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.
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.