Second World War, Thriller, True Story

Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

On the 27th of May, 1942, the high ranking Nazi General, Reinhard Heydrich was severely injured during an assassination attempt on his life by members of the Czech resistance in Prague. Heydrich died from his wounds on the 4th of June that same year.

His death saw brutal reprisals brought against the Czech population; with thousands of people being killed, or being deported to camps where they would later die. Details of what happened to the brave resistance members who were responsible for his death can be found by searching for Operation Anthropoid on the internet(I must warn you that it does not make for easy reading).I admire their bravery, and I was very shocked at how brutal their end was.

I have only recently become aware of this vile man and his assassination thanks to the recent film, Operation Anthropoid(the code name given to Heydrich’s assassination plot). Reading up about this event, I have been really surprised that I had never been aware of any of this before. Heydrich was one of the main architects of the Holocaust and he was an all round real nasty piece of work. Some of his nicknames included ‘The Butcher’ and ‘The Hangman’.  

The year after Heydrich’s assassination, the German director Fritz Lang (who became an American citizen in 1939) made a film about this event and its brutal aftermath. I only became aware of Lang’s film recently, and when I saw that it was being released on Blu-ray, I jumped at the chance of being able to watch this film. It arrived a few days ago, and I have to say that I am so impressed with the film, and also with the visual quality of the Blu-ray release.  

For a film made in the 1940’s, Hangmen Also Die! is a surprisingly violent, gritty, and very dark film. There are several scenes in this that I’m really surprised got past the censors; scenes such as the taxi driver who commits suicide before he can be taken for torture, the execution sequence near the end, the badly beaten man being dragged through Gestapo headquarters, and the murder of a main character near the end of the film. Of course it’s good these were included because they help to bring home the terrible reality of life under Nazi rule.

This film is also one of the best films about a resistance movement that I have ever seen. I love how the resistance live right under the noses of those who seek them, yet they move around freely in the city invisible to those who seek them. Their group seems to exist separately from everyone else; they communicate by looks and gestures in public that only they can understand. So under everyone’s noses these people are planning and carrying out operations without being noticed. They are like a ghost community living and working alongside the community that everyone sees and experiences every day.

 Lang’s film is suspenseful, tense, moving, and downright scary at times. It also captures mans inhumanity to man, and Lang also does a good job of showing us how much courage it takes to stand up to oppression and cruelty.

In this film we see that members of the resistance are not only those who belong to a resistance group and carry weapons and carry out operations. Resistance members can include anyone who goes against the rules of the oppressors; this could be remaining friendly with people who everyone has been told not to associate with, or in refusing to name somebody to the authorities.

The film is a rather fictionalised version of the real events, but it certainly succeeds in capturing the horror, the violence, and the bravery that surrounded those events.  Lang lets the actors do the work in this film, they bring these characters to life (both the heroes and the villains)and they all get their chance to shine (even actors in very small roles)and they all succeed in conveying to us how the courage of ordinary people making a stand can have an impact. This story is a human story and Lang shows us the best and worst of humanity.

The film was written by Lang and the celebrated German playwright and screenwriter, Bertolt Brecht. This film would end up being Brecht’s only successful Hollywood film.

The cinematographer working on this film was the legendary James Wong Howe, and he uses his camera to create a mood and atmosphere that is reminiscent of Lang’s German expressionism films of the 1920’s. This film also serves as a good example of a film that is a mix of German Expressionism and American Film Noir.

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The film focuses on the search for Heydrich’s assassins, and also for the people who are hiding them from the Gestapo. Interestingly the assassination itself is not shown in the film. I think this was a good choice because it shifts attention away from Heydrich and focuses instead on the men and women who stood up against him, and against what he stood for and represented.

Dr. Svoboda (Brian Donlevy)is the assassin of Heydrich, he flees the scene of the crime and goes on the run. He is seen going into a building to hide by Masha Novotny (Anna Lee). Masha deliberately misleads the pursuing Nazi soldiers as to where he is. He remembers this kindness.

