In 1934 one of the most influential filmmakers of the early silent film and German expressionist film fled Germany seeking refuge first in Paris and then headed to the U.S., his name was Fritz Lang. When he fled Germany the Nazi regime was coming into power, suddenly he had to be identified as a Jew, he could see his very homeland becoming an infestation of corrupting morality and the censoring of free speech, he had to leave before he became another body on the pile of a prison camp ditch. With Hangmen Also Die! Lang was well into his filmmaking career in America, back in Germany he was known for spectacular noir thrillers, and this was his chance to transfer his directing skills to fight Nazism back through his art.
The movie has an interesting take on the noir genre where our heroes are the ones who have committed crime and/or are complicit in the corroboration of a crime, all under the authority of the Nazi’s. Set in war time Czechoslovakia, Reinhard Heydrich; a high ranking Nazi official is assassinated by a Czech surgeon who may also have ties to the resistance in Prague. Dr. Franticek is on the run and ends up involving Mascha and her family, setting the SS sights on them for Heydrich’s assassination.
This makes for an apt comparison of Lang’s German noir M, where a German community is shocked by the killings of children by a serial killer. The interference from the police causes the local crime mobs to hunt the killer themselves, all in the name of protecting their business interests. These mobs take the law into their own hands, breaching the community’s privacy to uncover clues of the killer, when they find and capture him they put him through a mock trial for him to confess his sins. In Hangmen Also Die!, characters are stuck in a moral dilemma where the right thing to do would be to give up the assassin to the authorities, but this is the Nazi’s we’re talking about, in secret the assassination did a lot of good for the national pride that is gradually being etched away. As a result the entire city of Czech patriots lie and betray anyone who would conform to Nazi rule, bending the law and the state to their will.
The movie is a tale about not giving in, even after hundreds of people are sent away by the SS to be shot, even after Mascha’s father is sent away, she and others fight the Nazi’s implicitly, all in the name of concealing a lie. It’s astonishing to see an early movie dealing with conflicting morality and motives, and while I couldn’t praise the story any more than I already have, this is old movie and certain aspects of the production don’t hold up so well. It’s a whopping two hours and fifteen minutes and the length of the film can drag, especially when you can tell certain scenes could be cut to speed things up. There’s no score either, and while music isn’t always needed for a movie to work, in this case I feel it would have elevated scenes further. Also it might be somewhat distracting to see Nazi’s speak in accented German with some occasional German, while all the Czech citizens are Americans. They even bring this up in dialogue, “well the Germans ought to learn the language around here”, a character states along those lines, in English.
While it’s a long journey it is still a suspenseful one, Lang absolutely understands how to plot out a conflicted narrative of shifting morality and ethics all in a war time noir that feels like a suitable companion to Casablanca.
Dir: Fritz Lang
Scr: John Wexley
Cast: Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan, Anna Lee, Gene Lockhart, Dennis O’Keefe, Margaret Wycherly, Nana Bryant, William Roy, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Alexander Granach, Tonio Selwart, Jonathan Hale, Lionel Stander
Prd: Fritz Lang, Arnold Pressburger
DOP: James Wong Howe
Music: Hanns Eisler
Running Time: 134 mins
Hangmen Also Die! is available now on DVD and Blu-ray thanks to the BFI.