Because it's been little seen, and because people tend to shrug off contemporaneous World War II films as "propaganda," Hangmen Also Die has never received its due. It's a brilliant, riveting movie, made in response to the atrocities committed against the Czech people following the assassination of Reichsprotektor Heydrich, Hitler's personal "hangman." Under Fritz Lang's ferociously stylized direction, the duel of wits between the Nazi occupiers and the Prague underground--"a ghost army sworn to haunt them till their blood runs cold"--becomes the stuff of legend: virtually another installment of Die Nibelungen, and a dynamic variation on the urban phantasmagoria of the Mabuse films and Spione and M.
There is propaganda--but when the blood-curdling rhetoric comes from Bertolt Brecht, no less, in his only movie script for an American producer, who's to complain? Lang was Brecht's full collaborator, however, and the narrative is a steel trap closing on everyone. Every act of charity may potentially doom an entire family, and the resistance fighters--especially Brian Donlevy's doctor-assassin--agonize over their culpability in jeopardizing hundreds of innocents taken hostage in reprisal for Heydrich's shooting. The moral-ethical duality extends to the casting, and our response to it. Apart from Walter Brennan, astonishingly "Brechtian" as a Czech professor of history, the "good guys" are ho-hum Central Casting types while the Nazis--evil incarnate--are juicily portrayed by a passel of German-Jewish émigrés (Alexander Granach, Reinhold Schünzel, Ludwig Donath, et al.), all savoring the opportunity to skewer their own oppressors and to act up a German Expressionist storm in their Hollywood exile. Superbly photographed by James Wong Howe. --Richard T. Jameson