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Hangmen Also Die!, Fritz Lang (1943)

You could think of this film as the epitome of German exile influence in Hollywood during World War II; the story was written by Lang and Brecht (it was Brecht’s only American screenplay credit), and the score was written by the great Hanss Eisler, of whom many Billy Bragg and Wilco fans have sung, many probably unwittingly. The setting is occupied Czechoslovakia. The (very) bad guy is Reinhard Heydrich, who is soon executed by the underground. (Note that this takes place off-camera; we’re firmly in the hands of the Lang of M‘s bouncing ball and the Brecht of Verfremdungseffekt.) The remainder of the film is a veritable tutorial on the agonizing conditions of resistance and the manipulations of occupation. Are you a traitor if you betray one to save many? What about betraying many to save just one — your own father, or lover, or even simply the grocer across the street you’ve known all your life? Ostensibly a drama, and just dramatic enough to “sell” as a thriller, this is actually very much an epic in the Brechtian sense: we’re required at every turn to evaluate, consider, and critique. The movie feels somewhat mechanical in this respect — it’s Important, and knows it — but a half-century on, its questions about how to tell the difference between a traitor and a hero remain relevant.

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