Released in 1942, the unimaginatively named Nazi Agent is one of those wartime spy films geared to stir patriotism on the home front, but ends up also being a slick little tale of espionage. An odd business watching it now, as its proud immigrant hero—played by peculiar German movie star Conrad Veidt—stands up and risks everything for all the values our current government is hellbent on destroying. It’s actually a dual role for Veidt, playing separated twin brothers: Baron Hugo von Detner, the German consul in the U.S. who is loyal to the Fatherland, and Otto Becker, a gentle stamp dealer who immigrated to America years earlier and is disgusted with the rise of Nazism at home. As the war between the Allies and the Axis heats up, Hugo pressures Otto into using his shop as a dead-letter drop for German agents on American soil—threatening his American citizenship if he doesn’t cooperate. Otto is lured into the web, but ultimately the conflict leads to a struggle in which Hugo is killed. In a moment of desperation, Otto contrives to takes Hugo’s place, thereby infiltrating the Nazi network that was trying to exploit him. In the process of working to foil their plans, however, he encounters an old flame—Kaaren De Relle (Ann Ayars)—whose affections he lost to his brother years earlier.
Nazi Agent is an effective, classy B movie, low on flash and dazzle but rather well written, and given heart by Veidt’s unique charisma. It’s a clever, early deployment of the identical twin trope, the kind of campy premise that probably worked its way into the DNA of the original Mission: Impossible—indeed, there’s a touch of Rollin Hand in Veidt’s quick-thinking, role-playing Otto. But what really sells it is the protagonist’s commitment to his mission and the American values he holds dear, at great personal cost. His inspiring words serve as a timely reminder of what our country once meant to the world, and what I hope it can mean again.