Quentin Tarantino talks Hitler, Hollywood and his hero Jack Warner [Q&A]
INT: Soho House, West Hollywood. It's 5pm in the dead of summer. Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill”) meets with Jewish Journal reporter Danielle Berrin (Hollywood Jew) to discuss a provocative new film history book about Hollywood's relationship to Nazi Germany. They sit at a small wooden table in cozy leather chairs as the backdrop of the city imposes itself through panoramic glass. A continuous stream of wind swirls in from the balcony. A Long Island Iced Tea sweats on the table. Berrin orders champagne.
Hollywood Jew: The new book, “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler” suggests Hollywood studio heads went to great pains to preserve their business with World War II-era Germany – at the expense of their artistic and perhaps even moral integrity.
Quentin Tarantino: You might call that Capitalism’s pact with Hitler.
HJ: So you agree with the premise.
QT: I’d say they were rebellious collaborators. Because they did a bunch of movies dealing with Germany-esque countries, meaning, they dealt with the subject of countries taking over other countries in Europe and you losing your freedoms, they just couldn’t call it Nazi Germany. It was actually very similar to ‘Team America’s’ Derka Derkastan – they come up with a phony country.
HJ: As someone who writes historical fiction, what are the rules in addressing political sensitivities while still trying to preserve artistic license?
QT: Look, I don’t see any Hollywood movies being written now that are saying ‘Mao was 100-percent wrong and China is an evil empire’ because [Hollywood studios] want to show their movies in China. They’re not rushing to make movies about the Tibetan situation and then going to China and trying to get it released.
HJ: So, without having read Urwand’s book, but based on what you know about film history and world history, would you say his argument — that studios acquiesced to German censorship and even aided in their propaganda efforts — is correct?
QT: I go along with the fact that yes, [Hollywood] had a very lucrative market in Germany for their product.
HJ: Why was that?
Everyone wanted Hollywood movies.
HJ: But was Germany special among other European countries?
QT: Germany is special to this day; they’re a movie-going public. To some degree, even today, where-goes-Germany, where-goes-Europe. When you have big European grosses, Germany will be one of your biggest. And [at the time] they had a healthy film industry, and our stars were really popular there. So it was a big deal. They didn’t necessarily need to hear German language; they had no problem watching American movies — they dug ‘em.
One of the things I think is kinda interesting about all this is: the last chapter [of Urwand’s book] has to be about how Jack Warner is the hero.
HJ: Actually, no. Ironically, the last chapter is about this trip he and several other moguls took to Germany after the war and how they wound up cruising on Hitler’s yacht. And how, even though they visited the concentration camp Dachau, their main concern was how to bring more movie business over and usurp the German film industry for good.
QT: But before that, Jack Warner broke the boycott. Everything [Urwand] is talking about and you’re engaging me in conversation about was absolutely true — until Jack Warner made ‘Confessions of a Nazi Spy.’ He’s got to be the hero of this book.
HJ: Well, that’s why everyone is saying it’s so edgy. Because Urwand is saying that even though the Warner brothers have this reputation as having been crusaders against fascism, he’s saying: That’s myth. He’s saying: Not so fast.
QT: What are they saying about Jack Warner in particular?
HJ: Urwand is saying that he makes ‘Confessions’ and then he gets on Hitler’s yacht a few years later.
QT: That doesn’t make any sense. Hitler’s dead, the war is over, and they’re taking him on a tour of bombed-out Europe and they’re hitting all the sights…
HJ: Allow me to quote the New York Times:
Even Jack Warner, praised by Groucho Marx for running “the only studio with any guts” after greenlighting the 1939 film “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” comes in for some revisionist whacks. It was Warner who personally ordered that the word “Jew” be removed from all dialogue in the 1937 film “The Life of Emile Zola,” Mr. Urwand writes, and his studio was the first to invite Nazi officials to its Los Angeles headquarters to screen films and suggest cuts.
“There’s a whole myth that Warner Brothers were crusaders against fascism,” Mr. Urwand said. “But they were the first to try to appease the Nazis in 1933.”
QT: That’s interesting.
HJ: It’s filling in some gaps.
QT: Look, they did go out of their way to appease the Nazis but it’s more about the fact that where they went out of their way the most was to avoid mentioning [Nazism] by name, while still using the intrigue that Nazi-occupied Europe offers as far as espionage plot is concerned. They still engaged in those, and treated them like modern-day stories, they just conveniently never mentioned it was Germany, or conveniently never mentioned it was Nazism…
HJ: Or Jews…
QT: Or it was Jews, particularly. All of the sudden in ‘The Son of Monte Cristo’ (1940) — which is rewritten to look like Nazi Germany — it’s not Adolf Hitler, its [Gen.] Gurko Lanen.
HJ: So they’re making these disguised statements in their movies. But from a humanitarian perspective, all this crazy stuff is happening in Germany, and you have this business you’re responsible for, and art you want to make, without clashing with the times. Are there limitations to how far you can go? What is your responsibility?
