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HANGMEN ALSO DIE (FRITZ LANG, 1943), PART THE SECOND

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HANGMEN ALSO DIE (FRITZ LANG, 1943), PART THE SECOND

Reinhard Heydrich--the man whose name sounds suitably like a Germanic adjective for Hydra-like, inasmuch as the man's specialty in his creation of the German Sicherheitsdeinst, or Security Service, the dreaded SD within the SS that made Canaris' Abwehr look positively warm and kissy--might be one of the most emblematic Germans when it comes to, in retrospect, personifying all that constituted the worst excesses of the Nazi period in Germany. He made Heinrich Himmler look like a fresh daisy by comparison. He made Hitler on one hand smile, squirm, fidget and go boyishly shy and blushy when in his leather trenched presence--and he also made Hitler get all pumped, throw on his own leather trench without a belt, and stalk and strut like the cock of the walk, Heydrich trailing consciously behind.

Hitler loved loyal but hard and vicious, creatively heartless tough guys like Otto "Sepp" Deitrich, Otto Skorzeny, and of course Heydrich. 

Only with Heydrich, there was very little of the two sided coin that Hitler proposed to maintain, at least at first: love-of-Germany and its people/menace of all who threatened Germany. Beyond the bounds of his wife and blindingly blonde kids, Heydrich never seemed to like people very much. Even those who worked closely with him and maintained daily contact and thus were a part of Heydrich's regular life, dreaded the episodes of drunken cavorting with the man. These interludes were full of menace, shcadenfreude, bizarre behavior, rampant philandering that all were terrified to not participate in, and thus made everyone uncomfortable.

Heydrich's life was full of strangeness--a violin player booted from the navy for disgracing himself with a woman, a surface egoist who maintained a private hatred of his own strange, hyper-vertical, large-schnozzed face (he, supposedly, was famously so suspicious of his odd face that he was apparently observed spitting at a mirror after staring at himself disgustedly and hissing "Fucking jew,"); loved to visit whorehouses with his SS comrades, yet presented a crackling hearth of a wholesome Teutonic family man sprung from the blonde sprouting earth, posing for incredibly incongruous and kitschy photos with his family .  .  . laying on the grass, leapfrogging, picnicing with breeches and lederhosen, playing football with weinerschnitzel smeared with wurstfabrik and the like (just kidding on the last one).

Czechoslovokia--or "The Protectorate"--Prague more than any other--came close to spiritually keeling over and croaking under the boot of Heydrich's leadership. Unlike the men who succeeded him after his assassination--the miserable hawknosed ape Hans Frank in Czechoslovakia, and to some degree in the latter years, scarfaced Ernst Kaltenbrunner .  .  .  latterly head of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Heydrich's old slot, where the conglomerate of security and various police apparatus were bundled up for an oversight entity) and a man who was known to tie Heinrich Himmler's stomach in gassy knots--Heydrich did indeed have a subtle side beyond a love of murder as incentivization. For all of his legendary brutality and appearance of tossing off scorched earth with a yawn as a hobby on a lazy spring afternoon, Heydrich didn't ascend to his lofty mantle of RHSA/SD head and Reichsprotektor in Czechoslovakia purely through that Special Menacing Something; the man could be clever, super-subtle, excelled at deception, and knew how to reward people who gave him what he wanted and needed to achieve his goals. Like Fritz Lang's film, Heydrich knew how to layer false realities on top of and to the side of one another in space and in time; he knew how to create the impression of randomness in the carefully engineered; and he was outrageously attentive and invisibly but effectively probing even outside of his professional mandate. His safe, it is said, held the secrets not only of his enemies but all of his allies and closest associates. He was a man who was ready for a confrontation at any time with anybody. He seemed to have seen the world (and particularly the world of appearances in the military and politics) as a nasty chessboard, which he lost at early on too many times, and decided he would never allow such humiliation into his life ever again if he could help it, and actively armed himself against those possibilities through active pre-emption. Those around him knew and felt that they had passed too often under his keen observational apparatus, and trembled thenceforth, knowing that their sins had been carefully recorded with loving care by this thin, oddly feminine-hipped, strange man moving purposely through the lives of all those around him, sniffing out foibles. 

Again--he knew the power of reward. It kept your adversaries close to you and easy to watch. It's for these reasons he succeeded both in the RHSA and as Protektor:human assets require taking care of in espionage. Workers require winning over during an occupation. Heydrich made the exile government and the Allies very nervous during his years sitting in his Prague castle dishing out orders to maximize productivity, owing to the introduction--after brutally weeding out the saboteurs who were disturbing the war production tempo under von Neurath's leadership--of a reward system of increased wages, days off, unemployment insurance and other methods often referred to as "carrot and stick" measures.

Of course, Heydrich, despite his use of generous rewards (in the relative terms of a hard occupation, anyhow) had no love for the Czech people, who he called "scum," and his roundups, executions, use of torture and more earned him the nickname "butcher of Prague." He was despised at atomic levels, and feared equally. And this goes for Germans as well as enemies of the Reich. Like Hitler, he seemed a solitary figure; failed artist, surrounded by yes-men terrified to disagree with him; moody, with virtually no close friends to speak of.

