Sunday, February 7, 2010

Reinhard Heydrich

TCM is showing the movie Hangmen Also Die tomorrow at 1:30 PM ET. The movie deals with a plot by the Czech resistance during World War II to assassinate the Nazi leader of the Czech protectorate, Reinhard Heydrich. What happened in history is quite a bit different from what happened in the movie, but the movie is still enjoyable.

In the movie, Brian Donlevy plays the assassin, who eventually gets caught in a lie when he claims he was seeing his girlfriend, who happens to be the daughter of a prominent professor (Walter Brennan). The Gestapo round everybody up and, well, you can guess what happens next. Or maybe not, as the resistance try to figure a way out of things. What happens next is more the point of the movie; Hangmen Also Die is less about the actual assassination than it is about the investigation of the murder and portraying what mean SOBs the Gestapo and SS were.

The Gestapo were ruthless, even more so in real life than they were in this movie, where they threaten to kill 400 randomly selected Prague citizens 10 at a time unless the suspects reveal the identity of the killer. What happened after the assassination in real life is that the Nazis picked two small villages just outside of Prague, and ordered the murder of all adult males and the sending of everybody else to concentration camps as a form of reprisal. Well over 1,000 people died as a result.

Could the makers of Hangmen Also Die have known all this? Some of it was known; obviously, the death of Heydrich was public knowledge. Also, the Nazis made the reprisal against the Czech village of Lidice a major news story, as opposed to many of their other reprisals. However, the folks in Hollywood probably wouldn't have known much about the actual assassination plot, which involved a coupld of Czech expats parachuted back into the country by the RAF. (You may recall the movie Dark Blue World which deals with the Czech exiles in the UK.) So writer Bertolt Brecht and director Fritz Lang had to guess about how the assassination actually happened. What they came up with is entertaining if inaccurate.

Ultimately, "entertaining if inaccurate" may be a good description of the movie as a whole. Fritz Lang shows off his mastery of the craft of moviemaking, and gives us a pretty good story at the same time.

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