QT: That is the question. What is their responsibility, if any? This is not being an apologist for [the studios], I wish certain things were the case; I wish they would have made movies about America in the South documenting what the Klu Klux Klan was doing to black America, but they weren’t doing that. They were ignoring it, and when they did deal with the subject, ever so briefly, they ignored [the political situation] completely. They did one movie about the Klan, called ‘Black Legion’ and they don’t deal with the black situation at all — it’s against vigilante justice — as if that were the Klan’s biggest problem. To me that would be one of the biggest crimes in American cinematic avoidance. However, it’s not as if Southern blacks were running the studios and they were ignoring what was going on in the South. And when you think about how many [Jewish] immigrants were amongst these dudes [meaning, the WWII-era studio executives]…
HJ: So what do you make of the fact that it was mostly Jewish moguls making decisions to appease German sensibilities?
QT: Frankly though, that makes Jack Warner even more the hero. Because he took the money while he took the money because everybody else did — and why wouldn’t you? Because that’s business as usual. That’s just the way it is. I mean, Hollywood is gearing their stuff to China right now, business as usual. Why turn away that market, you know, if it’s not killing us? And apparently they felt it wasn’t killing them. And, ‘who wants to see movies about that anyway?’ was probably what they were thinking, more or less. Until they had had enough. When [Jack Warner] went and did ‘Confessions of a Nazi Spy,’ he stopped all that. The affect was a big deal. Not only were Warner [Bros.] movies not able to be shown at a certain point [in Germany], that movie has a definite Jewish subtext to it.
HJ: Can you imagine what Hitler would have done to you if he had seen ‘Inglourious Basterds?’
QT: [laughs] There is a Jewish subtext in ‘Confessions of a Nazi Spy’ embodied by Edward G. Robinson’s FBI character. Because he is kind of a cool rabbi-mensch — as an FBI guy. He just seems older and Jewish and wiser, and that’s how he’s getting the guy, as opposed to kicking down the door with a gun. He actually gets him because he uses psychology and stuff. He has a smart Jewish elder-father persona about him. And there is subtextual Jewish resistance against the Nazis in films: like any one of the big Paul Muni Nazi movies, whether it’s ‘Commandos Strike at Dawn’ or ‘Counter-Attack’ – well that’s an ‘Inglorious Basterds,’ just by the fact that every Jew in America knew Paul Muni was a Jew. So if he’s fighting the Nazis, that’s the Jews fighting the Nazis. No matter what his character is in the movie.
HJ asks QT to read a passage in Urwand’s book, detailing an arbitration dispute between MGM and the German censorship board regarding the banning of “The Prizefighter and the Lady” (1933) because its star, Max Baer, was Jewish. Urwand notes that, until this point, “films had only ever been banned in Germany on account of objectionable content – a policy consistent with the policies of other nations. Now, films could also be banned because of the racial origins of the members of the cast.”
QT: That’s really fuckin’ interesting. I love all that — as far as being in this book, that’s fascinating. But, not to put that down, what he’s writing and exposing, I would just say, well, yes; but again, where’s all the black subject matter never even made, never even dealt with? As opposed to here, you make the movie because you’re dealing ultimately with America and a lot of other places, but you have to deal with the Germany problem — but they’re gonna still make the movie. And maybe it gets shown in Germany, maybe it doesn’t. If they can cut a few things out to get it released, maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Whatever the deal is, alright? But at the same time, they’re not dealing with these other subjects in America that they could be dealing with because the South would just shut them down. They got over their squeamishness about Nazism after a few years.
HJ: Yeah but you didn’t get a film like ‘Schindler’s List’ until the 90s.
QT: I’m still keeping it in perspective of the war going on, still thinking in perspective of the hot times. By the 50s, liberal Hollywood started showing itself – sometimes in patronizing ways – but even then, there was the conversation of, like, ‘Will all Paramount movies be banned in the South?’ Not just this movie, but all Paramount movies because they’re daring to shove this down our throats? Well those movies just weren’t made in the 30s and 40s. It was not even a question.
HJ: Well, what is the point at which Hollywood, as artists and business people, have to develop a conscience? At what point do your higher principles override your lust for Capitalism?
QT: You’re talking about studio heads [laughs]. You’re talking about people whose job it is to make money. I get your point…
HJ: I just think at a certain point that’s not a good enough excuse. They had plenty of opportunities to make money elsewhere. At what moment do you say, ‘We’re really against this. We’re gonna make a sacrifice to make a statement’?
QT: I would absolutely, positively agree with that; and I would say:
That’s what Jack Warner did when he made ‘Confessions of a Nazi Spy.’ That was the line too far. That was the line in the sand. And it was more than a line in the sand. It’s not like he made a movie like ‘The Prizefighter and the Lady’ that had some objectionable stuff that they thought would get through and they ended up being unreasonable. He said ‘fuck it’ anyway. He made a movie to sink. their. battleship. The movie was made to expose Nazism to the American public.
HJ: What was the significance of that type of rebellion?
