Hangmen Also Die: The Short-Lived Alliance of Fritz Lang and Bertolt Brecht

By Patrick McGilligan | March 23, 2009
Hangmen Also Die: The Short-Lived Alliance of Fritz Lang and Bertolt Brecht - LEADPHOTO

To coincide with the release of Hangmen Also Die! 66 years ago today, FilmInFocus dips into the Faber archives for an extract from Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast about the production’s two star collaborators.

Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht

Of the many anti-Nazi propaganda films turned out in Hollywood during the Second World War, few have been more celebrated or closely scrutinised than Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! (1943), loosely based on the real-life assassination by Czech resistance forces of the Nazi Reichsprotektor of occupied Prague, Reinhard Heydrich (known as “The Hangman.”) Fritz Lang’s reputation alone would have made the film of significant interest to future film scholars; but an added fillip came by way of the contribution of the film’s original co-scenarist/screenwriter – Bertolt Brecht, at that time a recent newcomer to the illustrious German émigré community of Santa Monica. Studio screenwriting didn’t prove to be Brecht’s metier, nor Hollywood ‘his kind of place’. (Shortly after the difficult experience of writing for Lang he would return to his preferred form, the stage play, with The Caucasian Chalk Circle.) Nonetheless, Patrick McGilligan’s authoritative biography Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (published in 1997 by St Martin’s in the US and Faber and Faber in the UK) offers a first-rate account of precisely why Lang and Brecht failed to see entirely eye-to-eye, as explained in this edited extract.

The production of Hangmen Also Die! is often presented as an instance of Fritz Lang’s largesse. Bertolt Brecht, down on his luck and only recently arrived in America, was scrounging for recognition in Hollywood. Lang had made it a priority to help raise money to bring Brecht over from Finland, where the playwright was hiding out from the Nazis. Lang had attended Brecht’s plays in Berlin, though he knew him primarily through Peter Lorre, whose adoration of Brecht counted with Lang. Perhaps Lang really did believe that Brecht was “the only genius among us,” as he sometimes said. Or maybe he was simply quoting the exiled novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, a friend of Brecht’s who said it first, and whose opinion carried more weight with Lang than even Lorre’s.

Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang

When Brecht arrived in Los Angeles in July of 1941, Lang began seeing him almost immediately at parties and occasions at Alfred Döblin’s house, the Feuchtwangers’, or Salka and Berthold Viertels’s, throughout the fall and winter of 1941-1942. The playwright kept a journal of acid-etched recollections of every place he went and everyone he encountered in America, and Lang was no different – no luckier – than the rest. On October 21, Brecht wrote for the first time of visiting the director at his home. The playwright was appalled, as he was, generally, everywhere he went in Hollywood. There, “grown adults, refugees, sit and listen to the British court astrologer (a former novelette writer for the Berlin illustrated weeklies), a fat booby who identifies the constellation of stars in May 1940 as the cause of Hitler’s victory over France.” Astrology struck Brecht as a bourgeois pastime left over from decadent Berlin. The astrologer “gets very angry,” continued Brecht’s journal, “if anybody suggests that with Hitler’s superiority in tanks and planes, April or June would probably have done just as well.”

Lang later claimed in one interview: “In a matter of days – four or five at most – [Brecht and I] produced a short outline [for a film] between us. I was sure I could sell [producer] Arnold Pressburger the idea of making such a film...” The “selling” of Pressburger included a demand for suitable compensation for Brecht. Lang lobbied for $7,500 – ”twice what Brecht asked for,” in the director’s words. Then, throughout June and July, the director and playwright worked on a scenario, developing characters and a plotline based on newspaper accounts.

War films were new for Brecht; the prickly ideologue wrote in his journal that they could be treated as Westerns – ”Wild East” counterparts to Wild West fables, with guerrillas substituting for cowboys. He couldn’t decide whether to take Lang seriously, though, when the director began to suggest dialogue and stage business that Brecht associated with the hoary melodrama of the silent film era. But Brecht was determined to hold his tongue as long and tightly as possible. He wanted the Hollywood credit and he needed the money.

Brecht’s journal takes up the chronology:

June 5, 1942: “Try to sketch a story ‘Silent City’ with Lang. About Prague, the Gestapo and the hostages, the whole thing is of course pure Monte Carlo.”

Hangmen Also Die!

Hangmen Also Die!

June 29, 1942: “I usually work with Lang on the hostage story from nine in the morning till seven in the evening. There is a remarkable term that always crops up whenever the logic of events or of the continuity cries out to be discussed: ‘the public will accept that.’ The public accepts the mastermind of the resistance hiding behind a curtain when the Gestapo searches a house. And commissars’ corpses falling out of wardrobes. And ‘secret’ mass meetings during a period of Nazi terror. Lang ‘buys’ that kind of thing. Interesting too that he is far more interested in surprises than in building up suspense.

July 27, 1942: “What an infinitely dismal fabrication this hostage film is that I have to occupy myself with these days. What a load of hackneyed situations, intrigues, false notes! The only respectable part of it is that I have confined myself strictly to the framework of a bourgeois-national rising…”

Already by the end of June, Lang and Brecht had registered a 32-page treatment with the Screen-Writers Guild called “437!” – the title referring to the number of Czech civilian hostages shot by the Gestapo in order to force someone to betray the Hangman’s killer. The treatment had all the embryonic elements of the film: the assassination, the love story, the quisling, and the hostage camps. A longer, more detailed, treatment would follow, with a more assertive title: “Never Surrender!”

Lang signed his 23-page contract in late July. But by this time, in effect, Lang and Brecht had already halted their collaboration. Brecht was unable to supply the very touches that the director desired most from a writer – the commercial script flourishes and American jargon with which the director hoped to strike a chord with audiences. More importantly, the playwright aimed as always for a didactic approach. Brecht wrote in his journal that the things about the script that interested him most were “an intelligent presentation of a modern tyrant,” the workers’ sabotage, scenes with the hostages evincing “class differences,” and “displays of anti-Semitism in their midst.” Brecht was optimistic that the film would be “constructed in the epic manner.” And, as recorded in his journal, he intended that one of its lessons be that the mistakes of the underground movement “are corrected by the broad mass of the people, et cetera.”

Brecht was in the camp of ideologues who persisted in believing that a people’s rebellion would rise up to defeat Hitler in Germany. This political plank, as well as others of Brecht’s, seemed like nonsense to Lang. Brecht’s storyline bad evolved as a hymn to popular resistance, but the director could hardly put his wholehearted trust in such a creed; as he had demonstrated in previous films, to him the collective will of “the people” held as much potential risk as promise.

Worst of all, no personal affinity developed between the director and Brecht. Lang prided himself on getting along with writers, but after Thea von Harbou (and excepting Dudley Nichols), his writers were all subordinate to him. Brecht was the director’s equal, cunning and bitter-minded about pushing his own ideas and resisting Lang’s.

Whatever the director said, according to Lion Feuchtwanger’s wife Martha, Brecht would reflexively come up with the opposite. “It was a kind of hypnosis, almost, that when [Brecht] heard something, it inspired him” to contradict Lang.

“I admire Brecht very, very much,” is what the director told Peter Bogdanovich, “but in films I had more experience and I knew more about what the American audience would swallow; also, I had certain ideas, so really we worked hand-in-glove.”

If only for the briefest time…

Share This: