Hangmen Also Die!
Fritz Lang collaborates with Bertolt Brecht in this ripped-from-the-headlines account of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. Like all Lang films, it's rich with atmosphere, paranoia and suspicion
Hangmen Also Die! may have been inspired by the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, but in Fritz Lang’s film the famous murder happens offscreen. Lang is much more interested in the fallout from this inciting incident, as the Czech resistance stands firm against insidious and violent Nazi retribution. Back in 1943, Hangmen Also Die! possessed a ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy, and even if its stark propagandist tone has dated a little, the film still stands as a bold and complex exploration of collective and individual guilt. Working with the great cinematographer James Wong Howe, Lang ensures that every shadow is full of menace, and the thickening atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion that they evoke here is as pervasive as any Lang ever created.
The casting is a problem. Brian Donlevy and the hapless Anna Lee (foisted on Lang against his will) are dull leads, particularly when acting alongside the German character actors whose ripe performances are so memorable, and they fail to sell the scenes that should have the greatest emotional kick. Still, it’s an engrossing picture, and rife with signature Lang shots: a villainous silhouette towering over a cowering woman; a bullet-riddled body slumped on the steps; a close-up on the desperately grasping hands of a dying man.
Perhaps at times it’s easy to see why Bertolt Brecht took issue with the film’s preference for idealism and Hollywood convention over realism, but as a work of pure cinematic craft this is unimpeachable.
The restoration brilliantly shows off the film’s richly textured lighting and the extra features are informative. Richard Peña's commentary occasionally lapses into periods of silence but he has some perceptive things to say about the film’s stylistic choices, as well as offering details on the discord between Lang and Brecht that emerged during production, while a 30-minute interview with Heydrich biographer Robert Gerwarth examines the historical truth behind this fictionalised tale.
Released on Blu-ray by Arrow – order your copy here