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A fierce Czechoslovakian populace resists Nazi occupation in Fritz Lang's taut political thriller Hangmen Also Die! (1943) based on a real life incident. Set in Prague during World War II, the film depicts a city ruled by the notorious Deputy Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich, who is currently serving as the Nazi Party governor. "The Hangman" as he is known, is murdered by a Resistance assassin, Dr. Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) who is then relentlessly sought by the Nazis. Helped in his escape by a Czech girl Mascha (Anna Lee), Svoboda hides out at her family's apartment which is also a secret meeting place for Resistance members. As the search for the assassin intensifies, the Nazis round up hundreds of innocent Czech citizens to use as hostages to draw Svoboda out, including Mascha's father Prof. Novotny (Walter Brennan). One by one, the Nazis begin killing the hostages as Mascha fears for her father's safety and Svoboda considers turning himself in to save the hostages.
Hangmen Also Die! was one of Lang's quartet of war-inspired productions including Man Hunt (1941), Ministry of Fear (1944) and Cloak and Dagger (1946). Though these films have never been considered Lang's best work, their release amidst wartime fervor made them successful contributions to the Hollywood propaganda effort. Ironically enough, before he immigrated to America, Lang had been recruited by the Nazis to make propaganda films in Germany. He instead fled to the United States, where his films were free to express clear anti-fascist sentiment.
The Hangmen script, was co-written by German playwright Bertolt Brecht who was also a refuge from Nazi Germany. One of the most famous names in avant-garde theater and an important figure in German intellectual life, Brecht fled the Nazis with Lang's help in July 1941. Lang knew Brecht through actor Peter Lorre (star of Lang's 1931 M) who revered the leftist playwright. Lang was also impressed with Brecht's reputation, but their working relationship soon deteriorated over matters of artistic taste, issues of the film's tone, casting, and Brecht's fights for money and for screen credit. Brecht's rage at Lang often seemed the anger of a leftist, cynical writer confronting the larger Hollywood system founded on emotion rather than intellect. Brecht expressed his rage in his journals of the day where he wrote of Lang, "He sits with all the airs of a dictator and old movie hand behind his boss-desk, full of drugs and resentment at any good suggestion, collecting surprises, little bits of suspense, tawdry sentimental touches and falsehoods, and takes licenses for the box office."
Further animosity developed when Lang refused to cast any of Brecht's coterie of financially struggling stage actors -- including Brecht's wife Helene Weigel -- in the film. Instead, the non-speaking role Brecht had written for his wife as a vegetable saleswoman was given to actress Sarah Padden.
Brecht felt that his compatriot Lang had been corrupted by Hollywood money and power, which to a highly political artist like Brecht was especially troubling. But Lang had been working in Hollywood since 1933 and had only learned how to navigate the treacherous waters of art and commerce.
Though Brecht and Lang retained credit for the original story and adaptation of Hangmen Also Die!, Lang eventually brought in another screenwriter, John Wexley, to work on the movie, which only intensified Brecht's resentment. Brecht wrote in his diary of the souring project "I feel the disappointment and terror of the intellectual worker who sees the product of his labors snatched away and mutilated." Though Brecht petitioned to receive a screenwriter credit alongside Wexley, his wish was never granted, thus intensifying his mistrust of the Hollywood way of doing business. Lang later admitted to Sight and Sound in 1967 that "Brecht got a raw deal here." In an amusing expression of WWII-era concerns, Hollywood also changed Brecht's name in the credits of Hangmen Also Die! to a less German-redolent "Bert Brecht."
Producer/Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: John Wexley (based on a story by Fritz Lang and Bertolt Brecht)
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Production Design: William Darling
Music: Hanns Eisler
Cast: Brian Donlevy (Dr. Franz Svoboda), Walter Brennan (Prof. Novotny), Anna Lee (Mascha Novotny), Gene Lockhart (Emil Czaka), Dennis O'Keefe (Jan Horak), Alexander Granach (Alois Gruber).
by Felicia Feaster