Archive for Hangmen Also Die

Fritz bits

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by dcairns

The real Heydrich was NOT shot in the spine, but in the spleen… my guess if, Fritz Lang may have seen images like this when injured in WWI (three horses shot out from under him) and chose to include it…

“Bert” Brecht’s scenario for HANGMEN ALSO DIE! includes a HUGE number of supporting roles, some with only a few lines. Director Fritz Lang fills the dramatis personae with memorable faces and wrings a whole panoply of peppy performances from them. In the lead, Quatermass McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is better than he ever was elsewhere, suggesting by minimal means the moral strain of a man who knows hundreds may die in consequence of his actions. America’s first largely prosthetic actor, not counting Kong, whom he slightly resembles, Donlevy never made a move without his elevator shoes, corset and toupée, but couldn’t do anything about his startlingly short arms, like those of a T-rex. Couldn’t Bud Westmore, who made Harold Lloyd’s special lifelike glove to hide his missing fingers, have knocked together a couple of arm extensions for McGinty?

Really good work from Walter Brennan, cast way against type as a professor — anti-Nazi films always have a professors, it seems, and professors everywhere have beautiful daughters, and so here we have Anna Lee, also excellent. These characters are even more moving in THE MORTAL STORM, as you’d expect with Frank Borzage in charge, but Lang’s harder edge also has its advantages. We also get Margaret Wycherly, looking like a haunted tree™ as usual, and Dennis O’Keefe, whose tendency to turn up whenever his fiance is in what looks like a compromising position, seems like good prep for all those farces he made later in the forties.

But I want to talk about smaller roles. Janet Shaw fascinated me. She played the dead-eyed slattern of a teen waitress in SHADOW OF A DOUBT and was just remarkable. Anytime she shows up in a film, I get fascinated. Here she’s a little TOO perky, perhaps, as a factory worker and patriotic saboteur, her eyes darting vivaciously around the faces assembled at a meeting of the resistance. But she has a great moment later when arrested, spitting fire and defiance at her captors.

See here and here for previous appreciations.

We also get Charles “Ming the Merciless” and Dwight Frye and a defenestrated Lionel Stander, star-spotters!

But the film’s array of Nazis is its best point (aside from Lang’s bleakly beautiful mise-en-scene, of course, and his crisp cutting, many scenes joined together by questions asked in one scene and answered in another, or phrases begun in one place and completed elsewhere. Is this where Welles got the idea for KANE’s scene-linking?).

The decision to have the “Nazis” play their roles as comedy is a surprising one. It doesn’t attract much comment in discussions of the film. HANGMEN ALSO DIE! is far from being a comic film, but its treatment of those running the Protectorate is almost Lubitschian. All the various types of Hollywood Nazi are represented here — and the idea seems to be to refute the German claims of superman status with an insistence on the pathetic, grubby human foibles that make these guys on the one hand, no better than the rest of us, and on the other, considerably worse.

There’s Heydrich himself, Hans Heinrich Twardowski (from CALIGARI) in a big rubber Mabuse nose, conforming to the stereotype of the Nazi pansy (usually Martin Kosleck’s department). This isn’t an accurate depiction of Heydrich, but the goal is partly just to INSULT, using exactly the terms we assume would be most offensive to the Nazis.

There’s the spotty Nazi (Tonio Selwart), with a big set of Marcellus Wallace sticking plasters on the back of his neck and a gleaming chancre on his brow, later seen lovingly squeezing a pluke in the mirror — an undreamt-of image in Hollywood cinema or anywhere else — I equate this to Dennis Hopper picking his nose in LAND OF THE DEAD (which I equate to stuff like Paul Wolfowitz caught licking his comb on camera) — a concentration on the undignified, messily human aspects of the supposed superman.

There’s the lightweight sadist (Reinhold Schunzel, THE THREEPENNY OPERA), not an imposing figure, more like a mean schoolteacher, but one with a whole state apparatus backing him up. He tortures an old woman using only a loosely assembled chair, and the power behind him. Personally, he’s a buffoon, with a Sig Ruman-like delivery, cracking his fingers as he gloats behind his desk. Without a desk and armed guards at his command, he’d be pathetic. He IS pathetic. Time will tell.

And then there’s the detective (Alexander Granach, the Shadowplayer from WARNING SHADOWS; Knock, the gibbering Renfield figure from NOSFERATU), the most competent figure we meet on the enemy side. He frequents whores and is addicted to Czech beer, so again, his lack of “purity” and his vulgarity and human frailty are front and centre. But he’s a worthy opponent. The big trick staged by the resistance in the film’s third act would never work if he were around to study it. His innate shrewdness and unerring mental leaps (signalled with a pantomime snap of the fingers) means he’s only ever a step or two behind the heroes, and frequently a step or two ahead. Thwarted for the moment, his finger-snap is exchanged for a first pounding into a palm. Very theatrical, but with all this comedy Lang is not only making a satirical point, he’s finding a way to leaven the  film’s grimness.

