with Nazi Germany, rallied the Allies to unconditional victory over the Axis powers, fought anti-Semitism in the United States, portrayed the Holocaust in Europe, and captured the refugee exodus to Israel during the cataclysmic decade that changed the world; $20; Available from the Dr. Bernard Heller Museum: or 212-824-2218.