They Saved Hitler’s Sperm

Franklin J. Schaffner’s THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL is like MARATHON MAN’s brain-damaged clone or something. It’s hard to say which is the tackier take on Nazi war criminal conspiracies. I think at least MM has some kind of realistic point to make and exposes Operation Paperclip to daylight in a way that’s kind of commendable. I watched BOYS in dishonour of the late Bruno Ganz, who appears, and became periodically woken up by odd moments of Schaffnerian panache.

When Larry Olivier first sees a Baby Hitler, the kid is reflected in a double set of mirrors, CITIZEN KANE style, so there are like 95 of him. This is a fine idea — clever but stupid but clever — in a good movie it would be too obvious, i n this movie it is *PERFECT* and I wish Franklin J. Schaffner had come up with another dozen or so visual ideas like it.There’s a double sex murder scene staged to an Elaine Page song. As we wait for the body to be discovered, a Mr. Punch puppet pokes round a corner to irritate Prunella Scales. It’s unsettling, to say the least, but feels really peculiar. Normally, staging the normal scenes of domestic life in a normal way would make more sense than this baroque surrealist madness. It only occurred to me afterwards that Schaffner was keeping the little puppeteer offscreen for a good narrative purpose. At the time it registers as creepy eccentricity, like the whole film has gotten into the wrong hands and may at any moment be invaded by rampaging cowboys or gremlins.

There’s a brief iteration of Schaffner’s signature shot: the planimetric flat-on full stop, but it’s an undistinguished example. But Uta Hagen’s big scene has a nicely awkward moment where her hushed confab with her lawyer strains for attention against a blankly staring, static Olivier on the lower right of frame, creating an electric tension partly because you don’t know where to look.The very weird plot has Dr. Mengele producing 95 baby Hitlers, and then, since he’s undecided re nature v. nurture, planting them with foster families similar to the original Adolf’s. Since Hitler’s dad died aged 65 when the future Führer was still a lad, 95 future Führer foster fathers have to be assassinated, an almost biblical arrangement which serves to tip off aging Nazi hunter Larry Olivier, who starts to investigate. It’s one of those plots that starts bonkers and just gets crazier, has no choice in fact but to get crazier. Like one of those things that begins “Jack the Ripper steals HG Wells’ time machine… Do you believe me so far?”

Ira Levin’s narrative unfolds quasi-grippingly. Like his Rosemary’s  Baby, it somehow works despite everybody knowing the clever twist going in. We’re watching the gradual exposure of an absurd plot, and the pleasure seems to derive from how kinda-credibly it can be packaged, and the suspense of seeing a character we like stumbling closer to the awful truth.Gregory Peckory, of course, is the worst casting for Dr. Mengele you could get, outside of maybe Chuck Connors or Alfonso Bedoya, and he has the task of playing most of his scenes with James Mason and Laurence Olivier, either of whom you can imagine doing it brilliantly — and Olivier had just done so, of course, in all but name. I can see why they might not want Larry to repeat himself exactly, and his increasing frailty works better with him in the hero role. But why Peck? I guess THE OMEN had given him a slight boost, and this is the same kind of vulgar high-concept all-star malarkey, so I’m sure he was good B.O.

But Jesus.

Granted the dyed black hair is an interesting touch — makes him hard to look at, one thing you’d never normally say about the guy. He becomes a waxy mannequin — even more than normal.

Then there’s the claustrophobic effect produced by nearly everyone in it having to do a phony German accent: Lilli Palmer’s real one is a blessed relief. Bruno Ganz is Swiss but he was celebrated for his German-speaking, and rightly so as far as I can tell. His English here is rather lovely and he wisely kicks back and lets Olivier act for two.
The cat they’ve got to play Baby Hitler doesn’t look like Hitler, and is stretched (painfully: think Procrustes) by the demands of having to play him as German, Brit and American. A tall (new) order for any small boy. There must have been a big casting search, and they must’ve convinced themselves they had the answer — “THAT’S OUR HITLER!” — but Dick Shawn would not have been a markedly inferior choice. It’s not that the kid’s a bad actor, though I think he’s been encouraged to lay it on too thick. His dialogue as the English brat is so awkwardly written (“My mother is not receiving today. Don’t you understand English, you arse? We are not at home.” that he might as well have been dubbed, preferably by Paul Frees.Speaking of dialogue, to hear Olivier say, in a mounting falsetto, “He operated, mainly on tvins, VISS-out anaesthetic but VISS ze strains of Wagner providing an obbli-GAT-o to ze screams of the MU-tants he was cre-AT-ink!” is to hear a great deal, and to be unable to un-hear any of it.

John Rubinstein gets to share Olivier’s best scene (his final one in the film), but best perf is John Dehner, a former Disney animator, as the main American baby Hitler’s future Führer foster father — it’s like a real person walked into this bloodthirsty comic opera by mistake. You inhale deeply at the sudden infusion of oxygen.THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL stars Atticus Finch; Richard III; Erwin Rommel; Zarah Valeska; Carey Mahoney; Marcus Brody; Dr. Brodsky; Dr. Mabuse; Adolf Hitler; Henry Luce; General Gogol; Colonel Dankopf; Colonel Kurt von Strohm; Emeric Belasco; Sandor Szavost; Angel Blake; Sybill Fawlty; Mr. Slugworth; Prince of Tübingen; and the voice of VALIS. (It’s a Lew Grade production so it’s ridiculously stuffed with stars. I put it about even with the very enjoyable MEDUSA TOUCH and way ahead of RAISE THE TITANIC! which nevertheless I’m starting to feel I ought to see again even though I remember it being really boring. The plot in that one is that they’ve found out how to make an anti-nuke force field, but they need a rare mineral and the entire supply of it went down with the Titanic. Really! I’m not making this up.)

