Made during the second world war, Hangmen Also Die is a fictionalized dramatization of events following the assassination of Nazi butcher Reinhard Heydrich (the “hangman” of the title). Although nominally a propaganda film, it is a mistake to think of it strictly in rabble-rousing terms. While it unequivocally sides with Czech patriots against German villains, it makes cut-and-dried sympathy a little difficult. Instead, the film complicates emotional simplicities to render a sophisticated political message all the more forcefully.
That complexity no doubt results from the screenplay having largely been written by Bertolt Brecht, although it is credited to a Hollywood hand, John Wexley. (The story of that credit is a drama unto itself, but Wexley paid for it later when he was persecuted by the HUAC for his Communist affiliations.) Director Fritz Lang is also credited (with Brecht) for adaptation and the original story. The film substitutes lone assassin Dr. Franticek Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) on the run from the Gestapo for the group effort to kill Heydrich that was authorized by the Czech government-in-exile. Simplifying the action further by having the assassination occur off-camera so as merely to initiate the action, the filmmakers can concentrate on a tougher purpose than melodramatic thrills. The act is almost a fait accompli, secondary to demonstrating how political consciousness can develop in extraordinary circumstances.
As Dr. Svoboda eludes the Germans, he is aided by a widening circle of characters who get involved more by chance than conviction but who nonetheless demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice everything if necessary to help Svoboda. This powerful message is made even more complexly involving by a clever twist. For despite the gravity of the events, the story works largely like a police procedural in which the viewer can sympathize at least as much with investigating Gestapo officer Alois Gruber (Alexander Granach) as with Svoboda. In many ways the most human character in the film, Gruber’s earthy, slightly grubby sensualism has more than a little appeal contrasted with the stalwart, upright Czechs.
Lang’s inexorable technique compounds these ambiguities further. He squeezes the action like an ever-tightening vise in which it is clear that whatever the conclusion, it will not and cannot be without costs. But for all the suspense, the broader canvas makes the anxiety less about the safety and rescue of one man than a matter of how a community is moved to political action through collective complicity. The horrendous consequences of the real assassination are not shown, but it may have been impossible to include them due to censorship restrictions. In a sense their omission is irrelevant because those horrors are implicit in the film’s message. That much is clear: all of the Czech characters (save one collaborator) choose to fight for freedom knowing the potential cost for themselves if not others. That relentlessness transcends narrow propaganda goals to demonstrate a heroism all the more inspiring for remaining largely a secret.