QT: That meant Germany, from here on out, as far as Warner Bros. was concerned, would be a complete write-off. That’s a market you can just ignore. Say goodbye. And at that time, for all they knew, Germany would win the war in Europe. They could be saying goodbye to all of Europe for the next 50 years, as far as they knew.
HJ: That’s a good point.
QT: That actually is a good point, now that I’m saying it out loud [laughs].
And once America’s in [the war], well, then, okay, whatever..
HJ: What statement do you think Jack Warner was personally making with that film?
QT: For lack of a better word, he was being a responsible Jew in a powerful position that was actually putting his money where his mouth is. And I’m not just being an apologist for Jack Warner. But in this instance, when he made that movie, he wasn’t making it for Europe — Europe knew exactly who the Nazis were — he was making it for Americans. And it’s about Nazism in America. And it’s done completely as an expose. It’s a dramatized, documentary expose. It’s propaganda in every way, shape and form. Even though it’s pretty interesting, it’s a good movie. It has a purpose. And he called it by name: Germany. Nazis. Germany. Nazis. Goebbels. Hitler. And that was a big deal back then. And the [U.S.] military thought so; they gave him a rank of colonel or something like that [Warner was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army] and he demanded to be referred to it for years afterwards because he was very proud of it.
HJ: Too bad there weren’t more Jack Warners.
QT: I would agree with that. I completely agree with that.
To me, it was a heroic social conscious effort for him to do that, because when he did it, he wasn’t making a movie to make money. He was making a movie to make a point and he was making a movie to educate America about exactly what’s going on. As far as he saw it, in Europe as far as the Nazis were concerned, everybody else was taking the money. Everybody else was saying ‘That’s not our business. What are we, the fuckin news? We make entertainment, and that shit’s not entertaining.’ Then the writers keep buying books that deal with the subject because it actually is exciting and they still make those movies, they just change it to a Hitler-esque country with a Hitler-esque character. And that’s their, well, you know, ‘We’re entertainers.’
HJ: Actually Warner Bros was responsible for disseminating quite a lot of American newsreels, and at the end of the war, they sent all these famous camera operators to take the footage that we now know of as the liberation footage.
QT: Yeah, but postwar doesn’t even count. Everyone was talking about that stuff postwar. Where this all works is pre-war.
HJ: So, I recently profiled Jeffrey Katzenberg, and at a dinner where he was being honored he said something like: ‘We don’t have an obligation to message in our stories, but we have an opportunity.’
QT: I agree with that. I don’t think, though, that when it comes from up to the minute, ripped-from-the-headlines news items that that’s where they were coming from in Old Hollywood. I don’t think they felt the need to deal with the Hitler situation any more than America in the 80s felt the need to deal with Nicaragua situation. Now, the fact that they were mostly Jews from Europe muddies the waters in a way that makes it loaded.
HJ: As someone who is interested in the psychology of it all, why do you think these ‘Hollywood Jews’ didn’t feel more obligated to take a stand?
QT: Just from the Neal Gabler attitude of it all, it was just this paranoia of having to hide inside of the society you’re in. Don’t call too much attention to the Jewishness of your company, or yourself. Better to hide close inside. I mean, that’s pop psychology. Works for me, though. Does it work for you?
HJ: I suppose that’s the ready answer. One interesting thing that Rabbi Marvin Hier from the Simon Wiesenthal Center said, is that during the early 40s, this Zionist activist Peter Bergson organized these big public rallies and pageants condemning Hitler and calling for the rescue of European Jews. And he could not for the life of him get the American Jewish establishment on board with this. The major Jewish organizations at the time didn’t want to touch these pageants with a ten mile poll — but almost all the Hollywood moguls signed on, they were part of the steering committee, they attended the events. And so, the rabbi said to me that what’s interesting about Urwand’s book as a revelation, is that in the 30s they’re doing business with Hitler, and by the 40s, they realize they made a mistake. Germany’s not going to win the war, and they pull a 180.
QT: I completely buy that. Here’s the thing: if this is collaboration, then what the Hollywood studios are doing with China right now is also collaboration. If they are actually coming from the idea that [China] is a regime that is not to be emulated. Now, I haven’t read the book, but there have been issues of collaboration and I don’t think this 100-percent qualifies. This is collaboration no more than massaging things for China is massaging things for the South in the olden days. Now, on other hand, the [Hollywood] blacklist in the 50s is absolute collaboration with an evil entity. That is Hollywood completely conspiring with the government to fuck over people in a horrible way. Now that’s genuine collaboration; that’s not just offering up your movie to a censor board.
HJ: A Holocaust scholar told me that collaboration is not the right word to use because it actually means to help another entity achieve their aim. What Hollywood was doing, he said, was accommodating.
QT: Look, do we wish that [the moguls] had had more moral fortitude at that moment to do this, that, and the other? Of course we do. But when you look at the blacklist, that is genuine collaboration.
HJ looks at her phone. Nearly 8pm, she must get to another interview. QT orders one last drink.
HJ: Thank you so much for doing this. You should definitely teach film history.
QT: Actually I hope to one day, when I'm a little older. And thank you — this was a blast.