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Hangmen Also Die [Import]
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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
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Top Customer Reviews
There is a lot of good stuff going for "Hangmen", with its dark, shadowy vision and rapidly evolving storyline. However, the plot is plagued by war-era propoganda, which only weakens what should already be the compellingly tense situation of the Nazi occupation of Prague. Such sentimentallity is, of course, understandable, and was easily overcome by at least a few other contemporary Hollywood pictures.
Unfortunately, this film was consigned grade-B status by the studio, and it is the lack of acting talent (save a very effective job by Walter Brennan) that really hobbles the film. It is a bit disconcerting when the actors playing the Nazis exhibit much more personality than the wooden faced Czechs who we're supposed to be rooting for.
Not bad, there is so much interesting stuff that it deserves a viewing. But it's no masterpiece.
Also, (2) the film demonstrates, as few others do as well, the pain & struggles endured in occupied countries by anti-Nazi patriots, trying to resist & to survive to fight again.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Fritz Lang's 1943 HANGMEN ALSO DIE is one such film. Based on a true story, it's a moving tale set in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. The Reichprotektor Heydrich has been assassinated and the Gestapo is conducting a massive investigation to apprehend the killer.
Frustrated in their search, and by the Czech resistance, the Gestapo rounds up 400 hostages and begin executing them at regular intervals until the assassin in apprehended. Brian Donlevy plays the killer, Dr. Franticek Svoboda, Anna Lee the young woman who inadvertently (at first) throws the authorities off his trail, and Walter Brennan plays Prof. Stephen Novotny, Anna Lee's father and one of the four hundred hostages.
The Nazis in HANGMEN ALSO DIE were played by Jewish actors, refugees from a hostile Europe. Whether brooding over a pimple on the cheek, annoyingly cracking knuckles while tormenting a poor old vegetable monger, or cavorting with naughty girls, Lang's Gestapo agents are animated and interesting. The Czechs, on the other hand, are all played by American actors and all, even Brennan, give stiff, dull, and wooden performances. Donlevy especially gives some of the flattest line readings of his career.
It's tempting to blame the actors, but in Lotte Eisner's admiring biography, Fritz Lang, she quotes an old interview in which Lang discussed the movie. "We didn't want," Lang said, "analyses of characters, we simply schematized into those who resist and those who organize, those who aspire to freedom but have not yet found or chosen the means of action, and finally the collaborators, the genuine enemy of the people....
"I don't think it is possible in such a plot to go far into the psychological development because the psychology does not change." In other words Lang got the performances he wanted, without any emotional window dressing. Well, he's a genius, I'm not, but Lordy it would have been nice if his heroes had had a little more panache, a little more brio.
I had a few problems with this film. The plot pivots on a shaky point or two - the unsmeared lipstick clue, two unarmed men bearing down on a man with a gun without being shot - that seem a little manufactured and more than a little implausible. Still, HANGMEN ALSO DIE was stylish and an interesting take on a little talked about, at least in America, incident in World War II.
This movie was timely and served to keep anti-nazi morale up
at a time when there was was much uncertainty about the outcome of the European war.
What now seems like an inevitable victory for the Allies was anything but inevitable appearing back them.
The marvelous directing of HANGMEN ALSO DIE by the great Fritz Lang.
Not only does Mr. Lang use his skills in a enthusiastic and forceful manner, especially when dealing with the Nazis, he knows when to be restrained and use a touch of light humor to make the unbearable seem almost, at times tolorable.
This film is based on historical events, yes, "the hangman" really was assassinated, and the exciting story still has time for romance and various
vignettes illustrating how life was for the people under the Nazi yoke.....not to mention how fatal it could be for even the most innoffensive citizens.
HANGMEN ALSO DIE illustrates how when a dictatorship reigns, it's the rats and the informers who prosper. And very often, as is the final case in this movie, the information is maliciously and fatally false.
Losing your personal freedom is akin to death in many ways. The only difference is you may still have a chance to regain your freedom, death, of course, is the ultimate finality.
Rarely have I seen so many fine performances by a wonderful cast of people who are usually supporting actors. Walter Brennan, the marvelous Anna Lee and so many others. Especially the actors cast as Nazi officers,
many if not most I think it would be fair to assume were anti-Nazi refugees
and ironicaly are hired to portray those that they loathed. And they do a crackerjack job of it,too.
It is I think the best underground resistance WWII film that I have seen, even better than THIS LAND IS MINE, directed by Jean Renior, which was released the same year as HANGMEN ALSO DIE.
I urge anyone who has even the slightest interest in the European war to watch this excellent movie, it brings to the screen realistic portrayals of life under the Nazi heel. HANGMEN ALSO DIE is not a documentary but it is a fictional story woven on the loom of historical fact and even to this day an inspiring film.
The story was inspired by the actual assassination of Reinhard Heydrick, who had earlier appeared as himself in Riefenstahl's TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. It's interesting to note that Heydrick continued to have a successful film career for another fifty years, for he also appears posthumously in at least eleven more motion pictures!
Some reviews complain about Brian Donleavy's alleged "lethargic" performance, though I found it consistent with his other straightforward work and quite acceptable. It's peculiar, however, to witness the Czech underground played with so many extremely American faces and mannerisms--Donleavy and O'Keefe in particular. I've never been a fan of Walter Brennan, between the geezer impersonations and his politics; but he does do very well in what elsewhere would be the "Walter Huston" role (NORTH STAR, DRAGON SEED, and others). If any non-German actor's performance seems weaker than others, it's Anna Lee's. But this entire topic only arises because the performances by German actors are so excellent.
