Directed by Fritz Lang
The United States of America
Die if you must
for a cause that's just
but shout to the end—
Why is the world fascinated by Nazis? They are the go-to villain whenever a storyteller needs some great, unstoppable evil force. True, they did start the Second World War and create a method of systematic genocide, but let's look at some cold, hard facts. If combat deaths are ignored, the Nazi Party killed 12 million people during World War Two. 6 million were Jews and the other 6 million were a combination of political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals, etc. 12 million is a terrifying number. But, Joseph Stalin was responsible for 23 million deaths. And yet, if you combined the number of people killed by Hitler and Stalin, it wouldn't equal half of the people killed under the rule of Mao Zedong, which is estimated at being approximately 49-78,000,000. And yet, Nazis are the most popular villains in Western history. How many times has Hollywood made movies about atrocities committed by the Soviets and the Communist Chinese? All three powers had secret police forces. People can immediately identify the word “Gestapo” and, depending on if you lived during the Cold War, the KGB, but does anybody know the name of the Chinese secret police? Does anybody care?
I guess that the easiest answer would be that as Americans, we didn't have to fight against the Russians (directly, at least) or the Chinese, so we wouldn't be concerned about their atrocities. But I think that it goes deeper than that. The image of the Nazi or the Gestapo officer has entered popular culture. Whether it be images of the Nuremberg Rally or even a simple officer giving the “Seig Heil,” the Nazi is part of our social consciousness. I believe it was the manner in which the Nazi operated that made them so terrified. They believed that they were the superior race, and so whenever they conquered another country, they treated the locals as swine. They were arrogant, ruthless, and they seemed to love their jobs. At least, that is the perception that we have of Nazis: people who adored their work as the butchers of mankind. Their sense of order and discipline developed an entirely new system of body language. I cannot think of any pictures where I have ever seen a Nazi slouching or leaning back in his chair. No, the Nazis were brutal, ruthless, and more importantly, efficient. They have been portrayed in the movies for decades. The image of the Nazi has even inspired other filmmakers. Take, for example, the Imperial Officers from Star Wars. Look at their uniforms and their movements and you will begin to wonder why they didn't call Darth Vader Führer. There is no denying it, the Nazi is engraved in our minds as an archetype of evil. And one of the best portrayals of this image of the Nazi can be found in Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die.
Now, I want to be honest. I have wanted to write a review of one of Lang's movies for a while now. A master of atmosphere, shadow, and genre, Fritz Lang created some of the most compelling and influential movies in the history of cinema. I have already seen his three genre masterpieces: Metropolis (sci-fi), M (expressionist thriller), and The Big Heat (film noir). But I can't write about those three movies because they are still celebrated as masterpieces. The point of this site is to draw attention to under appreciated movies. So, with a firm resolve to find a hidden masterpiece in his catalog of work, I set out to see as many of Lang's movies as I could. Surprisingly, I didn't find too many. The few that I did find were decent, but they were short of masterpieces. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) was intriguing, but its twists were a bit too confusing. Ministry of Fear (1944) was a respectable noir that had its moments, but overall, it felt like something was missing. And Scarlet Street (1945) couldn't figure out what genre it wanted to be. It shifted between black comedy, noir, thriller, and romance too rapidly. At the end of the movie, I wasn't entirely sure what I had just sat through. I was beginning to lose hope for finding that perfect Fritz Lang movie. And then, surprise surprise, I found it as a rental at my local library. It's title, Hangmen Also Die, intrigued me. I rented it and watched it as soon as I got home. I was amazed at how miraculous this movie was.
Made in 1943, it was basically a piece of political propaganda gussied up as a thriller, like Powell and Pressburger's fantastic 49th Parallel (1941). It was about the aftermath of the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Reich Protector of German-occupied Prague. Heydrich was the number-two man in the SS and one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. He earned the nickname "The Hangman of Prague." In real life, Heydrich was assassinated by Czech resistance fighters parachuted from a British plane during Operation Anthropoid. However, at the time of the movie's production, the truth surrounding his assassination was still unknown, so Lang and his colleagues had to invent a story.
