Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Back in 2000 -- ten years ago, somebody get me off this carousel -- I was unaware of Kino Video's release of Fritz Lang's 1943 film Hangmen Also Die! until it suddenly popped up in front of me in a used bin in a neighborhood music store that friend Wayne Schmidt had told me about. Remember independent music stores? The disc's video and audio were rough but the movie was fascinating. Few morale-building studio films made during the war had the bite of this Lang epic, made by a refugee from Naziism clearly eager to use his craft as a political weapon.
At its conclusion, the Kino disc suffered from a jarring jump cut that piqued my curiosity: whenever somebody gets sneaky and cuts something out of a movie, it's time to call in the film detectives. I've already reported the jaw-dropping excision of an entire final reel from Lang's wartime spy movie Cloak and Dagger, a change that smacks of immediate postwar political 'adjustments' that wanted the public to stop hating Nazis and start hating Communists. And Lang's very first American film Fury has a curiously 'revised' final courtroom scene, where Spencer Tracy begins to say something very bitter about American justice, but then reverses himself and becomes contrite and humble. Across a cut, Tracy's haircut and costume seem different, and he's also suddenly filmed against a rear-projected courtroom. Savant's verdict: somebody decided to alter the movie after Lang was finished filming.
The scenes trimmed from Hangmen Also Die! are just as suspicious. (Spoiler). The German villains renege on their promises and execute a group of hostages, including the heroine's brave father. The resistance will continue, but with a hundred more martyrs to mourn. As we don't know exactly when these scenes were excised -- with a rude splice -- figuring out why is even more difficult.
Correspondent Alexandre Roy forwarded a 2006 German DVD of Hangmen Also Die! titled Auch Henker Sterben. It's from a company called "e-m-s". The disc no longer appears on the Amazon.de website, so I am assuming that it is Out Of Print. The missing scenes are there, intact; they comprise exactly fifty extra seconds. A stylized shot of the mass execution is followed by lap dissolves to shots of relatives of the dead, including the grieving daughter, passing by the long mass grave. The actual assassin, never caught, watches from a discreet distance.
I wrote an enthusiastic review of Hangmen Also Die! back when I obtained the Kino disc; you might want to check it out at this time. I will repeat the basic plot synopsis from that first review:
The Reichsprotektor of occupied Czechoslovakia, 'Hangman' Reinhard Heydrich (Hans von Twardowsky of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) is gunned down on a side street in Prague. To avoid capture, assassin Dr. Swoboda (Brian Donlevy) is forced to involve a witness, Mascha Novotny (Anna Lee), and her professor father (Walter Brennan). Heydrich dies, and in the Nazi terror that follows, a traitorous double agent among Swoboda's Communist comrades, Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart) helps the Gestapo compile a list of civilian hostages. Rounded up by the hundreds, the partisans are to be systematically shot until the assassin is turned in to the authorities.
Prague becomes a whirlwind of intrigue as the crafty Gestapo detective Alois Gruber (Alexander Granach, of Nosferatu) tracks down the killer of Hitler's handpicked hangman. Slowly, the Czech people rally against the threat. Swoboda is convinced not to give himself up, and even citizens whose relatives are shot refuse to betray him. To fool the police, Mascha must pretend to be Swoboda's lover, destroying her relationship with her fiancée (Dennis O'Keefe). As a hostage prisoner awaiting the daily possibility of execution in the concentration barracks, Mascha's father rediscovers his political identity. Just when Swoboda's betrayal is imminent, his surviving comrades put a desperate plan into effect...
Ten more years of studying Hangmen Also Die! has only made the movie more interesting. I think it's a masterpiece of the kind of clockwork spy plotting that Lang practically invented in silent-era Germany. It's also the morale-building entertainment mentioned above. And thirdly, due to the input of its writers, Bert (Bertolt) Brecht and John Wexley, Hangman is also a didactic lesson about anti-fascist solidarity. The resistance group in the movie is a well-organized Communist cell. Not until The Battle of Algiers would Americans see another portrayed on their movie screens. This leftist solidarity didn't extend to the film's collaborators, as Brecht and Wexley fought for the screenplay credit with the Writer's Guild.
Mascha's professor father and other learned sages calmly discuss their ideals as they await execution in the Nazi prison barracks. A poet helps a worker with some protest verses, which become the film's cry of resistance against the Nazis, "No Surrender!" Various collaborators and Quislings mistakenly think that they'll receive special treatment if they help the occupiers with propaganda broadcasts. As the villains include Czech traitors who sell out for money and business opportunities, the inference is that the righteous struggle against corrupt capitalists will continue after the victory. It's no wonder that Hangmen Also Die! was singled out as leftist propaganda. Its composer Hanns Eisler was nominated for an Oscar -- and then later hauled in front of the HUAC. Both he and Bertolt Brecht soon left for Communist East Germany -- for which Eisler composed the national anthem! 1
Hangmen Also Die! may have been considered too grim to be a homefront morale builder. Heroes died in other Hollywood movies about evil Nazi occupiers, but usually under hyped-up emotional circumstances involving noble sacrifices, that sort of thing. For instance, Charles Laughton's meek schoolteacher in This Land Is Mine gets to make a grandstand speech before being carted away. In Hangmen Also Die! the German occupiers are allowed subtleties not granted in most WW2 propaganda films. In place of a standard torture scene, an SS official torments an arthritic old woman simply by making her stoop to pick up a part of a broken chair, repeatedly. It's entirely possible that the censored execution scene was dropped because of unfavorable reactions -- the audience's tolerance of downbeat endings was even more pronounced back then.
