The title itself is bracing, as the words Hangmen Also Die! tell us that no one here gets out alive, including the monsters. Fritz Lang’s film is a work of wartime (1943) propaganda: it is a fictionalization of the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the “Hangman,” the Nazi Reich Protector in charge of Bohemia and Moravia. It functions very well as propaganda, as snatches of the Moldau are heard throughout, and the poetry of one imprisoned Czech is literally turned into a hymn of resistance against the occupiers.
Within that legitimate propaganda purpose, Lang finds difficult material, including the fact that the exhilarating strike against a hated criminal oppressor brings about an immediate and brutal retaliation, as the Germans arrest hundreds of Czechs and begin executing them – hardly an uncomplicated piece of rousing entertainment. And in one sequence, when the Czech woman (Anna Lee) who knows the identity of the assassin tries to go to Gestapo headquarters and reveal his name because her father is among the arrested, her journey is interrupted by locals trying to stop her – and who suddenly seem frightening and oppressive in their own way, a group gone out of control with its own animal energy. Lang was always alert to anything that could become menacing, even a heroic Czech crowd. (In Patrick McGilligan’s bio of Lang, when Lang worked on the script with Bertolt Brecht, Brecht believed that “the people” would rise up and topple Hitler; Lang was unconvinced.)
Lang’s M is a manhunt focused on finding a killer we want found, and Hangmen Also Die! is a manhunt focused on finding a killer we want free; the reversal makes Hangmen a less propulsive experience, or compelling in a different way. “Hiding” becomes a crucial impulse in this one. Both movies arrange themselves around crisp scenes of people in rooms plotting out strategies, and views of streets available for hiding and running. Hangmen has so many scenes and characters, Lang creates a warren of offices and apartments and waiting rooms; some of them are large and eerily empty, some of them crowded, all of them nervous. This design is the movie’s most effective aspect, the way Prague becomes a nightmare puzzle without an open end – the way those streets always turn into a corner, never into a long boulevard that allows an exit.
The Czechs are played by mostly American actors (Walter Brennan, Brian Donlevy, and Dennis O’Keefe most prominently; Gene Lockhart as the beerman whose story takes over the final section) and the Germans by foreign actors using their accents: Alexander Granach, Reinhold Schünzel. The style of the German actors is stylized and big, as though to demonstrate the decadence of the master race and old Europe; the comparison works, in bold strokes.
But the overall effect of Hangmen Also Die! is the sense of anxiety about being exposed, or revealed: when Donlevy’s assassin is standing right there in the room when the Nazis burst in to the apartment of Brennan’s soft-spoken professor, or when the Resistance members get together and reveal their acts of sabotage against the occupiers. In the latter, even before you know that someone in the room is betraying the Resistance and feeding information to the Gestapo, you somehow know it. Because that’s what Lang was so good at, this fear of being caught and exposed for what you are; and all those cramped rooms are closing in on that unwanted purpose.