A recent post from the New Yorker‘s blog, Culture Desk tells the remarkable story of the rediscovery of the first American Anti-Nazi film. The long-lost film’s location was tracked down by Thomas Doherty, author of the recently published Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, while he was researching the book.
The New Yorker post tells the remarkable story of how Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr.trip to Germany in 1933 shortly after Hitler became Chancellor led to the film’s creation. The film, Hitler’s Reign on Terror, includes footage of Nazi rallies, book burnings, street scenes in Vienna and Berlin, and anti-Nazi protests in Madison Square Garden. The film premièred at the independent Mayfair theatre on Broadway on April 30, 1934, and garnered the biggest single opening day in the house’s history.
However, as the article writes, “George Canty, the Berlin-based trade commissioner for the U.S. Department of Commerce, got wind of protests against the film by the German Ambassador in Washington, and concluded that ‘the film serves no good purpose. Across the country, censors took Canty’s view, and the film was denied a license, banned, and cut by New York City and State censor boards.”
The film then seemingly disappeared only to be recovered by Thomas Doherty. Here’s the description from the New Yorker article:
This April, Thomas Doherty, a Brandeis University professor, published “Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939,” a lively study of Hollywood’s relationship to Nazism. Researching the book, Doherty hunted down a number of American films from the period to provide a “Nazi-centric view of the American motion picture industry,” but had proved unable to find “Hitler’s Reign of Terror.” “Given the profile of the film in 1934,” Doherty wrote, “its total absence really stumped me. Curiouser still was its seeming disappearance from places it really should have been at least mentioned—such as the Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr. papers at Vanderbilt University, where it was not referenced at all. It appeared to be an authentically ‘lost’ film.” Then, a few years into his research on the book, Doherty received an email from Roel Vande Winkel at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. Vande Winkel had been contacted by Nicola Mazzanti, of the Royal Belgium Film Archive in Brussels, to report that the archive had come across a copy of the film in a back shelf in cold storage; he assumed it had been there since around 1945.
A Belgian film distributor, Doherty explained, must have ordered a print of the film from abroad—likely London—after the war broke out but before the Nazis invaded Belgium. Due to its foreign origins, it had to clear customs, but once the Nazis took control, the postulated distributor probably didn’t want to be holding an anti-Nazi film (or couldn’t afford the tax), and so never picked it up from customs. Somehow, some years later, it wound up with other unclaimed film-related customs inventory at the Royal Belgium Film Archive.