Director: Fritz Lang
Writer: Story by Fritz Lang and Bertolt Brecht; screenplay by John Wexley
Producer: Fritz Lang and Arnold Pressburger
by Jon Cvack
As I’ve said before on my thoughts on Woman in the Moon (1929) and Cloak and Dagger (1946), Fritz lang is the greatest director to graduate from the silent era. While Yasujirō Ozu also made a successful leap, the content and style of his films didn’t necessarily change (case in point in having made Floating Weeds both in 1934 and then again in 1959). Lang went from creating epic action-adventure/sci-fi/spy thriller stories, to then shifting into film noir and creating some of the genre’s greatest contributions - Clash by Night (1952), Scarlet Street (1945), and Woman in the Window (1944). He’d preserve the spy genre for films such as Cloak and Dagger and his last film The Thousand Eyes of Doctor Mabuse (1960; which I haven’t yet seen).
Hangmen Also Die! was his first partnership with German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who I’m not familiar with his works, I recognize the name all the same. The film is long for the era, clocking in at around 2 hours and 15 minutes, and while often feeling longer than required, utilized some of Lang’s finest chops.
It’s important to note that this film was made near the height of Nazi power, following the assassination of Nazi Reinhard Heydrich who after living penniless during the German depression, became involved with the SS, later appointed by Heinrich Himmler to orchestrate the Holocaust. Resistance fighters soon killed him, though counter to the relatively more positive ending of Lang’s film, they and their families were systematically rounded up and killed or sent off to concentration camps.
Hangmen Also Die! takes place moments after this assassination, following the man responsible, doctor and Czech resistance fighter Frantisek Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) who successfully murders the “Hangman of Europe” Reinhard Heydrich (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). However, after a botched getaway, Franticek meets a woman, Mascha (Anna Lee), who helps him escape by inviting him back to her parent’s house. He meets Mascha’s father, Professor Stephen Novotny (Walter Brennan) who the Nazi’s prevented from teaching due to his activism, along with his wife Hellie (Nana Bryant) and Mascha’s younger and precocious brother Beda (William Roy).
On par with Hitchcock, we watch as the family acts as though Mascha has brought over a simple visitor rather than the man who’s assassinated one of the top Nazi leaders. Tension soars as the radio then announces the manhunt, while Stephen admits to his own resistant roots and how he would have likely been a friendly ally just a few years back.
The search calms and Franticek then leaves, attempting to keep his actions quiet while the manhunt continues, led by Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart). Soon they round up over 400 men, including Professor Novotny, demanding the assassin come forward or they’ll execute them all one by one.
For such an engaging plot, the film’s length left me lost with many of the details. Mascha ultimately discovers Franticek’s role in Heydrich’s murder, attempts to go to the police, but soon realizes how extensive the resistance network actually is, as they rise up one by one to prevent Mascha from revealing Franticek’s identity.
So begins a cat and mouse game as Emil uses all of his SS resources to accost people, round them up, and ransack their apartments all in the search for who killed their colleagues. He enjoys his beer and cigars and the opportunity to run a bureaucratic machine where he’s given close to unlimited resources.
While each scene presents some version or other of Chekov’s “gun under the table”, one in particular involves one of the shot resistant fighters entering into Franticek’s apartment where Mascha joins him, and they hide the man behind a curtain. Emil enters minutes later and Franticek and Mascha strip down, making it appear they were just hooking up; only for Mascha’s fiance to then enter and believe his future wife was cheating on him. Mascha plays the angle, knowing it’s the only thing to save the injured man’s life. Franticek then sees blood dripping on an old book below the curtain, then offering Emil some wine. He returns, faking a trip over the carpet where he throws the wine on the book and obscures the evidence.
The film ends on a somber note as while Franticek gets away by implicating a resistance double agent of the crime, they’re too late in saving the other men who were taken to a mass grave and shot to the death; the elegy they sing on the way nominated for a Best Song Oscar.
I recently finished Richard J. Evan’s first volume of his history Nazi trilogy; following their rise to power and up to the invasion of Poland. While I’m one to refrain on Nazi comparisons, I think it’s always better to look at history as a guide. I do not think we’re headed for mass human extermination, but many of the same plays were carried out back then - ginning up fear and crisis by blaming the Jews, labeling them as animals and subhuman, attacking the free press in order to discredit their work, distorting truth from lie, and using the courts in order to achieve and preserve power. In Trump’s current detention centers, we’ve heard of children facing sexual abuse, forced hysterectomies, denied medical attention, forced to take drugs, and be ripped away from their families. Trump constantly uses buzzwords to divide the country between the “patriots” who support him and the “traitors” who disagree. I see members of family repeat demonstrable falsehoods with no defense other than I should be the one who looks into their side, rather than that they should look to at least some other information source beyond Fox News and right wing media. But as they’re constantly told that the rest of the press is the enemy and Democrats hate their freedom, it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t look anywhere else. It all relies on creating a grand conspiracy; to make people question our institutions such as the courts, intelligence communities, or politicians just enough so that they depend entirely on a singular point of view.
A few weeks ago I finished Hannah Arendt’s book “Eichmann in Jerusalem” which attempted to examine the morality behind a state commanding its people to commit a supreme evil - should Eichmann be at fault if it was state law to carry out the Holocaust? The answer is yes, but Arendt does extend the conversation further along. After all, the majority of German citizens often looked the other way while its citizens were slowly rounded up; either they supported it, didn’t care, or were too scared to do anything about it. Should they too be at fault for allowing their leaders to commit the heinous crimes? Given the lies it was based upon, the answer to that is no. But it does go to show the power of creating religious-level devotion to one person and their cause; where people are willing to turn a blind eye toward what’s wrong in order to support a larger mission.
I have problems on the left and the ideological purity so many demand, which given the broad spectrum of change and the myriad ways it can occur, inevitably creates divisions. It’s why so often liberal revolutions lead to violent regimes, as those most willing to kill for what they want consolidate the power. The problem I see today is supreme partisanship; where so many demand that everyone else follows their own rigid system. A failure to welcome compromise at the cost of absolute gridlock, perpetuating the problem and causing further animosity, seems to be yet another dangerous issue we face. So long as people only consume information that reinforces their beliefs, there seems no end in sight. And as problems of climate change and inequality grow worse by the day, it seems like a ticking time bomb. Like any animal trapped in a corner, it’s only a matter of time before they lash out. Given that I wrote this about eighteen months ago, crazy to think we’re now seeing that in live time.
BELOW: A little taste of Twardowki's Heydrich
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