A German emigre wages cinematic war on Adolf Hitler
Every film buff knows the story. Fritz Lang, Germany's premiere director, arrives at Joseph Goebbels' office in April 1933. Goebbels had banned Lang's most recent movie, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, for equating National Socialism with a supervillain's "Empire of Crime." Yet Lang finds Hitler's Propaganda Minister affable, even apologetic... and presenting Lang an incredible offer.
Goebbels praised Lang's earlier work and offered him control of Germany's film industry. What better house director than the creator of Metropolis? When Lang mentioned his Jewish ancestry, Goebbels replied "we decide who's Jewish." Lang listened politely, told Goebbels he'd consider the offer, then took the evening train to Paris.
Tense and melodramatic, it's a perfect parable of art and politics in collision. There's little doubt, however, that Lang exaggerated for effect: biographer Lotte Eisner claims that "each time [Lang told the story] he embellished it a little more." The meeting probably took place, but Lang didn't permanently leave Germany until September 1933.
There's no doubt, however, about Lang's resentment towards Nazi Germany. Not only Mabuse, but M (1931) analogize Hitler with the criminal underworld. He divorced his wife, screenwriter Thea von Harbou: "the only thing that divided us was National Socialism." Abroad, Lang joined a remarkable artistic diaspora: writers like Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann; actors Marlene Dietrich and Peter Lorre; and filmmakers Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder.
Arriving in Hollywood, Lang made two acclaimed crime dramas, Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937). But his next several pictures were hackwork like You and Me (1938) and The Return of Frank James (1940). Lang's imperious manner proved a poor fit for Hollywood's studio system, nor did he endear himself to fellow emigres. “Lang makes you want to puke," said composer Kurt Weill. "Nobody in the whole world is as important as he imagines himself to be."
When World War II made Nazism an international concern, Lang's artistry and Nazi-hatred finally found expression. Between 1941 and 1946 he directed a quartet of antifascist thrillers: Man Hunt, Hangmen Also Die!, Ministry of Fear and Cloak and Dagger.
Modern critics typically dismiss these movies. "Lang’s war films... tend to be choppy, staggering great set pieces with long stretches of exposition," writes Noel Murray. Indeed, compared to Lang's masterworks they're crude and strident. But even a great director's middling works have value. And Lang's anti-Nazi movies express an artist resenting Germany's descent into barbarism.
Lang made Man Hunt (1941) with America still neutral, and Hollywood "approach[ing] politics only haltingly and after agonized deliberation" (Mark Harris). True, Anatole Litvak's Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) and Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940) tentatively condemned Nazism. But Hollywood curbed explicit interventionism, reflecting America's reluctance to join Europe's war. Indeed, Joseph Breen of the Hayes Office denounced Man Hunt as a "hate film," calculated to stir up anti-German hatred. The FBI investigated Lang as a subversive: they incongruously labeled him a "commu-nazi" for his liberal views and German background.
Based on Geoffrey Household's novel Rogue Male, Man Hunt immediately states its intentions. English hunter Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) places Adolf Hitler in his cross-hairs, ostensibly as a "sporting stalk." Captured and tortured, he escapes to England, pursued by half-English Gestapo chief Quive-Smith (George Sanders). Thorndike finds England's government angered at his exploits, trying to arrest him. Thorndike receives help from a Cockeny prostitute (Joan Bennett), but must rely on his hunter's wiles to survive.
If Man Hunt's opening scene isn't striking enough, Lang and screenwriter Dudley Nichols alter Rogue Male to emphasize their leanings. Where Household's Thorndike sought revenge for a murdered lover, Thorndike seeks assassination on political principle. Lang also slams appeasement-minded Englishmen, who'd rather kill Thorndike than offend Hitler. Slimy Quive-Smith moves comfortably between both worlds; Thorndike becomes a traitor for alerting England to the Nazi threat.
In other ways, Man Hunt underwhelms. Like many '40s liberals, Lang mocks Hitler as a "strutting little Caesar" rather than a genocidal killer. This mirrors Casablanca's naive assurance that "even Nazis can't kill that fast." Coupled with sloppy plotting and Pidgeon's stiff performance, this makes Man Hunt frustratingly uneven. The 1970s remake, Rogue Male with Peter O'Toole, holds up better.
Two years later, Nazi-bashing wasn't so controversial. Hangmen Also Die! (1943) paired Lang with Bertolt Brecht, the Marxist playwright whose Galileo and Threepenny Opera revolutionized theater. But Lang and Brecht clashed over ideology, with screenwriter John Wexley replacing Brecht. Brecht slammed the movie as "a load of hackneyed situations, intrigues, false notes!" Lang responded that "I knew more about what the American audience would swallow."
