Brian Donley on the run in Fritz Lang's Nazi occupation thriller
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (Reinhard Heydrich), Brian Donlevy (Dr Franticek Svoboda), Walter Brennan (Professor Stephen Novotny), Anna Lee (Mascha Novotny), Gene Lockhart (Emil Czaka), Dennis O'Keefe (Jan Horak), Nana Bryant (Hellie Novotny), Margaret Wycherly (Ludmilla Novotny), Tonio Selwart (Chief of Gestapo Kurt Haas), Alexander Granach (Inspector Alois Gruber), Reinhold Schünzel (Inspector Ritter), Jonathan Hale (Dedic)
Film dramas “ripped from the headlines” have a mixed track record. Making a drama about an event that happened so recently the dust has hardly settled leaves you open to making decisions in your film that could later be exposed as mistakes. Few films in history are more headline-ripping though than Hangmen Must Die!, a film about the assassination of Heydrich, the planning of which must have started almost immediately after the news broke.
Dr Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) is on the run in Prague after shooting dead Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s deputy in occupied Czechoslovakia. After a chance meeting, he pleads with Mascha Novotny (Anna Lee) for shelter – but this only serves to endanger her family, particularly her father Professor Novotny (Walter Brennan), in the affair. Meanwhile the Gestapo, led by Alois Gruber (Alexander Granach) investigates and the Nazis take hundreds of Czech notables, including Novotny, into custody as hostages. The Germans promise to execute hostages until the assassin is handed over.
First things first: unlike 2016’s Anthropoid, this film is a complete work of fiction. It is first and foremost a film made by European exiles in the middle of World War II to sing the praises of those defying the march of fascism. Heydrich only appears at the start of the film, played with a sinister, mincing campness by von Twardowski (a notable German socialist exile). Despite this, the arrogance and cruelty of Heydrich is hammered home, with his lines delivered in a bullying, untranslated German. The film uses a dark humour to stress his villainy, Heydrich nonchalantly strolls down a crowded meeting room, forcing those in attendance to remain saluting, swivelling to follow Heydrich, until he finally settles and returns the salute allowing them to relax. It’s a neat little joke and perhaps one of the clear signs of the hand of co-writer Bertolt Brecht. Take a look at the sequence (and rest of the movie as well!) here:
That’s one of the film’s other claims to fame: noted director Fritz Lang worked with fellow exile Brecht to craft the script. As such, the film is a slightly unusual mix between the left-wing, idealist politics of Brecht and the film noir style of Lang. The primary aim is to serve as a propaganda tool, and the courage and bravery of the Czech people is repeatedly stressed. With a few key exceptions, the Czechs are loyal, honest and willing to make huge sacrifices. Lang films this with a stirring simplicity, low angle shots, skilful use of light, and dynamically involving crowd scenes, bringing this courage visually to life. Brechtian touches, such as a crowd of Prague locals confronting Mascha (with increasing menace) when she considers betraying the assassin to save her father’s life, are perfectly complemented by Lang’s skilful film making. The film’s final tribute to the heroes of Europe, with the people of Prague joining together to sing a hymn to the fallen hostages, surges with a left-wing Brechtian political outrage.
What’s most unusual about the film – and one of its problems – is the curious mixture of tones. Perhaps because of its film noir styles, perhaps because of the American accents of many of the Czech characters (interestingly, the exiles overwhelmingly play villainous Germans), this film becomes a sort of behind-the-lines 1930s hard boiled gangster thriller – with the difference that the cops are the baddies. The Gestapo go about their jobs like gangster gumshoes from Hollywood movies. The Czech people, for all their gumption, look and act like streetwise New Yorkers. It’s an odd tone that takes some getting used to.
On top of that, the film shows several hostages (including characters we get to know) shot due to the refusal to hand over the assassin. I can’t watch this without thinking about how little it gets near the true horror of Nazism. The Gestapo here are relative pussycats, compared to the brutal lengths they went to in real life: the Gestapo chief even prudishly talks about a need for evidence. Compared to the thousands of civilians killed in real life, this is nothing. The Germans even essentially “give up” in a coda and accept a defeat. This makes terrific propaganda of course, but it just ties into the sense that this film doesn’t even begin to touch the villainy of the occupation. It makes for better entertainment, but it’s strange to watch today.
Finally, the last problem with the film is the rather mixed performers. Put simply, Brian Donlevy is totally miscast as the assassin, a B-movie actor who is far too American for the part, and incapable of giving the role the depth it needs. Svobada just isn’t interesting or sympathetic. Anna Lee is similarly bland, while the less said about O’Keefe as her fiancée, the better. Not one of the American actors is completely convincing in their role, although Walter Brennan is close to an exception, effectively gentle and wise as the brave Novotny. The best performances are from the exiles, with Graucher in particular excellent as a shrewd, soulless, corrupt detective, with no guilt about the means he uses.
The film culminates in a rather hard-to-follow and far-fetched attempt by the resistance to frame a collaborator (played with weaselly self-importance by Gene Lockhart) for the crime. This plot tends to meander, but there are several very good scenes showing the Czech resistance, including a wonderful sequence in a restaurant that goes from a sit-down, to an unveiling, to a shootout. Lang skilfully builds the tension throughout, and the creeping relentlessness of hostage executions and Svoboda’s attempts to run from the Gestapo are very well done. Sequences such as Svobda ducking into a movie cinema, only to find a keen collaborator inside, sizzle with excitement.
In fact there are many excellent moments in the film. It is beautifully filmed, with a gorgeous use of expressionist shadow and camera angles to create a claustrophobic, doom laden world. Lang’s strength of plotting by-and-large works very well. Though it can’t bring across the full horror of Nazi occupation, the dread of the Gestapo is clear in the movie. “Enhanced interrogation” is underplayed, but it is sinisterly embodied in the fate that befalls an arthritic shopkeeper. We see him exhausted, but not broken, in a prison cell, forced to constantly pick up a chair under interrogation with her weakened hands. Later, a character throws himself out of a window rather than risk being interrogated to reveal information about the resistance. The hostages are brutally dispatched, with the level of panic, fear, collaboration or defiance having no impact on their fates.
It’s a fractured film, overlong but very well filmed, which creates a brilliant tribute to the strength of the Czech people. Trim 20 minutes off it and I think this could have been a great thriller. It’s a strange mix of acting styles, but the marriage of Brecht and Lang works very well (it’s a real shame Brecht never made another film) and the drama of the film carries it over the strange bumps in the road. Brecht, by the way, spent the rest of his life rubbishing Lang, as he couldn’t understand why Lang put all the plot and character into a movie Brecht saw as being purely political.
It’s in many ways a strange historical monument – perhaps its makers couldn’t imagine the depths of Nazi atrocities, perhaps Hollywood wasn’t willing to bring such horrors to the screen. It’s not perfect, but in its own way, it’s a piece of cinematic history.