 

Fritz Lang began production on Hangmen Also Die in the latter part of 1942 when the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague was still fresh news, but the truth about the killing was still not known.

Knowing nothing about Operation Anthropoid and the parachutists being dropped in waves by the exile government in London working directly with the military of the Allies who wanted Heydrich removed as a matter of emergency, the film wove an entirely fictional tale.

The film was extrapolated from a story written by Bertholt Brecht--his sole Hollywood contribution--and Fritz Lang, and turned into a script by Lang and a writer called John Wexley (a writer with not a lot of credits but the credits are quite interesting. Check this out.. source TCM):

1. The Long Night (1947) as Screenwriter.

2. Cornered (1945) as Story and adpt.

3. Hangmen Also Die! (1943) as Screenwriter.

4. Footsteps in the Dark (1941) as Screenwriter.

5 City for Conquest (1940) as Screenwriter.7.

6. Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) as Screenwriter.

7. The Roaring Twenties (1939) as Contr to trmt.

8. The Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse (1938) as Screenwriter.

9. Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) as Screenwriter.

10. Eight Bells (1935) as Contr to trmt.

Brecht and Land begin their tale with an opening scene with Reinhard Heydrich--played by Hans Heinz von Twardowski (who played Alan, murdered by Cesare in his room after getting his fortune told in Caligari's circus tent,  24 years before this film)--holding court in Hradceny Castle and ordering executions to scare more productivity out of the Skoda defense contractor factories, who have slowed down their work tempo at the behest of the resistance.

The prologue out of the way, the narrative begins in earnest--the tale of a single assassin who wounds Reinhard Heydrich offscreen in the urban center of a well-rendered studio reimagining of the city of Prague. Donlevy, playing the assassin, a doctor by the name of Svoboda, enters into an en media res shot of the city going about its business under the boot of Nazi occupation. Before meeting him however, we get an immediate sense of tension, of something simmering tensely beneath the surface... police arrest a cab driver for idling in one spot for wasting gas illegally. A man looks at his watch, carefully taking note of the police taking the cabbie away, and subtly rounds the corner and shoes away a hansom carriage driver, telling him "GO! Vanya's arrested."

Clearly, we see, something is going on under the boot of these occupying Germans and their steel helmets, and it concerns the civilian public. Our answer is quickly answered as into the film walks lead Anna Lee, then known for her work with John Ford. Her character, Masha Nowotny, approaches her local fruit and vegetable hawker, looking for some basics despite the wartime scarcity. As she discovers to her disappointment that there are no potatos (or POTATEOZ as the handwritten vendor's sign says) Brian Donlevy suddenly comes jogging out of the shadows and into the film, the second principal character. 

Not finding what he is looking for, he asks Masha if she has seen a cabbie sitting there on the street; having witnessed with the fruit vendor the troubles the cabbie had with the police, the young girl relates his arrest to the nameless stranger. He tips his hat and hurriedly jogs offscreen.

In his wake, upon his disappearance, comes the sound of stomping boots, and a crowd of blackshirt SS men, clearly chasing somebody. Coming to the crossroads of the little platz where the vendor and Anna Lee's Masha have resumed their commerce, ("The cabbage is nice") a German extra playing their group leader asks if they have seen a man running from the direction they came. Cut to Donlevy's character hiding in a dark arched atrium down the block and a bit around a corner, but still within the line of sight of the nearby interlude between the ladies and the SS men.

"Yes," says Masha.

He removes a pistol from his breast jacket pocket, now expecting to be given up and fully ready to fight to the death.

"Which way did he run?"

Carefully weighing her answer against her conscience, her hatred of the Occupation, and her fear of getting into trouble with the Germans, the film now takes its first step towards its narrative identity.

"That way," says Masha, pointing away from where she knows Brian Donlevy's still nameless character just fled. And with that, the crowd of SS/SD security police disappear in the wrong direction, chasing a phantasm.

*        *        *

Soon it becomes clear, as we further follow the meanderings of Donlevy's character--who we clearly see is completely stranded in the city collapsing into a tighter and tighter police grip of emergency decree with nowhere to go--that he has caused this upheaval: he has assassinated Reinhard Heydrich. He dips into a movie theater; a restaurant, tries to go to a prearranged safe house and has a door slammed in his face by the spooked (she has heard of his driver--the cabbie's--arrest while being ordered to close the house down as a refuge to protect the underground, until, the Prague State of Emergency is complete and he has no place to go: time to scramble.

Coincidence: after a time of stressed wanderings, he catches the reflection of Anna Lee's Masha, and marks her home and apartment by tailing her.

The film runs on the tension of complexity and the novelty of weaving such an intriguing tale, sandwiching the viewer between the machinations of the underground and those of the Gestapo-SD in their hunt for the assassin. Donlevy's character, Dr. Franticek Svoboda shows up at the door of Anna Lee's Masha's apartment with a bunch of flowers in his hand, importuning her to save his life and allow him to crash with them during curfew under the lie of his posing as an admirer from a night at the opera.