Lang wasn’t too great at comedy — the jokes in WESTERN UNION, with Slim Summerville slowly starving, seem sadistic and depressing. Sometimes, laughs can spill out into places they don’t belong, as in the campy, though still compelling, HOUSE BY THE RIVER. Lang is a harsh, heavy filmmaker and humour isn’t his element — but this kind of nasty wit seems ideally suited to his temperament and, crude though some of it is, it’s very effective because it’s so surprising in this context.

A lot of American films made fun of the Nazis — it was understood that they would hate this, and its was felt better to despise them and sneer at them than to be afraid of them. James Harvey in his book Romantic Comedy points out how strange it was, in this context, that Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE was thought to have gone too far. He identifies the problem being located in one line from Sig Ruman to Jack Benny, his insulting review of Benny’s acting: “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.” The joke turned auditoria ice-cold at the time, apparently — other attempts at humor by the Nazi characters are deliberately rather gross, but this one asks us to laugh at the effect it has on Benny. In other words, the Nazi wins this round, though he doesn’t know who he’s talking to. Audiences at the time were not prepared to laugh at the thought of Nazis winning anything.

Lang is on safer ground — the humour is present merely in how the Nazis are portrayed, by artful, expressionistic actors, whose style contrasts elaborately with the simplicity of the Americans playing Czechs (plus one Brit, Anna Lee). So there’s a satisfying (Brechtian?) distance between how the Nazis see themselves — superior, in a word — and how both the performances and the plot encourage us to see them — as nasty buffoons.

Or, as Fiona put it, it’s like a long episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo!

It’s also defensibly close to reality — though the film omits the massacre of Lidice, it surprises by showing the Nazis murdering all the hostages they had promised to release, a smaller but dramatically equivalent atrocity. Lidice, in fact, boomeranged badly, becoming the signature crime used in propaganda to denounce Nazi Germany. The Nazis handed the Allies a club with which to beat them. It’s not funny, but it’s certainly oafish.

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Heydrich Heydrich heydrich Heydrich

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by dcairns

“Stop the film!”

HHhH is an excellent novel by Laurent Binet, telling the story of the rise and assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by two Czechoslovak patriots parachuted back into their homeland by the Brits. What makes the novel distinctive, and almost not a novel at all, is (a) the author’s fidelity to all the known facts, and his commentary on this fidelity — his refusal to imagine ANYTHING, or at any rate his disgusted self-denunciation whenever he does, part of (b) his constant commentary on his own process, and his reluctance even to accept dialogue quoted by sources when it sounds implausible. In such cases, he can offer a fictional version that strikes him as more likely, but he still has to denounce himself for making stuff up. In a way, it allows the author to be attractively modest — in the face of the heroic acts of the Czech and the Slovak, who knowingly sacrificed their lives out of certainty that their cause was just, Binet offers his own uncertainty, self-doubt, vacillation.

So we started watching the recent movie ANTHROPOID, which takes a piece of this story — just the mission, starting from the moment the heroes drop from the skies — and serves it up as a grim-faced and desaturated spectacle. It’s certainly because I’d just read Binet’s book, but I was intolerant of the movie’s mucking about with historical fact. Right after landing, our humourless, characterless heroes (a far cry from the rather jaunty, romantic figures Binet gleans from the historical record) run into a traitor and have to kill him to escape betrayal. In fact, the agents were discovered by a gamekeeper, who helped them. So the movie has gained an action sequence, albeit a very familiar one, presented in a shaky, muddy way by director Sean Ellis, but has lost a moving scene of an ordinary man risking his life for a noble cause, which is the kind of scene war movies used to live on.

I felt, personally, that the filmmakers had departed from the facts in order to offer something LESS INTERESTING.

Likewise, the presentation of Kubis and Gabcik, played by Christian Grey and the Scarecrow, as emotionless killing machines seemed like a less effective choice than Binet’s. The movie has a far shorter emotional distance to cover if the characters are already miserable, implacable, devoid of light and shade. They’re going to be spending quite a lot of the film staring death in the face. Will we notice any difference in their mood?

Incidentally, when they jumped from the British plane, the real Kubis & Gabcik landed, Binet tells us, in a graveyard. Ellis and co-writer Anthony Frewin eschew this. perhaps for fear of seeming to indulge in symbolism. But it really happened! It would be an interesting challenge to include this WITHOUT making it look symbolic. But, to be fair, I have no idea how this could be achieved.

