Gangsters vs. Nazis

How to make a film about Jewish mobsters beating up Nazis? Form a charity, of course

Filmmaker Bruce David Klein says he wanted to retain full control of the project and thought a nonprofit was the best way to go

When Bruce David Klein decided to make a documentary about Jewish gangsters fighting Nazis in the United States in the 1930s, he knew he wanted to have full creative control over the project.

Klein had already bought the rights to make a film based on the book, Gangsters vs. Nazis: How Jewish Mobsters Battled Nazis in 1930s America by Michael Benson, but he wasn’t sure how to get the documentary funded.

Ordinarily, when Klein and his filmmaking company, Atlas Media, want to start a new project, they shop the idea around to different studios, selling the rights to it in exchange for funding. But since that typically came with some editorial strings attached, he didn’t want to go that route.

“Projects tend to organize around whatever network it’s on in terms of its execution and style and everything like that, which is normally fine,” Klein told eJewishPhilanthropy. “But for this, we really wanted this to be ours. We wanted to make sure that the Jewish part of the story does not get diluted, that all the interesting moral questions and everything, which traditionally may not be interesting to a cable network but which are very interesting to us, we wanted to make sure that we can explore them.”

Unsure of what to do, Klein began researching his financing options and settled on a less common tactic: Launch a nonprofit.

“We’ve never done this before, so we started meeting with some investor types and then we started meeting with a couple of philanthropist types. And we realized early on, really pushed by both the investors and the philanthropists, that the best way to go was through a 501(c)(3),” he said.

According to Klein, creating the documentary as a 501(c)(3) would both allow him and his company to retain full creative control of the film and it would potentially make it easier for them to find funders.

“This way we can get very passionate donors, philanthropists who are interested in this story, who feel as passionate as we do about the story, who will be willing to invest,” he said. “That’s what the experts pushed us towards. So that’s where we are today.”

According to attorney Arthur Rieman, who specializes in nonprofit law, there are a number of benefits from creating a film as a 501(c)(3) charity, namely that funders have a tax incentive to get involved. A donation toward the documentary would be considered a charitable gift – and thus tax deductible – rather than a financial investment as it would be if they tried to make the documentary as a for-profit entity.

“For middle-income contributors (especially those living in high-tax states such as California and New York), the charitable deduction write-off may exceed 40% or more of their contribution. For example, a $10,000 contribution to your film may actually cost the donor just $6,000 after taxes,” Rieman wrote in a guide about the process of making a film as a nonprofit for the industry news outlet Backstage. “Donors of film stock and other equipment and supplies are also entitled to a deduction equal to the fair market value of the items donated.”

There is, however, a downside to going the 501(c)(3) route, however, namely that it is difficult to make a profit even if the movie becomes a hit. “By law, those profits may not be distributed to the filmmakers as if they were profit participants,” according to Rieman.

Klein, whose company recently made a documentary about Carl Icahn for HBO and is now making one about Liza Minnelli, said the goal of making this film is primarily telling the story, which he found both captivating and highly relevant.

“About nine months ago, I came across the book,” Klein told eJP. “As a veteran of television production for 25-plus years, to see a title that says, Gangsters vs. Nazis: How Jewish Mobsters Battled Nazis in 1930s America, I didn’t even need to know what it was about, I was sold on that title,” he said. “And then when I picked it up and read it, it was like, ‘Oh my God!’ This is a real, real story that’s kind of been under the surface.”

The story itself focuses on a partnership of sorts between Judge Nathan Perlman and the notorious Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky in the 1930s. Perlman was appalled by the rise of Nazism in the United States at the time, but as a judge did not believe there was a legal way to prevent the Nazis – technically, members of the German American Bund – from holding rallies and marches and putting out propaganda. So Perlman looked outside the law to find a way to make it “dangerous to be a Nazi in America,” Klein said.

“He picked up the phone, he calls Meyer. Meyer comes in and the judge says, ‘Well, Meyer, you know, it would be good if you could beat up a couple of Nazis.’ And Lansky famously retorts, ‘We could do much worse than beat them up,’” Klein said.

What followed was a negotiation between Perlman and Lansky, one mediated by famed Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise, about how violent the latter’s thugs could be, eventually deciding that basically anything short of killing would be accepted.

In the period that followed, Lansky and other Jewish criminals led a campaign of terror against members of the German American Bund, sometimes enlisting Jewish boxers to go to their rallies and events in New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Newark to beat them up.

“Lansky’s goal, the judge’s goal, the rabbi’s goal was to make it dangerous to be in Nazi in America, and they succeeded. They basically broke up the Bund and they kept the Nazis [in America] on the run until the start of the war,” Klein said.

Klein said that in addition to the more visceral thrill of reporting on Jewish mobsters beating up Nazis, the story also provides genuine moral questions about the use of violence against evil people and about the Jewish gangsters themselves, whose syndicate, Murder Inc., was responsible for hundreds, possibly over 1,000, contract killings.

“Is it bad for bad guys to beat up bad guys?” Klein said. “The interesting thing about Lansky is that he had this strange morality and pride. When the judge said to him, ‘We have Jewish donors who would be willing to pay you guys. How much will we owe you for this?’ Lansky said, ‘You are not putting your hand in your pocket, not a penny. I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do as a Jew. So you have the contradiction of this guy who is famous and brilliant at killing but who also has this desire to beat up Nazis and was actually putting himself and his money and his power in danger.”

Though he refrained from disclosing how much money he needed to raise to produce the film, Klein said he and his firm have already begun speaking to potential funders. He said there was a significant learning curve when going from negotiating with potential investors to potential donors.

“We’re becoming a lot more savvy. We are trying to understand that gap between the people who say they love it, who say ‘Wow, this is great. I’m interested. I’d love to help fund this!’ to the people who are actually going to write the checks,” he said.

Klein said that the goal is to begin initial shooting shortly with the money they’ve already raised and then continue as more funding comes in. He said he expects the documentary to be completed by late 2024 or early 2025. At that point, they would begin showing it at film festivals, then in a small number of theaters and finally license it to video-on-demand companies.

Klein added that the topic has particular relevance today when the U.S. has seen a major rise in antisemitism. “It’s not that it could happen again, it is happening again and what should we do about it? What’s the right way to go about it?” he said.

“Well, here’s one really fascinating, somewhat morally ambiguous way, that people fought against it in the past. Was that right? Was that wrong? We could debate, but what should we do about it now? So there is a little call to action built into it, which we love.”