Nothing in Fritz Lang’s cinema is more dangerous than a vast swath of righteous people hidden from or under the fabric of conventional law and order. For the filmmaker, subterranean law comprises a tangible, earthbound version of the principle of fate: If the heart of society turns on you, you’re finished regardless of your actions. Networks often assume an actively immoral context in his films (see, for instance, the Mabuse series), but in Hangmen Also Die, a hidden campaign serves a purpose of valor, as the film concerns the Czech resistance to the Nazi occupation during World War II. But that theoretically conventional distinction only intensifies the profound despair of Lang’s paranoia. By the end of the film, a universal fear of entrapment has been so expertly mined that you may be inspired, as in M, to almost inadvertently sympathize with one of the most noxious characters. The heroism itself is less the point than the specificities of the heroes’ ultimate wrath, which isn’t death (though that comes too), but social annihilation, which mirrors the annihilation writ large by the Third Reich, and which can befall anyone at any time.
Hangmen Also Die is ruthlessly precise even for Lang. The film doesn’t allow for the audience dawdling that many contemporary movies appear to actively encourage: Turn to your phone for just a moment and you’ve potentially missed a detail that’s key to deciphering the nesting conspiracies and deceptions that drive the plot. Characteristically, Lang makes no pretense of staging a “real” war-time thriller, as this is another of his super-charged, almost surreal expressionist mixtures of melodrama with propaganda that’s so intense and pointed that it works both as parody and as a legitimately terrifying representation of hatred. The film’s a nightmare of inadvertent translucence: All parties, particularly the Nazis, are able to see through at least the first layer of every intended con or self-preserving subterfuge, which leads to reversals upon reversals upon reversals, rendering a cheap joke of the concept of “safety.”
A particularly impressive round of this ever-widening game of espionage occurs near the end of the film. The Nazis in Czechoslovakia are searching for the killer of high-ranking German officer and prime Holocaust architect Reinhard Heyrich (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), an actual person killed just before the film’s conception, who, in Lang’s version, is assassinated by rebel fighter Dr. Franticek Svoboda (Brian Donlevy). The Nazis have gone to great pains to expose the killer, and the resistance party has set about elaborately framing one of their traitorous own, Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart), a vividly piggish and self-satisfied brewer who we initially take for a stooge. But at a pivotal juncture, Czaka snaps his fingers in the middle of an “informal” testimony against him and seizes upon a failure of reasoning that pertains to a room not having a phone line, despite the fact that he was said to have made a phone call to another of the film’s villains while supposedly occupying that room. The story against Czaka momentarily crumbles, until his clever evasion is countered yet again.
Lang constructed films that functioned as emotional puzzle traps that alternately tighten and loosen (a modulation often signaled with fast, sharp physical gestures, such as the aforementioned snapping of the fingers or the comic-menacing bursting of a sausage). There isn’t an ounce of fat on the script that the director famously co-authored with playwright Bertolt Brecht. Necessary information is sometimes elided too, so as to complicate the audience’s efforts to read the house’s hand, so to speak, which fosters a profound impression of scrambling, of being forever exposed and on the spot. Curt dialogue is delivered by the actors at a rapid clip that’s more traditionally associated with screwball comedy than with spy thrillers, and it intermingles with James Wong Howe’s deliberate deep-focus cinematography to create a double effect, as the film seems to be moving at two speeds at once. Some images are amusingly obvious, such as when a Nazi is framed in shadow to resemble Dr. Mabuse, but dozens of other shots deepen your understanding of the film almost subliminally. Most memorable are the hauntingly symbolic embodiments of interrogatory torture (Lang gets more out of a canted angle and a silhouette of a bullwhip than most directors can squeeze from 100 million dollars’ worth of squibs), and the stunning composition that shows an inspector looking into a mirror, creating a triangle that literalizes a dialogue between two forms of himself and a deliverer of game-changing information.
There’s a moral concern behind this rigorous stylization and craftsmanship—assuming you require such a thing. Lang’s dense formal construction and ferocious pace simulate (the little that films admittedly can) the uncertainty of life in a country that’s occupied by a foreign enemy, proving yet again that melodrama is a far more effective tool for engendering empathy than earnest platitude. The plot evolves so fast that you never know where anything stands, and neither do the characters, who live with the constant threat of execution for reasons that are arbitrary and barbaric. The film’s inventions shake history free of distancing conjecture and cut straight to the do-or-die urgency of essentially unfathomable atrocity. Hangmen Also Die is another of Lang’s obsessive considerations of the more obviously dubious aspects of the grand social contract. Namely, that it can be revoked at a moment’s notice.
There are a number of obvious flaws with the image. Frames skip, grain has been awkwardly and unevenly cleaned up, and a mild form of washout persists in certain passages. But this is still a notable restoration, as the featurette included shows, particularly in terms of reinstating the blacks to their former majesty. The interplay of the blacks and whites, even in portions of the film that are otherwise not entirely up to snuff, offers dynamic testimony to the virtuosity of Fritz Lang and James Wong Howe’s visual construction. The shadows of Lang’s shadow world have been allowed to return. The English LPCM 2.0 mix is clean, but a mite shallow, as certain small diegetic effects lack nuance and the score’s a little tinny.
Richard Peña’s audio commentary offers fascinating context pertaining to Lang’s collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, which eventually led to a falling out between the friends over what the latter perceived to be the former’s determination to make a bleak, decidedly American melodrama, at the expense of a more openly political tribute to populist might. Also addressed is Lang’s shrewd casting of real German actors in the German roles while using Americans as Czechs in a strategy that offers American audiences an implicative simulation of their own country’s invasion. There’s good stuff here, though the commentary is poorly mixed in relation to the film’s own sound effects, which compete with Peña for your attention. The 30-minute featurette with historian and author Robert Gerwarth succinctly and intelligently outlines the story of the real Reinhard Heyrich, a chillingly soft-spoken aesthete who Lang (purposefully) exaggerated into a cartoon sadist. Rounding out the package is a supplement on the film’s restoration, a 1942 German newsreel, the trailer for the film’s re-release, and an essay by Peter Ellenbruch, a professor at Germany’s University of Duisberg-Essen.
Time has revealed Hangmen Also Die, once derided for being both too soft and too tough (depending on who you spoke to), to be one of Fritz Lang’s sharpest, bleakest, and most dizzyingly inventive American thrillers. Cohen Film Collection has afforded cinephiles an opportunity to make up their own minds.