The oil derricks and the thirsty gardens of Los Angeles
And the ravines of California at evening and the fruit market
Did not leave the messenger of misfortune
~ Bertolt Brecht
The rise of fascism in Germany and the Second World War sent that country’s luminaries abroad. And the emergence of a German émigré community in Hollywood is responsible for one of the great strange collaborations of film history: Hangmen Also Die! (1943) with a screenplay by Fritz Lang and Bertolt Brecht.
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Director: Fritz Lang
Producers: Fritz Lang, Arnold Pressburger
Writers: Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang, John Wexley
Cinematographer: James Wong Howe
Editor: Gene Fowler Jr.
Music: Hanns Eisler
Cast: Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan, Anna Lee, Gene Lockhart, Dennis O’Keefe, Margaret Wycherly, Nana Bryant, Billy Roy, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Lionel Stander, George Irving
Premiere: March 23, 1943
US Distributor: United Artists
Fritz Lang was already a filmmaker at the top of his field by the middle 1930’s. And his complex work did not go unnoticed by the authorities, even if this was a dubious recognition. As reported elsewhere on this site, the sprawling teutonic epic Die Nibelung prompted Goebbels to offer Lang directorship of all film industry under the Third Reich. Lang responded to this offer by promptly emigrating to France and then the United States. He began making Hollywood films by 1936.
Bertolt Brecht, the celebrated dramatist and social critic fled Germany almost immediately after the Nazis first took power. His peripatetic route from Germany to the United States in the wake of the rise of fascism is comically outlined by Mati Unt in his novel Brecht at Night:
Brecht’s odyssey has been set in stone, and looks like this: he left Germany the day after the Reichstag fire. On 28tn February he was already in Prague. From there he traveled to Vienna, then to Zurich. By April he was in Carona on Lake Lugano on the Swiss border. Two-year-old Barbara was brought there later…In April 1933, Brecht left for Paris, while Weigel and the children went off to Denmark. Brecht followed after, and they moved to the island of Thuro…In the summer of 1935, Brecht was deprived of his German citizenship. When Hitler had invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, Brecht sought the opportunity to emigrate to the United States. But he was not alone: two women and two children, plus Ruth. The visa was taking its time. He tried to move to Iceland, but ended up being accepted by Sweden, living there on the island of Lidingo, just outside Stockholm. On 9th April, 1940 the Germans invaded Denmark and Norway. The Norwegians put up resistance, the Danes did not. The Norwegian King fled into the mountains in the north. The Danes, however, had no mountains for their King to flee to… Sweden was not helping Norway with weapons or fuel, although they had done so in the case of Finland when the war with the Soviet Union had broken out at the turn of the year… So Brecht now had no choice but to move on to the equivocal Finland. He knew full well that that country was sympathetic towards the Nazis. But now that Finland had had to pay the price for its pride, things were maybe beginning to change. Finland could not conquer the Soviet Union, and the peace treaty was after all signed on Communist terms, was the way Brecht reasoned. Besides, Finnish ports were still open, so that there was still a chance to flee to America. His friend Ruth Berlau happened to know the famous Finnish playwright Hella Wuolijoki. They had already discussed Brecht’s plight, and she offered to look after the Brecht’s in Finland should they ever be in straitened circumstances…Now the time had arrived. The Germans were already in Denmark and Norway! Brecht set the wheels in motion. He asked Wuolijoki for an invitation, which he received. Since Brecht claimed—correctly—that his aim was to reach the USA via Finland, they had no problem obtaining their visas… They went on board the “Bore I” and sailed across the Gulf of Bothnia to Turku.
On arrival in the U.S.A. in 1941, Brecht continued work on several projects including his plays The Good Person of Szechwan and a production Galileo with Charles Laughton in the titular role. In one characteristically madcap anecdote from that production, Laughton so frequently adjusted his crotch during performances that Brecht had the pockets of his costume removed. This version of the play was later adapted for the cinema in 1975 by Joseph Losey, the Wisconsin born film auteur and collaborator with Brecht.
Hangmen Also Die! emerged out of the German émigré community that settled in Los Angeles during the Second World War, including other notables like Theodor Adorno, Thomas Mann, and Arnold Schoenburg. In 1942, Hollywood producer Arnold Pressburger offered the project, based on the charismatic assassination of Nazi Reinhard Heydrich by the Czech underground in 1941, to Brecht.
Although both Lang and Brecht are credited with authoring the script, alongside screenwriter John Wexley, Brecht’s influence is most evident in flashes. Brecht and Wexley largely adapted an existing script, but even their adaptation was heavily redacted. This discouraged Brecht, and he was quoted as saying much of the material he was trying to keep out made it in the final cut. Brecht focused most of his energy at this time on his production Galileo, but when he was called before the HUAC in 1947 and blacklisted, he described himself as a screenwriter.
Laurent Binet’s examination of the assassination of Heydrich, HHhH, calls Hangmen, utterly fanciful. “Heydrich is assassinated by a Czech doctor, a member of the Resistance who takes refuge in the house of a young girl. Then the girl’s father, an academic, is rounded up by the Germans along with other local worthies and threatened with execution if the assassin doesn’t give himself up.” The true story of the assassination, which remarkably includes paratroopers, pipe bombs, machine guns that jam, and a shoot-out in a cathedral would not surface until years later. So the plot of Hangmen trends heavily “fanciful.” The fabulous Brian Donlevy stars as the resistance doctor on the run from the authorities. And Lang manages to generate a little noir mood in the very fake looking “Prague,” sets.
B-reel of scenery does a little to establish a more credible scenery, but this pastiche, like the Lang/Brecht mash-up exemplifies the main tension of the film: hermeneutics and realism versus bomb-throwing and alienation.
Lang casts American actors to play the Czechs and European actors to play everyone else. Lang appears to have been striving towards something of the urbane old-world “Europeanness” conveyed by, say, Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner. instead it’s more like if we were told Rick in Casablanca was actually from Brazil. While this is done as a technique for nativizing the Czech protagonists, it has a stultifying effect, especially in light of all the great Weimar era typecasts. In the end it produces a very Brechtian sense of alienation.
A villainous police chief is something straight out of the Three Penny Opera.
And Walter Brennan takes a very dramatic turn as a Czech nationalist and academic; surely there’s something deeper in his very “teeth in” performance.
Brecht’s persistent rejection of authoritarianism emerges again and again, as “common folks” stand up to the state. But there is also a cynicism in this disavowal. It takes more than singular acts of courage to undermine systematized brutality.
A Czech baba refuses to be debased by a cartoonish Nazi.
The strangest and most indelible aspect of the film is its send up of nationalism. This mock-heroic parable of a young country fighting bravely as a David against Goliath is skewered again and again. In one especially poignant scene a group of Czech prisoners are driven from a bunkhouse singing a rousing anthem of nationhood, only to be silenced by machine guns (again imagine if such a scene had happened after they sang Le Marseillaise in Rick’s Café). But Brecht is relentless in holding up the horrors of modern war and the terrible strange banal absurdity of nation.
The film’s final scenes, eerily prescient and powerful, evoke Adorno’s lament about the paradox of art after Auschwitz. The camera pans over fields of dead bodies in a scene that highlights the accelerating scale of death.
It’s silence echoes Night and Fog. And these scenes feel almost doubly sinister, as it was Heydrich, the Hangman of Prague, that first put the wheels in motion for the S.S. project that would eventually become the final solution. This is a strange film by two German artists, registering a bizarre cry of protest in the midst of the great German tragedy.