Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

At the height of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, four German exiles in Hollywood:

  • director Fritz Lang
  • playwright Bertolt Brecht
  • composer Hanns Eisler 
  • and actor Hans Heinrich von Twardowski

... combined their skills to make Hangmen Also Die!, a surprising film noir propaganda piece about the Czech resistance.

Twardowski plays Reinhard Heydrich, an SS Obergruppenführer and the 'Reich-Protector' of Czechoslovakia, an infamous character from history and known alternately as 'The Hangman' and 'The Butcher of Prague'.

When he is assassinated by a surgeon (played by Brian Donlevy), the city is locked down and the doctor must rely on the help of the resistance to evade capture. 

Hangmen Also Die! is a fine mix of war picture, film noir and political thriller, with other surprising elements including mad Nazi darkness to the fore.

Supposedly, this fine movie was suppressed in the USA because in its final analysis, it was said that it came out in favour of the Communists.

There is however, genuinely only a distant mention of the Russians, who were also it should perhaps be pointed out, British allies at the time. And no suggestion that this is in any way pro-communist, even in spite of the presence of well-known red-writer 'Bert Brecht'.

Brecht was a 'red' of that there was no doubt, and even as early as 1943, this was problematic to many in authority in Amercian life.

So what may have perhaps truly annoyed McCarthy and his fellows, was the film's scathing portrayal of those who snitch on their friends and co-workers, and those who coerce them into doing so!

Now that can get you banned.

Hangmen Also Die! is one of a handful of propaganda films made by Hollywood during WWII to show how various occupied European countries dealt with the situation. This list includes:

  • The Moon is Down (1941)
  • Edge of Darkness (1943)
  • The North Star (1943)
  • This Land Is Mine (1943)

Hangmen Also Die! is different to these however because the assassination of Heydrich was a real-life event.  This assassination was so popular a theme that it was the subject of two more films:

  • Hitler's Madman (1943)
  • and Operation Daybreak (1975)

Despite being suggested by the actual assassination of Reichs Protector of Bohemia and Moravia Reinhard Heydrich, better known to the Czechs as "The Hangman" because of his excessive brutality in dealing with residents of the conquered regions, Fritz Lang's film is nearly total fiction.

Even so it is a great drama and was surely good anti-Nazi propaganda in its day. It also ships with some great film noir style photography, and a great gallery of Lang grotesques, all working for the Gestapo.

Nazi grotesques in Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

Vintage in their portrayal of action, are several scenes near the end, where conflict and passion rise, and Lang tells his story without the script, but in eerie film noir visuals.

Hangmen Also Die! was Bertolot Brecht's only screen credit for an American film, although he is said to have worked on other scripts during his time in America, without receiving any proper public dues. 

He left the United States on 1st November 1947, which was only one day after testifying before House Un-American Activities Committee, very likely a wise move for everybody. 

On the plus side, Bertolot Brecht's stay in America was one of his most prolific periods, and in the USA he managed an outpouring of poetry and prose, and many plays which, when performed on his return to Germany, established his world fame.

You could also argue that fundamentally, a German Marxist émigré writer was never goping to fit in very well within the capitalist film industry, but Holly wood also had strict writing protocols and methods, which did not suit every artistic temperament.

Brecht had been a succeful novelist and writer in Weimar Germany, but these were very different times, and places, and even despite the psyhcological tremors visible in the film noir aesthetics of the 1940s, film was still in the business of realism.

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