Masha, the daughter of an old revolutionary clearly has honorable blood running through her veins--she cannot help but acquiesce. The next morning, after an evening of SD/gestapo strategizing to flush out the assassin by taking masses of Czech citizens hostage, the blackshirts knock on her apartment door--the assassin right under their noses. Reason? Masha's father, in the midst that morning of teaching an American history class in his dwelling, is on the hostage list and is to be taken right away to a camp.

Played by the venerable but here-slightly-incongruous Walter Brennan, Mr. Nowotny wishes the assassin (he has figured out overnight through sixth sense who he is without being told) luck before being hauled off, choosing not to give him up to the police and damn his whole family.

 

It's this tension--the agonized dilemma of the family's inability to give the doctor up (an announcement has come on the radio proclaiming that any family known to harbor the assassin will be immediately shot) to gain their father's release-- that drives the film, along with its tremendously expressive style. If they don't turn in the assassin, only her father will be shot. If they do turn in the assassin, the whole family be shot. Vilified by Masha for getting her and her family into this horrible position for doing nothing but helping him, Svoboda and the resistance ponder this conundrum, trying to concoct a way of getting her and her father off of the hook while at the same time not revealing Svoboda's guilt.

It's here that an incredible series of false plants, woven tapestries of deception and fraud, labyrinthine half-truths, incredibly sly, black humor (much of which flows from the mouth of Getsapo Inspector Gruber played by the unbelievably charismatic and hilariously loose Alexander Granach, as wild here as he is as Knock in Nosferatu and as the Shadowmaster in Schatten), ominous menace and danger and outrageous cinematographic-editorial skill.

The film was photographed by the then already legendary cameraman James Wong Howe who is here laying down the closest cinematographic correspondence to the conceit of the Expressionism of the early twenties in Germany. Howe and Lang, during moments of extreme danger and tension, ratchet of the contrast and stretch the angles of the shots to some of the most dramatic black and white images you'll ever see. These interludes come and go as danger closes in on the characters: when an execution is imminent, when an interrogation at the Gestapo approaches a deadly climax, when we descend down to the legendary torture vaults down in the police HQ, during the meetings of the resistance.

The tale is a hyper-complex web of intrigue, incredibly grim and complex for the time it was released--grim and complex even today, especially in its original cut with the original ending, which I won't give away. I saw this film when I was in my twenties and first digesting all of the cornerstones of film history; the first thing I said to my female companion watching it with me was "Citizen Kane is considered better than this??"

I find this film to be the height of Lang's narrative sophistication, and yet the film still unfolds with that easy, flowing quality that makes Lang so easy and pleasurable to watch. Even his lesser films like While The City Sleeps and House By The River unfold with such an ease and pleasure, they're almost addicting. I can watch House By The River 4 times a month for the rest of my live and probably not get bored with it. Ditto so many of the other "mediocre" Langs. One of my cinematic compadres, David Hare, I know feels the same vibe from Lang.

Hangmen is an incredible accomplishment--to me easily his best Hollywood films: most narratively skilled example of total command during his US phase. The dense script, the deft implementation, the extremely "cool" narrative sensibility (Like Sternberg, Lang had a consistent element of "cool" to his films), the menace and the humor bouncing back and forth like a tennis ball--see the ever moving wart on the Gestapo officer's face.

To those who haven't seen it, I would suggest something unusual--skip the weak BD, and try your best to hunt down the PAL edition DVD of the e-m-s version. It restores the "downer" ending, and looks much more filmic and less flat.

Preston Clive/HSchreck

3/13/2015***

 


Published by Preston Clive , 13.03.2015 at 23:44

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serdar202
serdar202 14 March 15 15:34 Your blog entry came too late for me, so I made the mistake and watched the bluray version. I'm not familiar with Heydrich's biography, and I thought the introduction when he holds court a bit over the top. As you know, I have problems with 1940s WW-II depictions of the German side in Hollywood, France (Le silence et la mer) and Russia (Odnazhdy nochyu). Maybe it was all too recent and the patriotic message to get across too urgent. So, despite the web of suspense and the brilliantly economic narration and editing, I confess I prefer the Czech version of 1965 "Atentat". Text hided expand
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Preston Clive
Preston Clive 14 March 15 19:13 I must track down a copy of the Czech Attentat which I hadn't heard of.. If you would like to see another excellent movie about the assassination, you should check out Operation Daybreak, a 1975 Hollywood film directed by Lewis Gilbert.. There was Warner Archive disc released of a nice print of the film.

It's probably the most accurate retelling of the actual operation put together by the Brits and Czechs to kill Heydrich, it's faithful to reality in that sense and the exaggerations aren't anywhere near as extreme as Lang's film. I think you might like this film a good bit.
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Owen Stone
Owen Stone 15 March 15 17:55 First time i'm hearing about the Czech Attentat version that your talking about. Text hided expand
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Preston Clive
Preston Clive 15 March 15 18:10 .. And I can't find a copy of the bloody thing anywhere! Text hided expand
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