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"Some of My Best Friends Are in Concentration Camps": The Absence of Jews in Hitchcock's WWII Films

Michael Rennett
Saboteur (1942)

Although Hitchcock made several films expressing his opposition to the Nazis, viewing these films leads to the question: Where was any mention of the Jews who were so profoundly affected by the Nazis and WWII?

During the late '30s and the early '40s, Alfred Hitchcock created a series of films pertaining to Europe’s political issues and the Second World War. Using both explicit dialogue and implicit metaphorical representations, Hitchcock presents his opinions on Hitler, Nazi Germany, and what the Allies must do to be victorious through movies like Foreign Correspondent (1940), Saboteur (1942), and Lifeboat (1944). Endless scholarly tomes are dedicated to dissecting Hitchcock’s allegories and determining his ideological views; however, throughout Hitchcock’s numerous political films, he seems to discuss only the fight against Hitler and Nazism without discussing the other major event of that time: the Holocaust.

Both World War II and the Holocaust are rooted in Hitler’s belief in the superiority of the Aryan race, which fueled his anti-Semitic rhetoric and his desire for Lebensraum (“living space”) for the German people. Thus, this avoidance of “the Jewish question” within Hitchcock’s work would seem to be a blatant omission on the director’s part. This is especially true when we consider that Hitchcock lived in Europe during Hitler’s rise to power between 1933 and 1939, the widespread news of anti-Semitic events in Germany like the passage of the Nuremberg Laws (September 15, 1935) and Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938), as well as Hitchcock’s collaboration with famed Hollywood screenwriter and fervent Zionist Ben Hecht on many of these scripts. It would therefore seem likely that Hitchcock would include some deep metaphorical subtext within his films regarding this issue even though it has not previously been discussed.

In Hollywood’s Image of the Jew, Lester Friedman points out that “during the war years, it was assimilation, not the need to expose anti-Semitism that dominated the thinking of the Hollywood community” (95). As such, it remains somewhat difficult to distinguish assimilated American Jews from Gentile characters in films from this time period due to the Jewish characters’ respective desire to blend into American society. Audiences therefore had to rely on stereotypical features such as a large, bulbous nose, dark hair, or a typically Jewish name to uncover a Jewish subtext within a film. In Hitchcock’s films which allegorize World War II, we would expect Hitchcock to include other stereotypical characteristics about European Jews under Nazi control within each film’s undertones. For example, a character representing the Jews would have to be either verbally or physically victimized by the Nazis (if not killed) in order to demonstrate the Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism. Similarly, we would presume the Jewish character to be physically weak and not to stand up to the Nazi character even in the face of certain death. Of course, these points must be compared with all other possible allegorical connections in order to determine if that character’s relationship to Jews is indeed veracious. If there is another potential link, then we should assume that the other metaphor is correct since Hitchcock tends to concentrate his political films on democracy and not anti-Semitism.

The 39 Steps

Beginning in 1934 (not coincidentally the year of Hitler’s declaration of German dictatorial power), Hitchcock created a series of politically-themed spy-thrillers in Britain. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) were all set against a backdrop of contemporary European politics. These films focus on foreign spy rings plotting the demise of Britain who must be stopped by English citizens, typically an ordinary person caught in an extraordinary situation.

Hitchcock biographer and critic Donald Spoto finds that “in all Hitchcock’s apparently political spy-chase thrillers, the international issue is merely his pretext for examining quite personal and emotional issues -- thus his refusal to specify a ‘cause’ or to identify the nation involved” (38). As such, there are some conflicting ideologies within some of these films. The international spy ring in The Man Who Knew Too Much, for example, was based on a real-life incident involving Russian anarchists (Truffaut 89), yet Hitchcock’s casting of Peter Lorre, an Austrian actor who found fame in Germany with a key role in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), suggests that the group may be from continental Europe. Additionally, the British policeman Gibson’s (George Curzon) speech comparing this assassination plot to the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand connotes another link to the spies’ representation of Germany by re-drawing the old battle lines of World War I.

Hitchcock was similarly vague in The 39 Steps as Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) is a British civilian working undercover for an unnamed hostile foreign country; in fact, Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) is conspicuously shot before he can divulge the country for which the spy ring is working. Throughout the rest of the '30s, Hitchcock would become more overt in his films’ connections to Germany. Secret Agent follows Edgar Brodie (John Gielgud), an undercover British officer who is sent to Switzerland to kill a German agent during the First World War, and Sabotage centers its story on an underground group of German and English terrorists headed by the foreign Karl Verloc, who was played by Austrian actor Oscar Homolka. However, it is not until 1938’s The Lady Vanishes that Hitchcock creates his first true allegory for the impending war.

