Monday, 5 October 2015

Hangmen also die! Fritz Lang, Brecht and Hanns Eisler

Reissued last year on DVD in a restoration by the BFI, Fritz Lang's Hangmen also Die!. (1943).  Lang worked with Bertolt Brecht on the script, which loosely recounts the reprisals that followed the assasination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in May 1942. The score was written by Hanns Eisler. The producer was Arnold Pressbuger.  Some of the actors were émigrés, too.  In theory,  the co-operation of so many Weimar exiles could have made the movie quite something. The film isn't quite a masterpiece though it's good and gripping. Its value lies in its political significance. It ends with the word "Not" held on screen for several moments. Does this mean "Not" as in German? Could be. But the words "The End" follow, reminding the audience at the time that the Reich was still in power, and that the struggle against Hitler must continue.

Although Hanns Eisler received one of his Oscar nominations for the soundtrack, there isn't a lot of music in this movie, which is fair enough. The subject is grim, the mood too tense for background diversion. Eisler writes a stirring introduction, heard as the camera pans over mock-up scenes of Prague. When his music does enter, it's atmospheric. In the scene in a restaurant, the music suggests dance music, though it comes over slightly distorted. No-one is really in the mood for dancing when hostages are being taken and suspects hunted down. Later there's a scene when arrested people are taken off in trucks to their deaths. It's oddly clean and antiseptic: it's Hollywood, after all.  The final screenplay used wasn't echt Brecht or Lang. The men start singing a maudlin rhyming song which ends with the cry "No surrender!". It's a far cry from Solidaritätslied but could be the kind of song ordinary people might sing, which is part of the purpose behind making the movie, which was to inspire the masses. Luckily, there's plenty of really top notch Eisler elsewhere.

By Hollywood thriller standards, Hangmen also Die! is a  movie that keeps you on your toes. I first saw it as a teenager, fascinated by Weimar and its aftermath though I didn't yet know who Hanns Eisler was, but I vividly remember the atmosphere.

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