Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hangmen Also Die!

This month, the Cinématheque Pusan is having a retrospective of the films of Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die! (1943) was inspired by the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942. I learn from Wikipedia that Heydrich, nicknamed "The Hangman of Prague," was the Nazi Reich Protector of occupied Czechoslovakia, the number two man in the SS, and one of the chief architects of the Holocaust.

Although the film was made during World War 2 for propoganda purposes, the story--written by John Wexley from a treatment by Lang and Bertolt Brecht--is surprisingly nuanced. In the film, Heydrich's assassin is a physician and member of the Czech resistance, Franticek Svoboda (Brian Donlevy). After shooting Heydrich (an event not shown), he escapes the SS only when a young woman at a vegetable stand, Nasha Navotny (Anna Lee), points them in the wrong direction. The Germans respond to the assassination first with a curfew. With nowhere to go, Svoboda shows up at Nasha's home, which puts her entire family in danger.

In the film as in real life, the Nazis begin rounding up and executing prominent Czech citizens, including Nasha's father, Stephen (Walter Brennan), a university professor. In the movie, characters openly question whether it's worth it to protect one man. (In the end, the Germans killed 1,600 people.)

Although the film has no sympathy for an industrialist, Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart), who's collaborating with the Germans, it does contain a rather daring sequence in which a crowd of ordinary, patriotic Czechs nearly turn into a lynch mob. Nasha decides to betray Svoboda to the Nazis and asks a cab driver to take her to the Gestapo. When the driver goes in the opposite direction, Nasha jumps out and explains what happened to a police officer. Quickly a crowd gathers asking, "What does a nice young girl want to do with the Gestapo?"

Hangmen Also Die! doesn't feel at all dated. The story is gripping and suspenseful, and Lang's spare direction feels entirely modern. It's a film that deserves to be better known than it is.

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