Hangmen Also Die is an entirely fictionalized account of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the leaders of Nazi Germany. This 1943 film was directed by Fritz Lang, from a screenplay by John Wexley, based on a story by Bertolt Brecht and Lang. This was the only Hollywood film that Brecht worked on for which he received an on-screen credit. Lang had originally intended to have Brecht write the screenplay, but he apparently changed his mind due to aesthetic, political, and personal differences between himself and Brecht that made it increasingly difficult for them to work together.
The film is set in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II. Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) has just assassinated Heydrich, and he is fleeing down a street. Mascha (Anna Lee) sees him. When the Gestapo ask her where he went, she points them in the opposite direction. Svoboda, who is hiding nearby, observes this. Desperate for a place to hide, he follows her to her home, where he manages to persuade her to take him in, even though he knows that by doing so, he is placing her and her family in danger of retaliation by the Gestapo.
Lang and Brecht did not get along well when they were working on the story for Hangmen Also Die. Brecht thought some of Lang’s story ideas were unbelievable. He complained, for example, of one scene in which Lang had the leader of the Czech resistance evade the Gestapo by hiding behind a curtain. (I found this hard to believe myself.) Yet Lang was right to reject Brecht’s idea that the mistakes of the underground “are corrected by the broad mass of the people”. Brecht’s, influence, however, can perhaps be seen in the fact that one of the film’s chief villains is a Czech collaborator who is also the wealthy owner of a beer brewery. And there is some dark Brechtian humor in the moment when, in the midst of interrogating someone, a Gestapo officer pauses to squeeze a pimple on his face. (That’s something you don”t often see in Hollywood movies.)
John Wexley and Hanns Eisler (who composed the music) were both later blacklisted. Eisler was eventually deported because of his left-wing political views. Brecht left the country after being questioned by the HUAC.
Despite its contrived and melodramatic moments, Hangmen Also Die does touch upon some complex moral and political questions, such as whether terror tactics, like assassinations, are ever a good idea. In the film, the Gestapo begin carrying out random executions in retaliation for the assassination. What happened in real life was even worse. The Nazis destroyed the Czech city of Lidice, killing most of its inhabitants or sending them to concentration camps.
Although it is not one of Lang’s best films, Hangmen Also Die is nonetheless one of the more interesting films to come out of World War II.