The Gestapo’s investigation into the assassination eventually lead them to Masha’s door. When hundreds of hostages, including Masha’s father, Professor Novotny (Walter Brennan) are taken prisoner by the Nazis and sentenced to death, Svoboda must wrestle with his conscience to decide if he turns himself in to spare the others, or lets them die.

Gestapo investigations are being run by the cunning Inspector Gruber (Alexander Granach)and he is fast closing in on Svoboda. He also has help in locating the Czech resistance, thanks to his double crossing informant Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart).

The film becomes a cat and mouse game between the resistance and the Gestapo. Time is running out for the hostages, people are being murdered, tortured, and betrayed, and these horrible events show no sign of stopping. The resistance have a cunning plan up their sleeve, it is one that will paint someone else as being the assassin, rather than Svoboda.

If there is a downside to this superb film, I would say it lies with some of the casting. The casting is a somewhat mixed bag for sure. I think this film would have been better had they cast German or Czech actors in the lead roles, it would have added a great deal more authenticity for sure. Brecht had hoped that they would cast German speaking actors, but in the end it was decided they would go with a mix of American and German actors.

Brian Donlevy strikes me as an odd casting decision. He has never been an actor I’ve liked, and he often strikes me as being rather wooden in many of his roles. He isn’t too bad here, but he does come across as quite unemotional and calm, which I doubt would be the case for his character when he was on the run in fear of his life. As the film goes on I think his performance improves somewhat, but during the first part of the film he isn’t all that great.

Anna Lee also starts out as not being that impressive, but then she gets much better as the film goes on. She is very convincing as the frightened young woman who finds an inner strength, and the courage which enables her to do her bit in standing up against oppression.

When I saw Walter Brennan’s name on the opening credits, I thought to myself what a very strange casting choice for this film. Brennan is a very good actor, but his screen persona didn’t really strike me as one that was really going to fit this story. How wrong I was! He is excellent as the professor and I was pleasantly surprised to see him deliver one of the best performances in the film. His very famous voice sounds quite different here to how it usually sounded. He is excellent as the quiet, gentle, and dignified man who accepts whatever the Nazis do to him because he knows it will show them up as the monsters they are.

Lionel Stander has a small role and I’m afraid to say that his distinctive voice will take you right out of the film, he just sounds so bizarre and out of place here.

Jonathan Hale is excellent as Dedic, the highly experienced leader of the resistance movement. He steals all the scenes he is in. Hale makes his character strong, calm under pressure, and also someone who is a reassuring and strong presence.

Reinhold Schunzel is creepy, sadistic and completely over the top as the Gestapo chief who enjoys his job a little too much. He sits there playing with the people he is about to torture, cracking his knuckles and giggling, while adeptly tripping people up in their stories and catching them out in lies.

Hans Heinrich von Twardowski is very memorable in his small appearance as Heydrich. He conveys the power and arrogance of this man perfectly, and he makes us see why he was so hated and feared.

Dennis O’Keefe is very good as Jan, who is Masha’s boyfriend. He plays his character as someone we are never really sure about, can he be trusted, will he turn on his girl to save himself? This character is also quite heroic and likeable.

Gene Lockhart delivers a standout performance as Czaka, the man who pretends to be one thing and who is actually another.

Alexander Granach delivers the performance of the film for me. He steals every scene he is in as the watchful and tough inspector. He guzzles down beer after beer with seemingly few side effects. I think his haircut would not have looked out of place in 1980’s punk Britain.

My favourite scenes are the following. Masha and her father saying goodbye in the cell. The people in the cinema rebelling against the Nazi soldier. The hostages reading and memorising a poem about resisting. Masha cradling the beaten old woman in the torture cell, in silhouette we then see a Gestapo officer walk into the cell carrying a whip, we don’t need to see more to know what is about to happen to these two women. The betrayed resistance members giving their betrayer a piece of their mind. The lipstick mark scene and the fight that follows on from that. Svoboda and Masha acting out a conversation for the Gestapo bug hidden in the apartment.  Svoboda deliberately spilling red wine to cover up a bloodstain.