The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes is set in the fictional Central European country of Bandrika, which is intended to stand in for Nazi-controlled countries. In the film, an elderly British spy named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) knows vital secret information about a peace treaty that she must bring to her superiors in London. While on a train traveling to England, Froy is kidnapped by a spy ring led by Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), and she must be rescued by Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), a British woman whom she had only met recently. The other British passengers on the train deny having seen Froy as they refuse to get involved with a matter unrelated to their lives. Sam Simone finds that this action is “indicative of isolationism” (21) and Maurice Yacowar, quoting Gavin Lambert, believes that “the British passengers still cling to an obstinate isolationism, reluctant to take the enemy seriously” (247). In fact, the passengers (outside of Iris) only begin to understand the danger of the situation after the cricket-obsessed Charters (Basil Radford) is shot in the hand and pacifist lawyer Todhunter (Cecil Parker) is killed by Bandrikan soldiers despite holding up a handkerchief as a white flag of surrender. The officers are appropriately dressed in outfits reminiscent of Nazi SS uniforms with their long trenchcoats, insignia-patched collars, black leather gloves, and peaked caps.

Hitchcock’s political commentary seems to present two opposing forces, the British and the Bandrikan-Nazis, with Miss Froy caught in the middle between them. Different critics have different interpretations of Froy’s role in the picture. Simone finds that Froy represents the vanishing autonomous nations of Austria and Czechoslovakia (22) while Geoffrey O’Brien describes her as “Englishness itself in its least threatening form.” However, a case can be made for Froy as a metaphor for European Jewry. Her disappearance at the hands of the Bandrikan-Nazis mirrors the plight of many Jews who would be taken silently from their homes by German soldiers and deported to concentration camps in what was known as the country’s Nacht und Nebel (“Night and Fog”) policy. Their neighbors would claim that these people simply vanished as they fell victim to Hitler’s Final Solution. The Bandrikan officer’s speech on the train emphasizes this comparison as he presents a message of fabricated safety to the passengers in order to get them off the train and presumably kill them; these tactics are reminiscent of Hitler’s Gestapo. If Froy stands in for the Jews, then Hitchcock seems to be arguing for the British to open their eyes to the Nazi atrocities and fight back, not just for the safety of the Jews, but for themselves.

Unfortunately for this analysis, this interpretation seems to be stretched too far beyond its historical limits. While anti-Semitic violence was prevalent by 1938, the Nazis did not truly begin rounding up Jews and placing them in concentration camps until the invasion of Poland in 1939. The first death camps, built for the sole purpose of exterminating the Jewish population, were correspondingly built after the beginning of the war. Similarly, the Nacht und Nebel policy was not instituted by the Nazis until 1941. As such, it is far more likely that Froy represents her most direct connection to British political intelligentsia and her message of a covert peace treaty would symbolize the Munich Agreement, which occurred in September 1938.

Foreign Correspondent

Hitchcock’s direct allegories would continue in his first two political films made in America: Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur. The former film follows American journalist Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), later renamed Huntley Haverstock as a pen name, who is sent to Europe in 1939 to cover the beginning of World War II. While overseas, Haverstock unintentionally uncovers a Nazi spy ring that publicly fakes the assassination of a Dutch diplomat named Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) in order to extract vital information from the foreign official privately without disturbance. While initially neutral (like the United States at this time), Haverstock joins forces with British journalist Scott ffolliott (George Sanders) and Carol Fisher (Laraine Day) in order to defeat the enemy. The film ends with Haverstock giving a propaganda statement over the radio as London is being bombed by the Nazis. Haverstock implores America to “keep those lights burning” because “they’re the only lights left in the world,” essentially pleading the country to drop its isolationist views and join the Allied forces.

As in The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent is split into two opposing sides, the Americans and British against the Nazis, with Van Meer caught in the middle this time. Just like Miss Froy, Van Meer’s likeliest real-life counterpart would not be the Jews, but his job in the film: the diplomat or representative of a country that has fallen to Nazi control. On the other hand, Hitchcock seeks to uncover American fascism or the Nazi influence in America in Saboteur. The lead character is Barry Kane (Robert Cummings), an American airplane factory worker, who is wrongly accused of starting a fire at his workplace. Kane travels across the country in order to find Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd), the real arsonist, and clear his own name. The film once again pits the American hero against the Nazi villains, but does not contain any characters that could symbolize the Jews. The person who is most victimized by the Nazi spy group is Kane, who represents American innocence. Thus, throughout these two blatantly propagandistic films, Hitchcock avoids any mention or symbolic depiction of Jewish suffering.

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