As we’ve thoroughly discussed all week, Fritz Lang’s early sound masterpiece M is a wonderful, if terrifying, foreshadow to the Nazi reign over Germany. As we see, the mistrust among citizens and the power shifts between authoritarian police and organized crime provided a perfect recipe for the rise of charismatic leaders and their populist promises. Two years after M, Adolph Hitler came to power and director Fritz Lang left Europe for Hollywood. Over the next decade, Lang established himself as one of the industry’s prominent emigres, using his vision seen in M to help shape the emerging film noir movement.
About a decade into his Hollywood career, Lang completed the circle with Hangmen Also Die [added exclamation point if you’re nasty], one of the few films he set in Europe. Like M, Hangmen Also Die is centered around an all-out manhunt, although a particularly different one. Here, the man on the run is ostensibly the hero, the assassin of a Nazi official in Czechoslovakia. While regular citizens may be more sympathetic to this fugitive, tensions rise with the investigation and planned executions incentivize the public to offer information. And so whereas M showcased the beauty of the fringes of society working together with their institutions against a common enemy, Hangmen Also Die shows their perseverance against an oppressive regime. The shadowy plans and political factions make for a complicated narrative resolved with a perfectly satisfying double-cross.
What makes the film most interesting today is its alternate reality of true events, depicted as they were still unfolding in real life. For those of you who saw Anthropoid last year, the assassination of Holocaust architect Reinhard Heydrich should be fresh in mind, and so the events of Hangmen Also Die might seem confusing. But as the film was made with World War II still in swing and extremely close to the history it portrays, the explicit details weren’t fully known to the public. That didn’t stop Lang and screenwriters John Wexley [best known for excellent gangster flick Angels with Dirty Faces] and Bert Brecht [better known as “Bertolt”] from crafting their own unique story—this is incredibly radical from a historical perspective. Sure, the circumstances were greatly different being an official military action, but could you imagine a Zero Dark Thirty that proposed bin Laden was killed by a lone wolf?
This film is in the style of classic Hollywood and is much less visually inventive or artistic as M, but that’s not much of a surprise—the burgeoning technical capabilities of M needed Lang to be more creative. Instead, the film is more narratively dense, drawing more on history and more explicitly complicated social realities. With fewer limitations during the production of Hangmen Also Die, it could rely on a more dialogue-heavy script.
In pure Lang fashion, there are also a number of incredibly memorable characters. Foremost are the gallery of Gestapo interviewers and investigators; none are as outwardly evil as Hans Beckert or, for that matter, the countless Nazis of WWII and Holocaust films, but their incessant drive for justice and their lack of compassion with innocent human beings is certainly scary. On the opposite side, Walter Brennan shows up as a professor who becomes the film’s figurehead for a group of Czechs who are taken hostage by the Nazis until the assassin has been captured or turned over.
Focusing on these characters and the larger narrative elements keeps the film from becoming stale in the minutiae—at over 2-hours long, the dense script can definitely drag. Once it gets to the final act, however, the tension ratchets up between the fate of the Czech hostages and where the Nazi investigation ultimately ends up. Hangmen Also Die, a largely serious historical accounting, ends with a bureaucratic joke straight from the dark humor of its director. The Nazi’s defeat is minor one in the grand scheme of history, but it is a cheeky jab that stings the political behemoth. Given Lang’s connections and fears, it was probably pretty satisfying.
I’m of two minds on Hangmen Also Die in terms of where it fits in Lang’s filmography. It is absolutely one of his most underrated films, but I’m also not sure I could place it higher than the films which are more acclaimed. Of his Hollywood period, the straight-up noirs [The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, and The Big Heat specifically] are more fun and memorable films; Hangmen Also Die is probably near the top of the next tier, along with Fury [which is dynamic, but shows as Lang’s first English-language film in negative ways]. It isn’t a perfect film and not nearly as dynamic as Lang’s best work, but its inventive use of history packaged in a Hollywood thriller is more original than expected.