This is a cracking film. I think it is one that really does deserve to be much better known by classic film fans today. I’d say that this is one of Lang’s best films. He manages to capture the best and worst of humanity in this film, and he creates a dark and gloomy atmosphere that stays in the mind long after the film is over. This one is also very remarkable given the fact that it was made so soon after the real events, it is also very frank for the time in its depiction of the violence and horror of the Nazi regime.

It is a somewhat depressing film, but there is certainly a glimmer of hope and happiness at the end; I think that this ending was included to boost the morale of people watching this. This would hopefully have served as a lesson to ordinary people in how they could fight these monsters who were invading their homes, and who were trying to destroy cultures as they moved around Europe.

I’d recommend seeing this on Blu-ray, it’s been restored and looks so clear and sharp. There’s also an interesting commentary, plus there is a documentary about the real events and about Heydrich.

Anyone else seen this?

 

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21 thoughts on “Hangmen Also Die! (1943)”

  1. Great post about a compelling film. I love it, too, despite its limitations. Here’s the short review I posted on my site:

    Hangmen Also Die! (1943) is one of Fritz Lang’s best Hollywood anti-Nazi films. Sure, the Nazis chew the scenery, the Czechs are played by Americans or Brits, and some of the dialogue is surprisingly cheesy given that Bertolt Brecht was the screenwriter. Yet, this is one of few WWII-era films in which mass murder is shown (not graphically, of course). Even at its most artificial, the film’s engagement with Nazi dehumanization and genocide is palpable. And Anna Lee is particularly good as our heroine. If you’ve seen Man Hunt by Lang and wanted more, this is the film to see. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent review! Donlevy is quite good in “Wake Island” and especially as a super-bad-guy in “Beau Geste”. Two superb films that feature that vermin Heydrich are “The Wannsee Conference”from 1984 and “Conspiracy” from 2001 (with Kenneth Branagh as RH). Other excellent sagas of resistance: “Flame and Citron” and “Max Manus”. Hard to go wrong with Fritz Lang.

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  3. I sort of disagree about Brian Donleavy; the assassin would have to be the stolid type to avoid suspicion. And when you see interviews with heroes of WW2 they often project this matter of fact quality. It’s not that they didn’t have imagination but that they were able to control it.
    And Walter Brennan must have been one of the finest actors of the era; he could really do anything from screwball comedy to serious drama.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Linda. I agree that the assassin would have had to avoid suspicion. I’m sure those in the resistance (much like people in the armed forces)were better able to hide their emotions to deal with the horrors they faced. I don’t think these people would have been as devoid of emotion as Donlevy appears to be in much of the film, I just think that was down to his acting more than anything. I do think he got better as the film went on though. You are spot on about Walter Brennan, one of the best character actors in history, and one of my favourites. He is excellent in this.

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  4. Not sure if anyone else has mentioned it; but, there is another movie, Hitler’s Madman, about the same subject. It’s not quite as good; but worth a look. Interesting cast: Edgar Kennedy in a dramatic role comes to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Watched this last night. Thanks for the heads up on it. Still can’t believe this film was made as the war still going on, amazing. The Nazi’s are so awful and horrible peices of work, each with their own weird quirk, thos cracking of the knuckles!. Though Gruber was a brilliant character and even though he was nasty, he was excellent to watch on screen. If I do a blog post in the future I will link your excellent take on it.
    ps you saying Brian Donlevy being rather wooden, I admit to being worried I wasn’t going to like the film at first as when he came on the screen he looked like he was lost from the set of a silent movie picture, his face just looked odd. I did warm to him quite soon after I must add and I do love him as Quatermass…… Super review Maddy.

    Liked by 1 person

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