Wednesday, August 6, 2014


Fritz Lang, 1943
Starring: Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan

After the murder of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Protector of Czechoslovakia known as “The Hangman of Prague,” his assassin, a surgeon named Dr. Svoboda, goes on the run and is forced to turn to a young woman, Mascha, for help. Mascha and her family are strangers to Svoboda, but take him in anyway. She and her highly political, history professor father quickly figure out that Svoboda must be the assassin, but are determined to protect him. The Nazis harass Mascha’s family when they learn that she had a mysterious guest spend the night, and also take 400 hostages into custody – including Mascha’s father – who they will execute one by one until the assassin is found. Svoboda, a sworn healer, is devastated at the news and plans to turn himself in and commit suicide, though the Resistance leaders discourage him. Mascha, meanwhile, must decide whether or not to confess his identity to the Gestapo in the hopes of sparing her father’s life.

Based on the May of 1942 real-life assassination of Heydrich, truly one of the Nazi Party’s most repulsive figures and one of the architects of the Holocaust, Lang and story writer Bertolt Brecht (this was his only Hollywood assignment) were not privy to the actual details of the assassination – they weren’t released until a few years later – and thus crafted their own story of fascism, mob justice, and impossible choices. Part war-film and part film noir, Hangmen Also Die bears much in common with Lang’s Weimar-era classic M (1931) and Man Hunt (1941). Where M is concerned with a community’s violent attempts to pursue a child killer, Man Hunt was Lang’s first WWII-era thriller and concerns a British big game hunter who decides to stalk Hitler for sport. In many ways, Hangmen Also Die carries the themes of both M and Man Hunt to their natural ends. The mob of families and underworld criminals has convicted the child murderer, but they are interrupted by the police. The community of resistance fighters frames a double-crosser and the film ends with his death, where he lies prostrate and beginning for mercy before the doors of a church, shot for sport by Nazis. In Man Hunt, the British hunter is never given the chance to kill Hitler and spends the rest of the film trying to evade Nazi capture and trying to convince them that it was only for sport, he never meant to assassinate their Führer. In Hangmen Also Die, there is no hesitation and no denial.

This is one of my favorite Lang films from the period, and there seems to be one excellent scene after another despite the lengthy running time that falls well over two hours. There is some incredible atmosphere filled with Lang’s trademark moments of German expressionism. All of the scenes have a creative touch – the Gestapo inspector and Mascha’s accidentally jilted fiancée don’t simply go out and have a drink; they get drunk and hire prostitutes. A Nazi commander determined to get to the bottom of things spends a scene agonizing over a pimple on his cheek. There are numerous characters, seemingly all of them with speaking roles, including some well-fleshed out Nazi characters that are far more than just stock villains. And though Hans Heinrich von Twardowski is only in the film for a few minutes as Reinhard Heydrich, he’s incredibly memorable, sinister, leering, charismatic, and weirdly sexual.

Though the direction is solid, credit must also go to Lang’s collaborators. There’s award-winning music from composer Hanns Eisler and breathtaking cinematography from James Wong Howe. The script from celebrated German playwright (and notorious Communist) Bertolt Brecht is a notably leftist work and includes some additional material from screenwriter John Wexley, who was eventually given sole credit. Brecht was notoriously difficult to work with, as was Lang, and the two soon clashed, causing Brecht’s withdrawal from the project before its completion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hangmen Also Die was later named as Communist propaganda by the US government. Both Brecht and Hanns Eisler relocated to East Germany, while Wexley was blacklisted by HUAC.

Finally, there are some solid performances and the cast as a whole is not outweighed by any one particular actor. Brian Donlevy as the surgeon-turned-assassin is much better here than he was in The Glass Key, but he is definitely an actor with a limited range. He shares a number of excellent scenes with Anna Lee (The Sound of Music) as Mascha, including one where they must hide a wounded man and pretend to be in flagrante delicto when the Gestapo knocks down the door. Walter Brennan (Rio Bravo, To Have and Have Not) is memorable as Mascha’s father, though the only one who comes close to stealing the film is Alexander Granach. Granach’s excellent Gestapo Inspector Alois Gruber is somewhat of a twist on Lang’s typically dependable, blue collar policeman. Granach (along with Twardowski) was one of many forced to flee Nazi Germany and had worked alongside Peter Lorre and Brecht in the Weimar theater, as well as in German expressionist cinema.

Originally known as “437” or “Never Surrender” (the title of a moving poem written within the film), Hangmen Also Die is an incredibly grim film that portrays not just Nazis as villains, but mobs of regular citizens and opportunistic capitalists as equally immoral and deadly. There is also a cut scene towards the end of the film, which apparently involves the execution of all the remaining hostages above a mass grave. Even without this, the ending is downbeat and Czaka (solidly played by Gene Lockhart), the double-crossing brew-master, becomes a sympathetic character when the band of Resistance members conspires to frame him for Heydrich’s murder. At first, their scheme is comic. They trick Czaka into admitting he speaks German (a key to his guilt) by telling a German-language joke about Hitler; he reveals himself by laughing loudly. But his death on the church steps is far from laughable, and packed the sickening punch that Lang obviously intended.

The assassination of Heydrich, known as Operation Anthropoid and carried out by Czech freedom fights assisted by the British military, was the subject of two similar films from the same year: Hitler’s Madmen (1943) and The Silent Village (1943). None of these three movies managed to capture the true horror – in retaliation, the Nazis completely destroy the village of Lidice, not the first or last time they would take such an action during the war. Don’t click on that link unless you want immutable proof that, really, your bad day is not all that bad.

Hangmen Also Die comes highly recommended and is certainly one of Lang’s lesser seen films. It is currently out of print, though hopefully it will follow in Ministry of Fear’s footsteps and be given a classy upgrade and the Blu-ray treatment from Criterion.

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