powered by AFI
When Douglas Sirk left Germany shortly after the Nazis came to power, he was one of that country's better-known directors, having made several well-received films with top stars. He arrived in the U.S. late in 1937 and because he was an unknown talent in Hollywood, he had to rebuild his career from the ground up, writing screenplays for Columbia and making low-budget films for small studios. A good example of the latter is his first American movie, Hitler's Madman (1943). A fascinating factual drama, it not only succeeds as a superior B-movie but also shows how Sirk could exploit a low budget to his advantage.
Hitler's Madman is the story of determined Czech resistance fighters trying to free their country from Nazi occupation. During an assassination attempt they succeed in fatally wounding the region's governor, Reinhardt Heydrich (portrayed by John Carradine) who was also in actuality a key Nazi leader and architect of the Final Solution. As a result of his death SS Chief Heinrich Himmler orders the Czech town of Lidice destroyed with its men murdered and the women and children sent to concentration camps. (In real life, the Nazis even killed every dog they could find in the village.)
If nothing else, Hitler's Madman was an effective and timely reaction to the front page news headlines of its day. Heydrich's death occurred in June 1942 and the film was in theatres a year later. (Sirk claimed to have actually met Heydrich during a UFA party in the early 1930s.) There is also a key scene in the film that references a renowned American poet. Shortly after the notorious massacre in Lidice, the Writer's War Board asked Edna St. Vincent Millay for a poem about the incident. The resulting work - "The Murder of Lidice" - appeared as a radio broadcast heard across the country on NBC's network and was sent by short-wave to Europe.
Hitler's Madman was produced by the infamous "Poverty Row" studio PRC with some additional independent funding from Sirk and other German expatriates. One of the producers, for instance, was Seymour Nebenzal who in Germany had produced key works by Fritz Lang (M, 1931) and Georg Wilhelm Pabst (Pandora's Box, 1929) among others. The filming of Hitler's Madman took place in the summer of 1942 and lasted a week, the usual shooting schedule for a PRC film. Sirk used key German cinematographer Eugen Schufftan to shoot the film, but since Schufftan wasn't supposed to be working in the U.S. at that time B-Western vet Jack Greenhalgh (he had made 100 films during the preceding seven years!) got the credit. Another famous German who contributed, also uncredited, was director Edgar Ulmer (Detour, 1945) who worked on the script and the art design. Sirk didn't have a high opinion of Carradine as a film actor but thought he was perfect for the role of Heydrich, stating that Carradine's theatrical style (derived from his background in Shakespearean productions) captured the way real Nazis acted. Eagle-eyed viewers can also spot a nineteen-year-old Ava Gardner in one of her earliest film appearances.
When Hitler's Madman was finished, MGM mogul Louis Mayer saw it and liked it so much he bought it for his studio, making it one of the few, if not the first, outside films to be distributed by MGM. At Mayer's insistence, Sirk reshot material in October and November of 1942 though Sirk felt that this somewhat compromised the documentary nature of his film. Yet, despite the film's timely nature and Mayer's enthusiasm, Hitler's Madman sat on the MGM shelves until July of 1943 when it was finally released, though under a different title than planned. Originally it was called Hitler's Hangman because Heydrich had been nicknamed "Hangman Heydrich." However, Fritz Lang's film Hangmen Also Die, also about the Heydrich assassination, had already been released so the Sirk film was changed to Hitler's Madman to avoid confusion. (The 1976 film Operation Daybreak would also deal with the same events.)
Producer: Rudolf S. Joseph, Seymour Nebenzal
Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: Peretz Hirschbein, Albrecht Joseph, Melvin Levy, Emil Ludwig, based on the novel Hangman's Village by Bart Lytton
Cinematography: Jack Greenhalgh, Eugen Schufftan (uncredited)
Editing: Dan Milner
Music: Karl Hajos, Eric Zeisl
Art Direction: Fred Preble, Edward Willens
Cast: John Carradine (Reinhardt Heydrich), Patricia Morison (Jarmilla Hanka), Alan Curtis (Karel Vavra), Ralph Morgan (Jan Hanka), Howard Freeman (Heinrich Himmler), Edgar Kennedy (Nepomuk), Elizabeth Russell (Maria Bartonek), Ludwig Stossel (Herman Bauer).
BW-85m. Closed captioning.
by Lang Thompson