The unquestionably successful aspect of Hangmen Also Die! is its cinematic drive. The mechanics of the plot leave no loose ends. There must be 25 important speaking roles, and the Nazis are as individualized as the daring resistance patriots. Hans Heinrich von Twardowski's Reinhard Heydrich is a mincing dandy with a perpetual leer on his face -- the characterization is a gleeful raspberry to the Reich. Alexander Granach's policeman is a corrupt but competent bulldog much like Lang's Inspector Lohmann in both "M" and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. That's where we begin to realize that Lang's flair for complex intrigue conflicts with the movie's propaganda mission. Although Gruber is a beer-swilling vulgarian -- he picks up prostitutes with Mascha's fianceé and dismisses Mascha's innocent attitude as a 'good girl' act -- he's the film's most proactive character. Gruber's plan to ferret out the conspirators is a sound one, and we respect him at all times.
Lang's portrait of Nazi oppression is thorough and realistic. In addition to utilizing torture and taking random hostages, the Nazis encourage collaboration, turning Czechs against Czechs. But Hangmen shows the resistance conspirators behaving in an equally ruthless manner. The leaders of the conspiracy trick the venal Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart, in the film's most demanding performance) into revealing his treachery and then perpetrate an elaborate scam to frame him as the murderer of Reinhard Heydrich. Perjured testimony slowly leads the Nazis to "proof" that Czaka is their man. Even our heroine Mascha is involved. The frame is so thorough that we feel sorry for the miserable Czaka. He's certainly guilty of terrible crimes, but he's totally innocent of this specific deed; his final scene is reminiscent of the end of John Ford's The Informer. Fritz Lang loves to throw these ironies in our face; to him the political labyrinth is more important than the propaganda mission. Everybody in Hangmen Also Die! starts out with a clear goal -- suppress Czechoslovakia; kill the hangman; stay out of trouble -- and by the end none of them have really succeeded.
The writers' fantasy of the assassination of Heydrich is not Hangmen's only distortion. The movie behaves as if the citizens of Prague are all willing contributors to the resistance. We see average citizens resisting Nazi bullying in a movie theater, heckling and beating a Nazi. When Mascha asks to be taken to Gestapo headquarters, patriotic Czechs harass her, inferring that she must be a dirty collaborator, or a whore. The conspiracy's giant con job on the SS investigators requires the cooperation of over a dozen ordinary citizens. If the ruse fails they and their families will all be liquidated. This communal solidarity preached by the leftist writers is a functional fantasy. Resistance operatives in most occupied countries were regularly betrayed by the very people they were trying to liberate. In the first place, there was rarely any single resistance body, but instead groups of mutually hostile political factions -- Communists vs Royalists, and so forth.
Hangmen Also Die! has plenty of terrific moments, all blocked out in excitingly graphic shots; the cameraman was James Wong Howe. A luncheon in the back room of a restaurant becomes total chaos when Czaka's SS bodyguards invade, shooting the conspirators as they try to escape. Lang topped this burst of violence only with the ending of his last movie, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, where a four-way shootout is so carefully prepared that the action is completely understandable, even when all we see are disconnected fragments of various characters being machine-gunned. Hangmen has no real torture sessions, just one or two beaten and bloody victims shown dragged from the basement of the Gestapo building. Actual torture is unnecessary when the gravel-voiced cab driver (Lionel Stander), rather than submit to more abuse and reveal the identity of the assassin, purposely throws himself from a high window. Now there's a hero we can cheer -- and he's a member of a team of terrorist assassins.
The DVD Hangmen Also Die! from the German distributor e-m-s appears to be Out of Print at this time; beware other European discs that are reportedly of inferior quality, and edited. The e.m.s. disc betters Kino's in both picture and sound. The transfer is less contrasty and the film is in better physical shape. The biggest difference overall is the much clearer audio track. One no longer has to strain to hear quieter dialogue, and the hiss is greatly reduced. If you can locate a copy (and especially if you can convert it to 24fps playback), the e-m-s disc will be an important find.
As a contrast to this fictitious propaganda thriller, I've also reviewed a 1975 docudrama called Operation Daybreak. It's a mostly factual account of the true assassination of Heydrich, filmed in Prague on the real locations. It's fascinating, and has nothing to do with Lang's movie.
Eisner, Lotte, Fritz Lang, 1977, Oxford, New York
Humphries, Reynold Fritz Lang: Genre and Representation in His American Films 1982, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
Thanks again to Alexandre Roy for help in obtaining the OOP e-m-s disc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hangmen Also Die! rates:
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: 12-page booklet essay by Peter Ellenbruch (in German); Lang filmography, short photo gallery.
Packaging: single PAL DVD in keep case in card box.
Reviewed: November 6, 2010
1. East Germany treated Eisler terribly too, censoring his 'decadent' abstract music. I include this fact so nobody concludes that I'm endorsing any Communist regimes.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson
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