Hangmen Also Die! (Fritz Lang, 1943)

Yeah, obviously I hate Nazis, almost as much as Indiana Jones hates Nazis, and hell, I’m sure I’d hate Nazis even more if I was living in Europe during the war when I’d actually have a reason to fear Nazis.  But propaganda’s still propaganda, and even when Fritz Lang’s piece of based-on-a-true-story propaganda  “Hangmen Also Die!” is championing a worthy cause (and they don’t come much worthier than blasting the Nazi Party), it’s still contrived and artificial.  And I’ll even admit that it’s heartfelt and that Lang is clearly passionate about the subject (he fled Germany when the Nazis rose to power, after all), but even then, in true propaganda form, the heavily-slanted story and stilted acting make it seem like anything but heartfelt, instead feeling like a shallow and simple state-produced PSA – a really well-made and visually impressive state-produced PSA, but a state-produced PSA nonetheless.

Admittedly, there’re some really promising thriller elements in “Hangmen Also Die!”, which tries to dramatize the aftermath of the real-life assassination of a brutal Nazi bigwig in Czechoslovakia, and most of those elements spring from Lang’s gift for creating dynamic images.  There are some stuff this film that scream Lang, namely little things like shadows and silhouettes, and cigarette smoke, and hard lighting and moments of dead quiet and nervous-looking, slow-moving people leading to a sudden moment of violence: overall, some dynamic images and interestingly ominous-looking people framed in subtly odd ways, like…

So it looks great, but really, it’s all pretty much just window dressing, ‘cuz well-produced propaganda is still propaganda with all its shallow and biased bells and whistles where screenplay and performances are just along for the ride while the film’s anti-Nazi message is clearly meant to take center stage.  And shallow those things are, which is a shame considering that Bertolt Brecht co-wrote the screenplay with Lang.  I mean, obviously Nazis were evil in real life, but to make the difference between good Czechs and evil Nazis this exaggerated was silly, to the point that all Nazis had overly-exaggerated German accents and the Czechs had some of the Americanest accents you can imagine, with maybe the tiniest English twang (took me about half the movie’s length to figure out this was taking place in Czechoslovakia, even though it tells you so right in the opening scroll…) – “Star Wars” did the same thing in giving all the villainous Imperials British accents and the heroic Rebels American accents.  All that results is Nazis who are cartoon characters and Czechs who have no emotions or souls.  And I’m sorry, Walter Brennan’s a fine character actor, but for god’s sake, keep him in his element as the old grizzled sidekick in Westerns – the man just has no business playing a dignified, bourgeois Czech professor who moonlights as a resistance leader and recites eloquent, uplifting speeches. 

The bottom-line is, I had zero emotional involvement in the story or the conspiracies or the connivings or the doctor who was the assassin or the girl he falls for or her jealous fiancé or the commandant who becomes obsessed with killing Czechs and finding the assassin – because frankly things became so convoluted that I couldn’t follow, and I’m not even sure these people are actually who I just described them to be.  They were that wooden and non-engaging that my attention span just bounced right off of them and could hardly stick for more than a moment or two.  Nazis and anti-semitism are awful, awful things, but when a film fills itself with shallow, monotone characters who sneak around for some reason (  ) and then stop everything to give rousing speeches and tell the audience about the injustices of Naziism the way Hawks’s “Scarface” stopped everything PSA-style to lecture the audience about gangsters, clearly this is more of a pulpit than a narrative, and I became more bored and apathetic than anything.  And even when we weren’t being directly lectured, the brutality of the Nazis and innocence/heroism of the Czechs was overdone and exaggerated to nearly impossible levels.  I mean for god’s sake, before I watched this film last night, I watched “Borat,” and that movie was a MILLION times more effective in criticizing anti-Semitism and intolerance in general, through parody rather than one-dimensional propaganda.  Ehhh, I guess the ending of “Hangmen” was suspenseful and thrilling and unsettling in its quiet act of violence (and even subtle humor), but by then, all I was thinking was, who are these people and why is one of ‘em being shot at?  Meh, maybe I’ll watch “Triumph of the Will” next.  Who knows, maybe “Hangmen” has the really worthwhile message but presents it as least-engaging as possible, while “Triumph”’s message is utterly reprehensible but presents it compellingly, or so I’ve heard.  Boring good message, interesting terrible message – I need the middle ground in propaganda, and “Hangmen” wasn’t that.  Looked Lang-ian, though, so it wasn’t a total washout.

And speaking of Borat, I’m glad I watched “Hangmen” right afterwards, ‘cuz I started giggling like a schoolgirl at the very end when before ‘The End,’ there was…



1 comment so far

  1. Peggy on

    Aw, this was an exceptionally good post. Finding the time
    and actual effort to make a top notch article… but what can I say…
    I procrastinate a lot and don’t manage to get
    nearly anything done.

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