Hangmen draws on the May 27th, 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Reichsprotektor of Bohemia-Moravia (Czechoslovakia) and architect of the Final Solution. Lang imagines Czech patriot Dr. Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) shooting Heydrich, with Prague's population shielding him from Gestapo reprisals. In reality, the Czech government-in-exile parachuted a commando team who killed Heydrich with a grenade. SS troops trapped the assassins in a church, where they committed suicide after a prolonged gunfight.
Hangmen is unabashed propaganda, demonizing Germans as depraved gargoyles. Heydrich is an effeminate monster leering suggestively at subordinates. One Gestapo inspector cracks his knuckles and snaps sausages while interrogating suspects. Another fondles a giant facial boil. But Lang downplays Nazi savagery: in response to Heydrich's death, the SS murdered 1,300 Czechs and arrested 13,000 more, razing the villages of Lidice and Lezaky. Still, Hangmen's mass executions prove that the Nazis can kill that fast.
Brecht's notion of mass resistance survives in his Czech characters. Our protagonist is Mascha Novotny (Anna Lee), apolitical daughter of a professor (Walter Brennan) taken hostage by the Gestapo. Mascha and Svoboda fake an illicit romance to avoid Inspector Gruber's (Alexander Granach) dragnet. Other Czechs refuse to betray each other, turning their wrath on collaborator Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart). Czaka's ultimately framed for Heydrich's murder and executed.
Hangmen's flaws are obvious. There's awkward casting: Brian Donlevy makes a stiff hero, and what's Walter Brennan doing as a Czech intellectual? Brecht's denunciations of Fascism occasionally grate: a resistance leader, dismissing civilian deaths as unimportant, seems inhuman rather than principled. Still, there's no denying Hangmen's power, from James Wong Howe's brooding photography and Svoboda's moral dilemma to Brecht's stirring patriot's song: "Die if you must for a cause that is just/But shout 'till the end/No surrender!"
Lang encountered censorship trouble for different reasons than Man Hunt. Hangmen originally ended with Czaka's death, followed by Professor Novotny's execution and Mascha visiting his grave. But United Artists balked and cut this scene, ending Hangmen on a triumphant note. Restored for a 2014 video release, the Professor's death strengthens Hangmen's message of "No surrender."
After Hangmen's scalding fury, Ministry of Fear (1944) seems almost banal. It's a Hitchcock-like confection, based on a Graham Greene novel, that backgrounds politics for spy thrills. Ray Milland plays Stephen Neale, who's just served two years for assisting his wife's suicide. The Luftwaffe's bombing London, and Neale uncovers a Nazi spy ring. He romances refugee Carla (Marjorie Reynolds), whose brother (Carl Esmond) leads the spies.
Ministry seems a bridge between Lang's German Expressionist epics and his later film noirs (Scarlet Street, The Big Heat). Lang mixes enthralling action (a shootout during a bombing raid) and Hitchcockian Macguffins (microfilm hidden in a cake!) with stylized direction: the seance scene, a throwback to Dr. Mabuse, features Hillary Brooke as an Aryan dragon lady prognosticating doom. Politics are marginalized, with one character reading The Psychology of Nazism and an implicit slur on German emigres. Fortunately, Ministry's entertaining enough to compensate.
Lang revisits Nazism once more in Cloak and Dagger (1946). Gary Cooper plays Dr. Jesper, an American physicist recruited to contact scientists defecting from Nazi Germany. After the Gestapo murders one colleague, Jesper travels to Italy to rescue Professor Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff). He evades crafty Fascist policemen and falls for partisan Gina (Lilli Palmer) while securing the Professor's freedom.
Despite its dismal reputation, Cloak is entertaining and thoughtful. Besides its excellent action (especially a violent fistfight between Jesper and an Italian policeman), it probes science compromised by politics. Professor Lodor (Helen Thiming) is threatened with execution of dissidents if she doesn't return to Germany, while Polda's daughter is also a hostage. Jesper meets a fascist honey trap (Marjorie Hoshelle) he blackmails into supporting the Allies. At war's end, jingoism's replaced with ambiguity.
Warner Bros. found Cloak too ambiguous. Dr. Jesper denounces military recklessness, with governments spending money on atomic weapons rather than cancer research. Glenn Erickson writes that Cloak originally ended with a denunciation of nuclear warfare, just a year after Hiroshima. Whether through studio meddling or government interference, this finale was not only cut but destroyed. Unsurprisingly, screenwriters Ring Lardner Jr. and Albert Maltz were blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
After another decade in Hollywood, Lang returned to West Germany for The Indian Tomb (1959), a two-part adventure epic, and The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), a belated sequel to Testament. It finally seemed that Lang had made peace with his homeland, reinvigorating its cinema before his 1964 death. Even so, he left behind an indelible impression of Germany's darkest period.