Desperate to find the assassin, the occupying Nazis round up Czech civilians as hostages which they threaten execute if they do not find the killer. And so, the movie follows the desperate attempts of the Czech resistance to keep the real assassin safe and their organization hidden. This is, of course, a very brief overview of the plot. The reason is that this film is firmly in the realm of the film noir genre, and therefore trying to give a precise summary of the plot would be suicidal. Alliances are made and broken, relationships developed and killed, and backs are stabbed during almost every single scene. And besides, the real villain in this movie are not the Nazis, but a collaborator named Czaka, a brewer who allied himself with the Nazis in order to preserve his business. He works as an informer who sneaks into the Czech resistance movement and reveals the identity of their leadership. He is the villain who truly turns our stomachs. Watching his comeuppance is one of the most rewarding and satisfying moments that I have ever experienced as a movie-goer.
But what really fascinated me was the style. Lang has always been known as a master of atmosphere. While he worked in Germany, his films were renowned for there flawless and innovative art director and cinematography. His camera angles and sets were geometrically inspired. Sets were designed so that things would be aligned at right angles, produce long and suggestive shadows, and create a general atmosphere that made the movie feel slightly unworldly. For example, the below picture shows the design for the city in Metropolis. Notice how everything is straight and pointy. There appear to be no curves in the architecture. The elevated streets are jagged, and yet seem to be consistent with the rest of the set. The buildings cast long shadows that increase the artificial atmosphere. And yet, in the context of the film, it looks perfectly natural and real.
However, Lang fled Germany to escape the Nazis, and settled in America where he continued his work. It is here that his love affair with the film noir would reach its height. And yet, he would lose much of his artistic touch that defined his earlier work. Stylized sets morphed into more authentic looking sets. Chiaroscuro lighting was replaced by more traditional lighting so that audiences could see their favorite stars more clearly. The below image is taken from The Big Heat. It is still dramatically lighted, but the actors' blocking is more traditional and the set looks like it was taken out of Suburbia, USA.
Thankfully, Hangmen Also Die represents a nice fusion of what made his work so engaging when he was in Germany and then the USA. The movie takes place in a regular set, and yet it doesn't stop Lang from creating sumptuously constructed shots. A regular building may be perfectly ordinary on one floor, but on another it may represent a hellish lair of shadow.
Another important aspect of Lang's earlier work was a sense of group uniformity and consciousness. Whether it was the workers storming the bosses in Metropolis or the sea of parents during the trial scene from M, Lang always knew how to make a crowd look and act like it was the extension of a single will. This is also intact in Hangmen Also Die. There is one scene where a woman is trying to go to the Gestapo where she intends to reveal information about the assassin that could save her father who was currently one of the hostages. When she is revealed in the streets, a gigantic crowd materializes around her and starts to mock her. There is a police whistle, and suddenly, they are gone! This is reminiscent of the scene from M where the crowd starts to attack a man that they think may be the child murderer.
So, Hangmen Also Die was a cinematic and artistic triumph for Fritz Lang. But, I feel like I am forgetting something. Ah yes, the Nazis. How do I describe them? Maybe the best way would be to describe one of the opening scenes of the movie. In the middle of a Nazi conference, a head Nazi member enters a ballroom filled with officers. They stand to attention and salute. He walks over to one of the officers. I assume that the man was a Czech collaborator because of his uniform, but the fact remains that he has been singled out. The head Nazi walks over to him, and drops his handkerchief in front of him. The officer looks amazed at what this implies, but the Nazi relishes in this humiliation. The officer reaches down, picks up the handkerchief, gives it to the officer, and continues his salute. A look of triumph in his eyes, the Nazi walks further down the ballroom to his desk where he gives new instructions to his subordinates. This may not sound so bad, but this scene is later mimicked during an interrogation scene. Only this time, instead of an officer, the victim is an ancient, hunched over old lady. She has to painfully stoop down to pick up the head of her chair which was cut off so that she would have to keep picking it up during her interrogation. And still, that same look of delight and triumph remains in the interrogators eyes.
I never lived in Nazi-occupied power, so I cannot know if these things actually happened, but I don't doubt it. Hangmen Also Die was actually a collaboration between three Germans who fled to America to escape the Nazis: Lang (the director), Bertolt Brecht (the screenwriter), and Hanns Eisler (the musical composer). They saw the Nazis firsthand and decided that Germany's future was too dangerous to take part in. Maybe Hangmen Also Die was a kind of repentance on the part of the German filmmakers. But I don't know. In hindsight, maybe they portrayed the Nazis the way they did because the studio required them to. All I can say is, in the 60+ years since the fall of the Third Reich, the image of the Nazi has not been diminished. It is still as evil, as repugnant, and as fascinating today as it was to the free world all those decades ago.