Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Don't miss the companion entry, Jump Cut 7 : Hangmen Also Die!
And an uncut German e-m-s disc has been reviewed by Savant (11.06.10).
In 1990, Savant taped a 2 a.m. cable showing of Hangmen Also Die! What a disappointing 90 minutes that was. There passed nothing coherent whatsoever in what had promised to be a thrilling Fritz Lang vs. the Nazis show. Then I looked up the film's original running time - 140 minutes!
Kino on Video's DVD is a landmark release, an (almost) complete version of Lang's fiercest cinema tale of terrorism and revenge: Hardcore WW2 propaganda with frank realism apparently a bit too brutal for wartime audiences.
The Reichsprotektor of occupied Czechoslovakia, 'Hangman' Reinhard Heydrich (Hans von Twardowsky) is gunned down on a side street in Prague. His assassin Dr. Swoboda (Brian Donlevy) is forced to involve a witness, Mascha Novotny (Anna Lee) and her professor father (Walter Brennan) in his resistance deceptions. Heydrich dies, and in the Nazi terror that follows, a traitorous double agent among Swoboda's partisan comrades, Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart) helps the Gestapo compile a list of civilian hostages. Rounded up by the hundreds, they are to be systematically shot until the assassin is turned in to the authorities.
Prague becomes a whirlwind of intrigue as crafty Gestapo detectives use every means to track down the killer of Hitler's handpicked hangman. Slowly, the resolve of the Czech people rallies against the threat. Swoboda is convinced not to give himself up, and even citizens whose relatives are shot refuse to betray him. Mascha must pretend to be Swoboda's lover to fool the police, destroying her relationship with her fiancée (Dennis O'Keefe). As a hostage prisoner, Mascha's father rediscovers his political identity in the concentration barracks awaiting the daily possibility of execution. Just when Swoboda's betrayal is imminent, a desperate plan is put into effect by the surviving partisans...
Hangmen Also Die! comes at us 47 years later, from a number of exciting angles that need explaining. It is the quintessential anti-Nazi WW2 resistance drama, unhindered by studio reticence and fired with the intellectual rage of Germany's most outspoken exiles. The Nazis here are easily the most visually loathsome ever depicted. Heydrich is played (by an actor from the original Cabinet of Dr.
Caligari) as a creepy effeminate degenerate, and another SS officer is shown picking a horribly graphic blemish on his face that implies syphilis. Some of this is exaggeration (Heydrich, especially) but Lang is playing in deadly earnest. Everyone who falls into the hands of the Gestapo is doomed and the prospect of torture shows in their faces -- old women, tired workmen, a feisty cabdriver played by Lionel Stander.
Brian Donlevy would probably rather be on a Swoboda China.
Put together to capitalize on the assassination of the real Heydrich in 1942, Hangmen Also Die! is totally apocryphal propaganda. The real killers, Czech exiles sent from London, were quickly captured and presumably paid dearly for their patriotism. But the bloodbath that followed in Prague was real. The wartime frenzy to smear the German foe with whatever tar brush was handy allows Lang to get away with content usually censored from U.S. films -- the homosexual slurs, the reference to venereal disease, and the compromising situation Mascha is forced into when the leering Germans catch her and Swoboda in their 'love nest.'
According to Lang and Lotte Eisner, famed writer Bertolt Brecht actually wrote the script but was cheated out of onscreen acknowledgement. The story of how writer John Wexley secured the sole screenplay credit is in her book Fritz Lang, along with full documentation of a dispute between Brecht and Lang over the film. Brecht creates a broad gallery of interesting, un-stereotyped characters that experience a communal arousal to political awareness. A number of his touches are worthy of The Threepenny Opera. Swoboda, Savant is informed, means 'freedom' in Czech. A grimly congenial Nazi interrogator torments an old grocer woman with a broken chair that he insists she repair. Just seeing the arthritic grandmother painfully reaching to the floor while he sips his wine transcends the standard torture scene. As is usual with Brecht, the story stops every so often for the Professor and others to deliver position speeches. The calls to action are so compelling that one wants to turn the TV off and go fight for Freedom, like, right now.
Lang applies the same techniques he uses in his totalitarian spy thrillers, the Mabuse films, Spione, and Ministry of Fear: A fast pace, cross-cut dialogue, and complicated subplots. He gives himself few showoff moments but instead concentrates on getting powerful performances in this overlapping, violent (for a film with almost no onscreen violence) chain of events. Brian Donlevy's conscience-stricken doctor is a very modern conception, mature and never asking for sympathy.
The always-wonderful Anna Lee (How Green Was My Valley, Bedlam, Seven Women)
is no prissy dame but a conflicted heroine who shows a full range of reactions. One moment she's pelted by a crowd for wanting to report to the Nazis, and the next she's willing to break her lover's heart in a desperate charade that makes her out as a slut in the eyes of all. Walter Brennan turns in a perfect understated performance that, unlike many another wartime martyr role (Charles Laughton in This Land is Mine), doesn't beg for Oscar recognition.
Best of all is Gene Lockhart, a familiar, efficient but unheralded character actor. His Quisling role here beautifully sustains surprise and shock through Hangmen Also Die's complicated resolution. Lang (and Brecht?) populate the rest of the cast with European refugee actors and Hollywood stock players. All must have shared a commitment that is rarely mentioned in reviews, then or now: pampered movie actors they may have been, but if the war had gone the other way (still a real possibility in 1943) participation in a film like Hangmen Also Die! would have earned them all tickets to a Nazi meat hook. Compare this with whiney Robert Young, who (reportedly) complained about war-themed work over at MGM because there might be trouble for him if Hitler's armies reached Hollywood.
The ending is a bit abrupt. A coda with the snookered SS occupiers covering their mistakes comes far too quickly, and the film ends without showing what happens to most of its characters. Kino lists its DVD running time as 134 minutes, but Hangmen Also Die! should be a little longer. If you don't mind spoilers, you can read about the missing material in Savant's Jump Cut 7 : Hangmen Also Die! article. United Artists issued the movie in 1943 but it has long since changed hands; the absent scenes may have been jettisoned soon after release, and for obvious reasons. More details in the article.
Kino's DVD of Hangmen Also Die! (which Savant didn't know was even out until he dived for it in the used bin of an L.A. Record store) is a good presentation of a film whose original elements are probably long gone. The majority of it is clear and sharp, with some minimal damage here and there. The sound is good but a little low. Savant had to crank his amp to hear the details now and then. Besides some nice quotes on the handsome, well-illustrated package and insert foldout, there are no extras. This is a shame because only the curious who consult articles like this one will discover the riches in this movie.
Hangmen Also Die is a major find, and not only for Fritz Lang cinema-philes. It harks back to a time when making a movie could be a life-and-death gamble, and a piece of entertainment could be a powerful propaganda weapon. Unlike many Hollywood films whose crude German- and Jap- (anese) baiting has dated as nasty and insensitive, Hangmen's righteous outrage seems eternal. For anyone studying totalitarianism, terrorism and a host of other 'isms, it's a gold mine. For the rest of us, it's a nail-bitingly effective thriller that time has allowed to slip away.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Hangmen Also Die! rates:
Video: Good -
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: August 9, 2000
Eisner, Lotte, Fritz Lang, 1977, Oxford, New York
'Vaarlam' of Toronto Canada, notes submitted to IMDB website.
See also Savant's Fritz Lang review and essay on The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson