Friday, July 14, 2017

Hangmen Also Die!

Hangmen Also Die! (Fritz Lang, 1943)  We've talked about Anthropoid and Hitler's Madman, but another film is inspired by the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and its subsequent murderous reprisals. It is an original story written by German playwright Bertolt Brecht (he of "The Threepenny Opera" and "The Ballad of Mack the Knife") and another German expatriate, director Fritz Lang. 

The Czech plot to kill Heydrich makes up a very small part of Hangmen Also Die! and the destruction of Lidice isn't even mentioned, the ramifications of the assassination cast in miniature with the murder of 400 souls as reprisals for keeping the identity of the gunman (only one in Brecht and Lang's screenplay, not the group of four  who carried out the actual killing) a secret from Nazi investigators. The plot hews closer to Lang's world of spies, secret societies, and hiding in plain sight.

Heydrich (played by an overwrought Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), appears in only one opening scene and rides out of the small studio representation of a Czech street never to be seen again*; the attack happens off-camera, in the style of other Lang films where danger lurks just outside the film frame (most of the murders happen out of sight except for the penultimate ones that close the film on a cautionary, mournful note).

The only things the film has in common with the real events is that there was a Heydrich, he was killed by Czech partisans, and the Nazi's started a man-hunt that resulted in the execution of civilians in retribution. There is no organized murder and destruction of an entire city in revenge.

Just after Heydrich's assassination a lone figure calling himself Karel Vanek (Brian Donlevy, looking very "chalant"**) runs into the busy city street looking for his getaway vehicle—it (driven by Lionel Stander) has been directed to Gestapo headquarters for leaving the engine running and wasting precious commodities. He asks a woman, Masha Novotny (Anna Lee), if she's seen the vehicle and she tells him the driver was arrested. Vanek scurries off when news of Heydrich's attack hits the streets, steps ahead of Nazi agents looking for him. Masha mis-directs them and he is able to escape. 

But, he finds no shelter after the attack, and in desperation, shows up at the Novotny apartment, where, with only the slimmest of cover-stories, he is invited for dinner and given a bed for the night. Masha's father (Walter Brennan), a history professor recently dismissed from the University for his political views and now tutoring his former students, suspects Vanek of killing Heydrich, yet provides him accommodations in sympathy.
"Someone at the door?"
Before long, the Nazi's come calling, and Novotny is arrested as a suspect in the murder, as well as 400 others to be held in detention until the murderer is found. As an added incentive for the killer to turn himself in (or his whereabouts revealed) the Nazis will kill 40 of the hostages at a time until the case is closed. In desperation, Masha seeks out the man she's deduced has posed as Karel Vanek—distinguished Prague surgeon Dr. Franz Svoboda—and begs him to turn himself in and save her father, something the partisans have forbidden him to do.
You have it all nicely worked out, haven't you? If I tell them, 
then all my family will be shot! If I keep silent only my father 
will be shot! In other words, your "simple statement of fact" is 
we're all lost because we were generous enough to save your life! 
You're just a cold-blooded coward! You're no better than Heydrich himself! 
Even the Gestapo couldn't be as inhuman as you are!
It's a moral quandary and Brecht and Lang increase it by making the assassin a doctor, betraying his hippocratic oath even when doing nothing still does harm. Meanwhile, Gestapo inspector Gruber (Alexander Granach) pursues all leads trying to piece together who the culprit is, particularly Masha, who knows that at any time, her father might be killed.

The partisans, meanwhile are working to pin the assassination on another party, a businessman and Nazi partisan who drew up the list of the 400 Czech's to be taken prisoner, Czech partisans seeming to have a overarching sense of irony. But, can they convince the Nazi's in time to prevent the slaughter?

Lang's concern here is in the conspiracy—it frequently is in his films—and how background forces, hiding in plain sight, can influence the orbits of people's lives. The main gist is that the Germans have taken over Czechoslovakia as an occupying force, but the occupied, in turn, can disrupt any machinery, no matter how precise, given enough will and organization. You fight power with power. You fight those seeking information with disinformation, and any search for a lone individual can be neutered by unfocusing it. The Germans do things with uniforms and ceremony. The partisans are masked—even surgeons' masks— and are at their most powerful when they are unknown, ordinary and a part of the landscape—nobodies.

This is not a history lesson, and, if so, only in the broadest strokes. It takes one incident and brings to light the Lang world-view: that the work of collective, coordinated individuals can disrupt the machinery of despots, technology, corporate interests and political systems that oppress them and threaten to crush them in the clock-work gears of their seemingly perpetual motion. But to derail those gears takes resistant bones and iron wills to make them seize up.

There's a telling shot in Hangmen Also Die! where word of Heydrich's assassination begins to be whispered in a darkened theater and applause starts to ripple through the audience. A Nazi lackey calls a halt to the movie and, flush with a power he only thinks he has, demands to know who applauded. "No one applauded." says a voice in the crowd, belying the obvious truth. And before one of the audience members decks the Nazi for being too pushy with his wife, there is a shot that must have been very powerful in the movie theaters—it's a shot of the theater movie-screen, an extension of OUR view of OUR movie screen, like an optical illusion where we see farther than just the projected image into the movie's world. And the movie crowd of Hangmen Also Die! look back at us, safe in our seats, defiantly, almost accusingly, as if to ask "What are YOU going to do?"

It's chilling: that one image unites us with the plight of the Czech movie-goers and challenges us, making us a participant in their situation in a way no 3-D image ever could.

There's genius there.
"Nobody applauded."
The movie stares back at its audience.




* Except for one surreal hospital scene comprised of this shot:

** The opposite of nonchalant.

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