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18 Responses to “They Saved Hitler’s Sperm”

  1. This film is so bad. Absolutely hilarious.

  2. I think Terry Southern once said something like, “It’s is not easy to make a bad film. It takes a very special combination of talents, non-talents and anti-talents…”

  3. theredshoes1 Says:

    My main problem with this film (apart from the sheer silliness) is it propagates the myth that Nazi Science was in any way respectable. Mengele was not a very good doctor, whose knowledge of genetics was surpassed by how own prisoner pathologist. At one point a character in this film says, “Brilliant man that Mengele.” NO. Just NO. If you don’t believe me, read ‘Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account ‘, which should be compulsory reading in every school in the world. I can’t believe a Jewish writer would come up with this balderdash.

  4. Absolutely: Nazi science pretty much HAD to be hogwash because it had to reinforce rather than discredit the party’s vile racist beliefs. So it attracted cynics who were happy to falsify results, or idiots who couldn’t tell that the science was bunk.

    Not one useful discovery came out of the monstrous human experiments, not that it would have in any way justified them.

    My problem with the film is probably more that it turns all this horror into kitsch, though it does come up with a passable ethical dilemma: would you kill 95 baby Hitlers?

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

  6. (spoilers)

    One very modest thing I’m grateful for is that I was able to read Ira Levin’s novels (and see Rosemary’s Baby) without knowing the twists, which in my recollection were delivered magnificently. In The Stepford Wives it’s in an offhand moment when you put together one husband’s background in Disney animatronics with the voice recordings the protagonist wife is being asked to make (Oh my God they’re making robots). In The Boys from Brazil it’s first implied that the head of the Nazi movement is cloning himself, and then at one specific point you realize the truth (Oh my God they’re making Hitlers). I remember in one of his non-fiction books Stephen King talks about how the twist in A Kiss Before Dying is so brilliant because it can’t be spoiled simply by skipping ahead; it’s done in an offhand bit of dialogue (Oh my God that guy is the same guy).

    P.S. Great review, as usual. :)

  7. Thanks!

    I’ve never read any IL, except for flicking through this one. The ending seemed heavy-handed to my teenaged self… I think possibly the last sentence is the word “Hitler.”

  8. charles W. Callahan Says:

    All too true, but John Dehner is one of my faves. He’s always good.
    Great voice.

  9. bensondonald Says:

    A cartoon borrowing:

    There was an animated series, “Batman Beyond”. It was set in the near future when Bruce Wayne, physically unable to be Batman and now a bitter old recluse, allows a kid to use his body armor and tech, eventually pushing him to become the new Batman.

    A different DC superhero series, “Justice Unlimited”, returns to this future in an episode titled “Epilogue”. The new, now adult Batman is summoned by a sweet old lady who was a hard-edged Mycroft Holmes figure the present-day stories. She tells him that a shadowy branch of the government procured Wayne’s DNA without his knowledge (this is a cartoon show, remember) and implanted it with a suitable and unwitting host couple, intending to create a healthy young Batman. It was planned that these parents would be killed, just as Wayne’s parents were killed, but the hired assassin refused to carry out the assignment. The project was abandoned and the kid grew up with a nice family. But as “Batman Beyond” had already spelled out, the boy found his way to Wayne by chance and became heir to the cowl. Fate!

  10. revelator60 Says:

    Ah yes, “Epilogue”—I loved Batman Beyond but hated that episode. Neverthless you’re correct, the show’s producer Bruce Timm did say “The Boys From Brazil” was an influence on “Epilogue.” A negative one in my view, since the original origin story of future Batman didn’t need such baroque elaboration.

  11. Seems bizarre to connect Batman to Hitler even indirectly…

    And, by sheer chance, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: The Four Sisters shows up in my letter box to make this whole lot of nonsense seem twice as tasteless and silly. The real Mengele’s experiments = pointless cruelty. I know – let’s see how long a baby can last without milk!

  12. David Ehrenstein Says:

  13. Actually, Chuck Connors would have been better.

  14. Ken Abramson Says:

    Alfonso Bedoya….. we can only dream

  15. If the plot is going to have a chance, surely they’ve got to save Hitler’s father’s sperm anyway.

  16. I was talking with a friend about The Big Country and he claimed that the credit “Featuring Chuck Connors, Alfonso Bedoya” was the most ridiculous ever.

    They don’t actually save anybody’s sperm, AH is cloned from a blood sample and a skin scraping. His father’s DNA would be no help as they want clones, not sons.

  17. Randy Cook Says:

    Alfonso Bedoya was billed BEFORE Chuck Connors, which makes it sublime!

  18. Ha! Age before beauty.

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