In writings of Hollywood (notably Gore Vidal's SCREENING HISTORY and Waugh's THE LOVED ONE), much has been made of the British colony of actors and writers whose films before and during WW2 consciously endeavored to increase American sympathy and support for their homeland. But there's an unusual fascination in watching German actors (not to mention Fritz Lang and "Bert" Brecht) pulling out all the stops in this project.
Much is justifiably made of Hans Heinrich Twardowski's dazzling impersonation of Reinhard Heydrick at the beginning of the movie, which makes the "Nazis" of Otto Preminger, Conrad Veidt, and Erich von Stroheim look like Gandhi, but my "favorite" Nazi in the film is the satirical limning of a Gestapo officer in charge of "questioning" a couple key female suspects. Priceless! As is the performance of the old-lady grocer who refuses to rat out Anna Lee. She, the girl's gossipy aunt, and the Nazi in charge of the investigation have all stepped out of earlier Lang films (M, FURY, etc.) and bring tremendous Old World authenticity to their roles.
The final irony lies in the film's end-title. As Amazon notes, after the plot's presumed climax the end-title challenges whether this is REALLY the end of the story. In truth, the original film was several minutes longer, and included the execution of the hostages. Too grim for war propaganda of 1943? (Some suggest it was excised perhaps before its release in Europe; and it's known that HUAC banned the movie as possibly pro-Communist, and that the American public was "protected" from it for decades.) Or perhaps the studio said Genug already, for a film that's well over two hours long even WITH the snipping?
Doubtless that lopping contributed to Brecht's dissatisfaction with the final product. Meanwhile, the German-speaker who was hired to help him with the project, John Wexley, was indeed a Communist and, like Brecht, was later brought before HUAC--though with more dire consequences.
It is not to deny the tremendous contributions of Lang, cinematographer James Wong Howe and a troupe of first rate character actors to suggest that everything that distinguishes HANGMEN results from Brecht's participation. In lesser hands, the events surrounding the assassination of Heydrich might make an entertaining political melodrama. The formula of stalwart, virtuous victims triumphing over a brutal tyranny rarely fails, particularly with American audiences, eager to re-affirm the democratic mythos repeatedly and uncritically.
Such a film might make more effective propaganda, something like Warner Bros.'s CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY. As such, it wouldn't warrant much more than a footnote in Hollywood history. Brecht's contribution comes from his unequaled sense of the contradictions and ironies of history and power. A victim of persecution from both the Nazis and the House Un-American Activities Committee, he had the political sophistication not to make the Germans and their collaborators in this film larger-than-life Evils, but obviously human creatures with more than a shade of appeal.
The Czechs, on the other hand, are not so much virtuous as wooden and bloodless. Their numerous, long speeches about freedom and humanity are unconvincing and platitudinous. There is, in true Brechtian fashion, no effort to make us "identify" with them, to give us goose bumps of sympathy with the high ideals. Quite the contrary, the film unflinchingly faces the partisans' complicity in the bloody events resulting from the assassination. Events unwind with clockwork precision, deadlier and darker with each step as *both* sides demand ever greater sacrifice from ordinary people.
Precisely because it does not shy away from the complexities of the situation, HANGMEN makes a much stronger statement in favor of political responsibility than a simple melodrama could. For the Germans can be somewhat sympathetic and the Czechs unappealing, and the latter can *still* be seen as ultimately right. Such a level of sophistication is rare in film of any kind. That it comes from Hollywood must be attributed to the presence of an unusually gifted set of émigré talent worthy of the theme. If HANGMEN ALSO DIE is not for everyone, it is definitely for anyone who responds to those rare instancs when a film treats us as intelligent adults.
In the movie, Heydrich is shot by Dr. Franticek Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) in a plan involving a number of members of the Czech resistance. He escapes thanks to a young woman, Natasha Novotny (Anna Lee), who brings him into her house. He receives the protection of her father, Professor Novotny (Walter Brennan). A city-wide manhunt begins, ruthlessly conducted by the Nazis, led by a Gestapo officer, Alois Gruber (Alexander Granach). Dozens of hostages are taken, and are systematically shot in small groups to force someone to come forward and identify Svoboda. No one does, and the remaining resistance fighters -- average people who have everyday jobs as a cleaning lady, a butler, a taxi driver, a waiter -- develop a scheme to put the blame on an unctuous, scheming collaborator, Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart). Czaka had pretended to be sympathetic to the resistance but was in the pay of the Gestapo. Eventually the crime is pinned on a groveling Czaka, who is executed by the Gestapo. Later Berlin tells the local Nazis that Czaka couldn't have done it, but to protect the reputation of the local German heirarchy they say that the case must be closed.
Donlevy does a fine job as a Czech surgeon who becomes Heydrich's assassin. Brennan also is very good as a quiet professor who finds great strength as he faces probable execution. And Alexander Granach as Gruber is fascinating, if always threatening to go over the top into caricature. This is probably just how Lang wanted the Nazis portrayed. Hans von Twardowsky who plays Reinhard Heydrich gives an absolutely over-the-top protrayal of Heydrich as a vicious, effeminate creep. Another repellant Nazi keeps picking at a sore on his face. Lang spares none of them.
This is a very well-developed story, with incident after incident building tension. There is no humor to speak of, but much satisfaction in seeing how Svoboda is protected, how Czaka is framed and how Gruber is dealt with to provide the finishing touch to the frame. The direction is brisk and the photography and editing are typical of Lang's style.
The DVD picture is very good. There are no extras.
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