July 13, 2013 by smumcounty
“Hangmen Also Die” begins with a meeting of the Nazi occupiers of Czechoslovakia welcoming their leader Reinhard Heydrich (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), known as the Hangman. They proffer the stiff armed Nazi salute and stand at attention as he walks through the large double doors and makes his way slowly up the middle of the room, dangling his riding crop between two fingers. He stops in front of what appears to be a Czech general and drops his riding crop to the floor. Heydrich smiles at the Czech and then glares at him angrily as the Czech remains standing at attention. The tension mounts as the Czech obviously has no idea what to do. Finally he bends to pick up the riding crop and presents it to Heydrich. Heydrich smiles and walks on. He then gives an impassioned rant in German concerning how the Czechs are not producing as well as expected and that there will be hell to pay. Twardowski plays Heydrich as a rather mincing, fey character when he makes his way to the front of the room and then he becomes very serious and threatening. One can only wonder if this was the gay Twardowski’s personal F-you to the Nazis. It’s a great performance and it made me sorry that this was his only scene in the film.
Dr. Franticek Svoboda (Brian Donlevy), a resistance fighter, assassinates Heydrich shortly after leaving the meeting. Unfortunately, he isn’t able to make a clean escape because his co-conspirator, a taxi driver, has been picked up in the meantime by the Gestapo. Mascha Novotny (Anna Lee) witnesses his flight while she is buying dinner from her neighborhood greengrocer but when questioned by the Gestapo shortly afterwards, she sends them in the wrong direction. This allows Svoboda to make it to his safe-house but the proprietress refuses to let him in. The Nazis are on the lookout for the assassin and they’ve declared a 7pm curfew. Anyone found on the streets after that will be shot on sight and they’ve made it known that anyone giving shelter to the fugitive would be executed along with their family. Desperate to find shelter, Svoboda shows up on the doorstep of Mascha’s apartment whose address he’s gotten from the greengrocer. He pushes his way in and begs not to be turned out. Being a good patriot she gives him refuge even though she knows she’s putting herself and her entire family at risk.
Svoboda makes it through that first night and is able to make it back home but the following day the Nazis, with the help of a turncoat Czech named Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart), make hostages of the most well-known of the Czechs, playwrights, poets, and professors , including Mascha’s father (Walter Brennan), and threaten to execute them unless the assassin turns himself in. Gestapo detective Alois Gruber (Alexander Granach) has been tasked with finding the assassin at any cost but the people of Prague are able to unite in order to thwart his attempts and rescue the hostages by framing the assassination on Czaka. The film ends with a title that reads “NOT The End” meaning, of course, that this battle is won but there is much still to do.
“Hangmen Also Die” is an excellent example of an anti-Nazi propaganda film made during the war. This one focuses on the Czech people but others were made to highlight the lives of others of our allies at the time. For example, “North Star” documents the Nazi invasion of a Ukrainian commune and “49th Parallel” deals with Nazis from a U-boat stranded in Canada. As such it’s a very enjoyable film. Like any propaganda film the distinctions between the good and the bad are very clear and that is one of the pleasures of this sort of film. It’s always great to root against the Nazis and the Nazis in this film, are especially evil. When the Gestapo question the greengrocer as to the identity of the woman who mislead their men, they make the old woman stand next to a chair whose back has been purposefully severed so that it falls off at the slightest touch and she is made to laboriously retrieve the back and replace it each time it does. Evil!
As much as the Nazi’s are evil, the Czech people demonstrate small acts of heroism. For example, when the Gestapo torture the taxi driver in order to get him to reveal the assailant he commits suicide by throwing himself out a window rather than betray his comrades. The propaganda messages are even more clearly presented in the scenes dealing with the hostages. As in the scene in which Mascha’s father, thinking his execution is imminent, asks Mascha to convey a message to his son. As he begins his declaration, he turns towards the camera as the frame closes on him slightly so we feel he’s speaking directly to us. “Freedom is not something that one possesses, like a hat or a piece of candy. The real thing is fighting for freedom.” Or when an amateur poet being held hostage recites what could easily become the battle cry of the resistance. Finally, in witnessing how the hostages are treated we are taught that there is no negotiating with the Nazis. Those hostages who make public statements in order to encourage their compatriots to offer information as to the whereabouts of the assassin in return for guarantees of freedom are in the end executed with the others when their time comes.
The film works because it brings home the plight of the Czech people. The desperation and hopelessness that those living under Nazi rule must have felt is palpable. When the Gestapo take Czech citizens hostage in exchange for the identity of the assailant, you feel that’s it. There’s nothing that Svoboda can do. Moral correctness would determine that he must give himself up in order to spare the hostages. In fact he considers just that until another member of the resistance explains to him that to do so would hand the Nazis a victory and deal a body blow to the resistance. I then had images of him going out in a hail of bullets as he takes all those Gestapo agents with him but luckily the filmmakers were able to come up with a solution that makes sense and gives the film a satisfying ending at the same time.
There is another ending that was shot which was not used in the version I saw. In that ending, the Nazis go back on their word to release the hostages and execute them instead, even though the assassin has been discovered. The film ends with shots of Mascha and her fiancé laying a wreath on the mass grave of the victims. Although this ending was very likely more realistic, I don’t know if Hollywood audiences would have settled for such an ending. Nazis kill sympathetic characters in other films but they usually are given a chance to make a final stand of resistance, at least symbolically. In the light of this alternate ending, the “NOT The End” title takes on a different meaning. Perhaps it was an attempt to soften the blow of this tragic ending. They won this time, but we’ll win in the end.
The film began life as a treatment created by director Fritz Lang and Bertolt Brecht based on the assassination of the real-life Reinhard Heydrich by Czech resistance fighters in 1942. In retaliation, the town of Lidice was razed to the ground and all adult males living there were executed and most of the remaining women and children were deported to concentration camps. The story is Brecht’s only U.S. screen credit, crediting him as Bert Brecht. Brecht had fled Nazi Germany because of his Marxist views and these views can be seen to have influenced the story here where the Czech people unite for the common good, that is, the defeat of Nazism. Lang’s influence can be seen in the noire-ish plotting of the search for the assailant and the character of Gruber who is reminiscent of Inspector Lohmann in Lang’s “M”. Lang and Brecht were not the only refugees to have worked on the film. Lang employed as Nazis Germans whom he must have known directing films in Germany during the Weimar era. Alexander Granach played Knock, the Renfield character, in Murnau’s “Nosferatu” and Hans Heinrich von Twardowski began his film career with “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”
I would greatly recommend “Hangmen Also Die” if you are looking for a war film with few shades of gray for the simple joy of the clear delineation of good and evil. Or you can get the same thing in “Pacific Rim.”