When the film forgets to do wobbly sepiatone, it occasionally delivers beautiful shots, and the action scenes are pretty effective, but it has no humour and no gradation of tone. The task of creating characters defeats the screenwriters. A “poetic” touch at the end is brave, but seemed unearned, hokey and basically disastrous to Fiona & I.

Binet’s researches uncovered previous novels and films about these incidents. He’s impressed by John Carradine’s perf as Heydrich in Sirk’s HITLER’S MADMAN, which I wrote about here. A good B-picture ruined by the infusion of MGM class, was my harsh verdict, but I agree about JC. Beginning with the assassination, the film concentrates on the extermination of Lidice in retaliation. The movie’s biggest distortion of history is to stage the assassination at Lidice and not in Prague — surely the location of the incident was one of the few things known for certain at the time? But the filmmakers, it seems, couldn’t follow the Nazis’ logic — why was this random village chosen? So they had to invent a reason, when in reality there was none.

The most artistic responses to the incident in film are Humphrey Jennings amazing THE SILENT VILLAGE, which imagines the fate of Lidice befalling a Welsh mining village — aiming to de-exoticise the tragedy, to literally bring it home to British viewers; and Fritz Lang’s HANGMEN ALSO DIE!, a wholly fictitious account of the assassination and its aftermath. Binot is very forgiving of Sirk and Lang (and their writers, including “Bert” Brecht), allowing that the true facts weren’t known at the time and filmmakers had to just make stuff up — the good filmmakers did this thrillingly.

HANGMEN deserves a wholly entry on its fantastic rogue’s gallery of gloating Nazi pigs.  It’s a masterpiece. Binot rightly credits some of this to Brecht’s excellent, made-up story. It particular, it has a fruity and vile Heydrich played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (CALIGARI, CASABLANCA) in a joke shop nose. I don’t think anyone’s ever seriously alleged that Heydrich was gay (it was getting engaged to two different women at once that got him drummed out of the navy, leading to him joining the Nazi party), but that seems to be how Twardowski is playing him. Heydrich DID have a very high voice, according to Binot, but nobody’s ever played him that way. It might seem silly. Probably the only way to pull it off would be to hire an actor already known for having a high voice, so it didn’t seem so much like an artistic choice — because there’s no way to make it clear to the audience that you’re being factual here.

Another Heydrich perf Binot admires is Kenneth Branagh’s in the 2001 TV play Conspiracy. Branagh plays to his strengths — his Heydrich is warm and matey, a little overbearing with it, but he comes on like everyone’s chum, making opposition difficult by his air of affable reasonableness. As Binot says, there aren’t really any accounts of Heydrich that stress chumminess as one of his qualities, but the effect is very disturbing. The whole show is terrific — Loring Mandel’s script mostly sticks to things the actual Nazi high command said on the record at Wannsee, plotting the Final Solution, and in the unrecorded conversations between bouts at the conference table he draws heavily on other conversations they are known to have had. And there’s none of the wretched “As you know…” style of exposition we’ve grown sadly used to in British drama.

(STARTED watching MY WEEK WITH MARILYN with friends. The cackhanded exposition was so pervasive and dumb (Fiona says the film gets better later) that I coined the phrase “As you know, I’m your father,” and after a few real examples of this kind of writing we almost convinced ourselves that it was an actual piece of dialogue. I’m not sure I want to blame Adrian Hodges, the credited writer, because this is exactly the sort of thing execs the Weinstein Bros would insist on being included. They honestly believe the purpose of having characters is to explain things to the audience.)

Binot seems to have missed OPERATION: DAYBREAK (why the colon?), directed by Lewis Gilbert and adapted by Ronald Harwood (THE PIANIST) from the novel by Alan Burgess, which he does know about. The film is pretty factual, it seems to me, though aesthetically quite dull, apart from the odd choice of David Hentschel’s synth score. It has a fine Heydrich, Anton Differing (he of the combustible behind) — at last, an actor with a big enough nose! I remember the film itself being a little boring, which is odd given the authentic life-or-death stakes involved.

And now there’s a film of HHhH (you wait ages for a Heydrich and then two come along at once), which I guess, following my practice of capitalising film titles, I will have to call HHHH. An awkward title either way. (Binot writes that if the book we’re holding isn’t called Operation Anthropoid, we’ll know his publisher won the argument.) The acronym stands for the German version of the phrase Heydrich Is Himmler’s Brain (which is the small H?), and not for Heydrich Heydrich heydrich Heydrich, as I may have inadvertently given you the impression. This was a popular “meme” in the Czech Protectorate, before they knew what memes were. I guess it’s precisely the fact of Heydrich being Himmler’s brain that made it such a damn good idea to kill him.

