Fritz Lang is one of the greatest directors of all-time and he would still be if he only stopped making films in 1933 with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. However he fled Germany because some guy with a Chaplin ‘tash was in power and eventually went to the US and made a string of film noirs which is a genre he set the template for with his German films. He also was famously offered a job by Joseph Goebbels to be the head of German film studio UFA and his ex-wife Thea von Harbou was a true believer in Nazism despite later claiming she wasn’t.
Naturally during the wartime period Lang was one of the directors who wanted to make a statement on what was happening in Europe. Most of his films till the war’s end in 1945 dealt with the Nazis in some way or another, even his final German film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is arguably a warning about the rise of the Nazis. Hangmen Also Die! is his 2nd films to tackle Nazism after Man Hunt and is loosely based on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.
The whole film is about the Nazis getting Czech people to turn over the assassin of Reinhard Heydrich by any means necessarily. They decide at one point to execute 40 prisoners at a time until the assassin is turned over. The legendary noir actor Brian Donlevy plays the assassin Dr. Franticek Svoboda. Some viewers may be annoyed by the fact the majority of the actors use American accents to play Czechs and Germans but that was common place at the time and sometimes it works better than dodgy accents.
The film itself isn’t one of Lang’s stronger efforts, the plot is a bit too muddled for its own good. Lang came up with the story with Bertolt Brecht (who is credited as Bert Brecht) but John Wexley wrote the finished script with input from Lang and Brecht. The film’s pacing is all over the place and is far too long for its own good at 2 hours and 15 minutes and one thing about Lang’s American films is the pacing is almost always razor-sharp, rarely going over 95 minutes.
Lang paints the Nazis out as an extremely corrupt bureaucracy which is crystalized by the film’s fantastic final moments. The Nazis of course were more than that but in some ways that is exactly what the Nazis were an extreme form of bureaucracy. Lang of course had first hand knowledge of the inner workings of the Nazis. The film of course is beautifully filmed and the scenes of violence are almost exclusive left to the viewers’ imagination except a startling scene of violent for its time scene involving a murder by pillow.
Overall it’s a damning indictment of the Nazis at the time which was more than necessary and is unabashedly a piece of propaganda but when your enemy is Hitler, I think propaganda is more than “ok”. The disc includes an interview Robert Gerwarth who wrote a book on Reinhard Heydrich and commentary from Richard Peña. The disc is rounded off with newsreel footage, restoration comparison, trailer and in the first pressing a booklet with writing by Gerd Gemunden.