New reissues challenge views of the Holocaust and man's capacity for murder
The famous German playwright Bertolt Brecht fled his home country when Hitler came to power, and in 1942 at the invitation of renowned film director Fritz Lang, co-scripted the only screenplay he ever wrote for Hollywood.
The result is “Hangmen Also Die,” a stirring piece of anti-Nazi propaganda that blends hyper-real staging and cinematography with the very real threat of a Nazi takeover. Originally titled “Never Surrender,” this thriller-with-a-message has been restored for a new online streaming, DVD, and Blu-ray release, along with an ending that had been mysteriously lopped off during its theatrical run.
Although the movie is almost entirely fictionalized, it’s set in occupied Czechoslovakia and based on the 1942 assassination of the chief architect of the Holocaust, Reinhard Heydrich — also known as the “Hangman of Prague.” As the Nazis start rounding up and executing any Czech patriot they can get their hands on in retaliation, pressure mounts on the citizens of Prague to turn in the assassin.
While it’s an effective cat-and-mouse thriller, “Hangmen Also Die” is also a paean to resistance, designed to give strength to those under Nazi rule and a reminder of why the war was being fought. For a propaganda movie, however, it’s surprisingly dark and not afraid to show the human cost of resistance. It ends on a rousing note with Oscar-nominated Hanns Eisler’s song “No Surrender” playing and the word “NOT” appearing onscreen right before “The End.”
Another historic film about the Holocaust is new on Blu-ray, DVD, and HD digital this week as well. The interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein that make up the most fascinating parts of the 2013 documentary “The Last of the Unjust” were recorded in 1975 for his nine-and-a-half hour 1985 film “Shoah,” but have gone unreleased until now.
“The Last of the Unjust” is as complicated and hard-nosed as Holocaust stories get. Murmelstein was The Elder of the Jews at a Czech concentration camp, and his role was to negotiate “a world upside-down.”
Because of his manipulation of Jews in the camp, Murmelstein was accused of collaboration after the war by Czechs. The case was dropped, but it illustrates the blurry line of moral compromise that he walked as he tried to limit the amount of Jewish casualties.
Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase “banality of evil” to describe Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, but Murmelstein dealt with the man every day and says, “He was a demon.” ”The Last of the Unjust” not only overwhelms with its depiction of human malevolence, but it asks thorny questions about brokering an atrocity with a fascinating first-hand account, the likes of which will not be captured ever again on film.
Several cold-blooded killings happen right at the outset of “Vengeance is Mine,” an angry and oddly captivating Shōhei Imamura film that won best film at the Japanese Academy Awards in 1980.
Loosely based on a real serial killer’s 1963 spree across the country, “Vengeance is Mine” is newly restored on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, and it feels as fresh today as when it was made.
Although it starts out with detectives capturing killer Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), this remarkable film is not a mystery or a procedural. Instead, it explores man’s capacity for murder, and lays the blame squarely at the feet of a guilt-ridden post-WWII Japanese society.
This isn’t an action thriller that glorifies violence and gore. In fact, after the two bloody murders that open the film, it’s all slow character-building and context.
Ogata is a menacing presence but his Enokizu is also a desperate and frustrated man. He’s already an outcast in Japanese society for being raised Catholic, and he learns at a young age to hypocrisy everywhere. When he’s released from an early stint in prison, a doomed view of his life overtakes him and he sets out on a course for self-destruction.
The title “Vengeance is Mine” sounds more like a violent soap opera than a serious challenge to contemporary culture, but that’s exactly what it is. Enokizu dispassionately wanders through the underbelly of Japan, swindling and killing people, but he’s clearly flailing. Imamura injects an air of inevitability into Enokizu’s spree, and projects his own commentary into the situation.
I won’t blow the famous last scene of the movie for you (is it even possible to issue a spoiler for a movie from 1979?), but it reiterates Enokizu’s rebellious nature in the most absurd way possible — and is prescient in suggesting that this kind of societal alienation and its resulting loss of life won’t stop anytime soon.