The film will have to live up to the book’s high standards of accuracy, though frankly it CAN’T — it will have to invent conversations and present them without apology or comment (I’ll be impressed as hell if it attempts anything as pomo or self-critical as the book — it just won’t). It seems to have a pretty good Heydrich in Aussie Jason Clarke, although oddly he’s doing it with an English accent and all the others are putting on German accents. Playing characters who in reality would be speaking a different language, and doing them with a mild accent, always struck me as silly. Although here we have Stephen Graham looking like a VERY good match for Himmler, and I guess if he’d played it with his native Liverpool accent, that would have been unacceptable. Though not to me, because I delight in marvellous variety.

(Graham is a smashing actor and a master of accents. He plays cockney in the recent series Taboo. Tom Hardy is playing the lead role as a very good impersonation of Oliver Reed — only Keith Allen has done it better. So Stephen Graham comes on as the late Bob Hoskins, not to be put down. The more Hardy bats his eyelashes and whispers in a threatening growl, the more expansive and waannafow Graham becomes. You may not recollect that Hoskins pronounced “wonderful” as “waannafow,” but take it from me, he did. It was part of what made him so waannafow.)

Have I missed any good Heydrichs? What are your favourite performances of members of the Nazi command, if you have any? Oh, I know… Goebbels is always good value. But let’s look BEYOND GOEBBELS…

 

That’s All, Volk!

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2008 by dcairns

 

Chuck Jones’ unauthorized remake of Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN, and indeed the whole Ring Cycle, condensed into seven minutes for easy consumption, WHAT’S OPERA, DOC? “The only epic we ever made.”

Once more I turn the dog-eared pages of Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang, The Nature of the Beast. In the early ’70s, an elderly Fritz goes out to dinner with his young friend (or “friend”?) Howard Vernon ~

‘The headwaiter scurried over, whispering to Howard Vernon, “Mr. Lang…Mr. Lang…isn’t he connected with the cartoons?” Vernon whispered back, “No, that is Walter Lantz. This is Fritz Lang, the director.” “Because,” said the headwaiter, “I really wanted to tell him how much I love the Woody Woodpeckers.” “Oh,” said Vernon, “don’t tell him that.”‘

Cloak and Pecker

But damnit, Lang WAS involved with the cartoons!

Here is a frame from DIE NIBELUNGEN, which features an animated dream sequence by another Walter, Walter Ruttman.

Woodpecker

This is only the most obvious bit of Langian cartoonery. Later in the saga, Kriemhild commands her troupe of Huns to “throw fire” upon the Nibelungen.

But the firebrands must have been insufficiently fiery to satisfy the perfectionist Lang, for in this shot they appear to have been enhanced by the artist’s hand. Certainly the flames have an altogether more “artistic” quality than those seen in most of the later shots.

I wouldn’t be so sure of this if there wasn’t abundant evidence of Lang’s ‘toon tendencies elsewhere in his oeuvre.

The traffic gliding along the elevated roadways of METROPOLIS is animated frame by frame. Filmed in Dynamation!

In WOMAN IN THE MOON, considerable use is made of animated charts plotting our Teutonic astronauts’ course moonwards.

Now here’s an explosion from THE TESTAMENT OF DOCTOR MABUSE:

Flame on!

It’s a thrilling, bizarre, surprising moment — a rolling metal drum full of petrol ignites and flies into the air, scratching the celluloid with slashing action lines that swirl about and bear the canister upwards out of frame.

The Human Torch

America, America. Lang acclimatized himself to the American way of talking, and of viewing the world, by reading the funnies — like Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, a model of film noir style and content, with some of the same intrigue and rapid plotting as Lang’s earlier thrillers.

Spione

Flash-forward to Lang’s seventh American film, HANGMEN ALSO DIE, written by “Bert” Brecht. Taxi driver and Czech underground freedom fighter, played by the glorious Lionel Stander, is taken to be tortured by the Nazis. He flings himself through a window, gaining a quick death and robbing his captors of the chance to find out what he knows.

Lang startled Stander by demanding he throw himself through a REAL window. (“Listen, all directors want to kill actors,” ~ Wallace Beery)

Stander, a man who very much knew his own mind, resisted defenestration.

Lang, just as stubborn, insisted that fake sugar glass Would Not Do. He compromised, surreally, on NO GLASS, forcing the special effects department to add little flying shards of cartoon window-pane in post-production:

The Defenestrator

…Connected with the cartoons…

…Connected with the cartoons…

Perhaps Lang, like Hitchcock, envied Walt Disney for his ability to “tear up his actors.”

Th-th-that's all folks!