Had no idea this Fritz Lang World War 2 film, Hangmen Also Die was based on Operation Anthropoid when I went in. Having a keen interest in military history I knew of the deadly task at hand. Interestingly the BBC have a series running at the moment investigating the training of SOE’s (Special Operations Executive) that specialised in espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance. Two SOE officers excelled the special training in the UK, one Czech the other Slovak, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš. Both assigned with the task of being dropped back into their Nazi occupied home country with a deadly mission, to assassinate a high ranking Nazi leader. That Nazi asshole was dubbed The Hangman, The Butcher Of Prague, a truly hideous man who would also become know as one of the architects of the Holocaust, that beast was Reinhard Heydrich.
The incredible achievement of this film is the fact it was made within a year of the assassination being carried out. What with secrets, propaganda and just the fact that news stories may not travel that fast, it’s fascinating to me that the nuts and bolts of this film picks up the factual details. It’s especially amazing because the SOE unit would of been highly top secret at the time. So that’s why I assume the changes with the two SOE hitmen to feature a lone gunman happened. Apart from a few other differences, most of the horrifying aftermath is quite true to the horrific facts.
Hangmen Also Die opens with the arrival of Reinhard Heydrich, here to motivate the workers of Prague, men and women tasked with fueling the Nazi war machine with their industry. To motivate harder working and tighter time schedules, when I say motivate, you should know that this included fear and intimidation. Hans Heinrich von Twardowski might only play Reinhard Heydrich for a short time but in the opening few minutes, he portrays so much in his performance that you despise this ghastly, monstrous man right from the get go. Lucky we don’t have to deal with him as the assassination is carried out off screen and leaves us with the introduction to our hitman.
Arriving looking like he’s lost from the silent era film, Brian Donlevy gives an over hamming it performance with a look on his face of the most guilty man on screen, ever. Playing doctor Dr. Franticek Svoboda our assassin is fearful and desperate for an escape after what looks like the mission didn’t go exactly to plan. After the initial scenes of ham with Brian Donlevy he seems to settle as the film progresses and excels as he realises what the aftermath of his deeds will bring.
The film shows such fear but also so much resilience in such harsh and terrible times. For a film made in 1943 it doesn’t let up on troubling and brutal scenes. From savage and sick gestapo interrogations as they show brute force to find out who was involved in the hit. The film portrays, in equal measures, the different sides of spies and traitors, people coming together, martyrs, resistance fighters. All under the knowledge that anyone harbouring fugitives with not only get themselves killed but their families too.
So unfortunately the assassination of this evil man results in a bloodbath as the country is torn apart by Hitler’s men in the form of brutal reprisal. Though this act of assassination looked like total suicide and tragic with the untold number of mass executions which were to come, it proved to show the allies that the Czechoslovakian people were on their side. On this notion, Winston Churchill declared the Munich Agreement null and void and counted Czechoslovakia as an important ally in the fight for freedom.
It’s an important piece of history and the first of many film adaptations. Surprisingly there was another one in 1943 called Hitler’s Madman and three or four Czech versions of the story with one called Atentát (The Assassination) in 1964 which I would love to see. Another I want to watch is the 1975 take on the story called Operation Daybreak starring Timothy Bottoms and Joss Ackland as the two SEO officers. There are two newer adaptations coming 70 plus years later than Hangmen Also Die.
One called The Man With Iron Heart (2017) and the one I watched last night and can very much recommend, Anthropoid (2016). It stars Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan as the two SEO officers. It’s an excellent telling of the story with a first rate powerhouse ending. Where Hangmen Also Die follows the people, Anthropoid retales the SEO and joining paratroopers story. Well worth watching the 1943 and 2016 version together in a double bill.
Be sure to pop on over to fellow film blogger Maddy Loves Her Classic Films where she did a fantastic, more detailed write up of this film. She always posts about great films so keep your eye on her site.
All the best and keep getting square eyes watching those screens and finding new and old movie gems…. Mikey Wolf