I am currently enrolled in a Contemporary Women's Playwrights course for which I am finding myself completely enthralled with the complex, masterful and exceptional plays which are being discussed, however, I am not a theater student and am instead taking it as an extension of my gender studies certificate. As such, when the fellow students reference terms like "Brechtian" I find myself completely lost as to what precisely they mean and have been seeking to better understand. I thought that by watching Hangmen Also Die!, a play whose script was written by Bertolt Brecht that I would come to better understand exactly the nature of such a style included. Sadly I am no closer to understanding the deeply philosophical roots of all things Brechtian, however, what I did receive was a rather excellent viewing experience from one of my personal favorites Fritz Lang. Admittedly, Hangmen Also Die! was a bit slow to start and I found my interests waning a bit instantly labeling it as yet another propaganda heavy war film from an exceptionally good time in Hollywood Cinema, but then something happened and the film found a second, perhaps even third, wind and became an extremely watchable highly cinematic study in human frailty, the notion of good and evil and deception in the name of a larger good. A chiaroscuro revelation that could only come from the magnificent eyes of the Austrian Expressionist auteur, Hangmen Also Die!, like so many of the rarefied Kino Films releases stands to be obtained and watched, repeatedly if possible, but also suffers from a degree of obscurity that makes the prints available less then stellar, in fact, this particular print is considerably grainy and the sound often drops mid sentence for many characters, nonetheless, it becomes so stylistically impressive that all concern for its damaged nature disappear in the face of cinema at its finest, and a film that I initially chided for its choice of American actors playing gestapo officers, became something with a hugely complex and absolutely enthralling war film with just the right touch of noir madness.
Hangmen Also Die! exist within wartime Chzechoslovakia, which the name alone tells one was a time prior to two World Wars, and in this particular case a moment in which Germany occupied the nation, leaving its citizens uncomfortably within the rule of a cruel fascist hand. One Czech patriot named Dr. Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) takes it upon himself to kill a German officer who has earned the infamous reputation of being the "hangman of Europe" for his willingness to murder all those not within the strict ideal of Aryan identification. This act of course makes him criminal number one within the country leading to an all out assault by the Nazi occupants to seek revenge. Fortunately for Svoboda, an elderly history professor named Stephen Novotny (Walter Brennan) and his daughter Mascha (Anna Lee) agree to help him and in the process also become intertwined within the gaze of the Nazi's. Realizing that their best means to get the citizens to talk is to take hostages and begin killing civilians until they agree to speak against their neighbors, an action that proves relatively unsuccessful, even as men from the towns are gunned down by frustrated gestapo. In fact, one member of the community a garrulous, rotund brewer named Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart) sees the entire thing as a means to assure his well-being and safety within the ever growing power of Nazism and sells out his town for riches and protection. When word is spread about Czaka's terrible decision a plan hatches to use his as a red herring, thus affording Novotny to go free, as well as to lift the eyes from Svoboda who is growing more conspicuous every day. While the group is eventually able to convince the Nazi's that Czaka was responsible for the actions, through some clever deviations and redirected truths, it does not negate the deaths of so many via assassination, and while the film ends on a decidedly high note, it, nonetheless, reminds viewers of the losses within the film, which, no doubt, reflected very real loss at the time.
While I will fully admit that this film helped me little in better understanding the intricacies of Brechtian ideology as it relates to cinema specifically, I was quite enthralled by its genuine commitment to the concept of the group collective challenging the forces of evil. It is out and out a film of World War II, in where the Allies make fools of the Axis, in this case going so far as to appropriate a country very close to Germany as an image of America, right down to its take no bullshit attitude and overemphasis on romanticism. Of course, this appears to be a critique, but I am more than aware that it is a result of the culture and very much influenced by the propaganda of the era. What Hangmen Also Die! ask viewers to do is to follow it as a group of individuals make a on-the-fly plan work in their favor, taking odds completely out of the picture, especially considering that so much of the success of their actions is predicated on their good fortune. This is clearly evident in the luck Mascha has when obtaining Czaka's coveted golden lighter as a tool to frame him in their indictment, or when Svoboda is saved in the nick of time from almost certain death by, none other than Mascha's fiance, whom he had made a cuckold of only scenes earlier. This sort of reliance on a larger good, helps events like these land, where petty wrongdoings like minor theft and pseudo-infidelity are diminished in the face of military style executions, and what would later be revealed to be large scale genocide. While religion is certainly discussed throughout the film, it is not a central factor by any means, allowing for it to filmically exist within the context of expressionist noir, a genre very much associated with Lang's later films and while this will not prove to be anywhere near the film that Metropolis or Scarlett Street would be, it still whispers moments of brilliance, and could even be seen as being thematically within the same vein as his well-known masterpiece M.
Key Scene: The stand-off in the hospital locker room is chiaroscuro perfection.
This, as so many of Kino's gems are, is an expensive DVD. However, with a little patience one can obtain this as a rental from Netflix and it is more than worth pursuing, as it is a truly wonderful piece of lesser known film.