Hangmen Also Die (1943)




Director:     Fritz Lang.

Starring:     Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (Reinhard Heydrich),  Brian Donlevy (Dr. Franticek Svoboda / Karel Vanek),  Walter Brennan (Prof. Stephen Novotny),  Anna Lee (Nasha Novotny),  Nana Bryant (Mrs. Hellie Novotny),  William Roy (Boda Novotny),  Margaret Wycherly (Ludmilla Novotny),  Dennis O'Keefe (Jan Horak, Nasha's fiancé),  Gene Lockhart (Emil Czaka, brewer),  Tonio Selwart (Chief of Gestapo Kurt Haas),  Alexander Granach (Gestapo Insp. Alois Gruber),  Reinhold Schünzel (Gestapo Insp. Ritter), Ludwig Donath (Schirmer),  Arno Frey (Camp lieutenant Itnut),  Sarah Padden (Mrs. Georgia Dvorak, grocer).

 after the assassination of  SS-General Reinhard Heydrich, young Czech woman is enlisted by shady Dr. Svoboda



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 


"Neither the betrayal of Czechoslovakia, nor the blood-bath loosed by Hitler's hordes, could conquer the spirit of this people.  A thousand years of flaming tradition burns in their hearts, and at this Freedom's fire is forged a secret brotherhood, a hidden army of avengers, sworn to rid their land of the Nazi invaders.

"Reinhard Heydrich ruled in Hitler's name over all Czech lives.  His reign of terror caused the people to call him "The Hangman".  He issued his orders of death from the Hradzin Castle that overlooks old Prague, capital of unhappy, but unbeaten Czechoslovakia."

A portrait of Hitler hangs on the walls under the sign of the eagle and the swastika.  Men are waiting for the arrival of Reinhard Heydrich.  A German general asks a Czech general about how much progress has been made on the creation of a Czech anti-Soviet battalion?  The Czech general says it's very difficult because the Czech peasants and workers are very sympathetic to the Russians.  

Everyone snaps to attention with the entry of Heydrich.  The tyrant says that the workers at the Skoda factories are creating a putrid mess.  The swine refuse to work.  A Czech man bothers Heydrich by translating from German to the Czech language while Heydrich is speaking.  He puts a stop to that but the man also asks isn't there a way to avoid such a drastic punishment on the Czech workers?  This infuriates Heydrich and he walks out of the meeting.

Another Nazi officer takes over for him.  The fellow tells everyone that the entire Czech armament production is transferred to his authority.  And there are to be 500 workers executed at the Skoda plants.   This will be overseen by Heydrich personally. 

Heydrich heads for Skoda. 

A woman goes to a store and calls out for Mrs. Georgia Dvorak, grocer.  The woman comes outside and says hello to Nasha Novotny.  Nasha asks for potatoes but today's potatoes have already been sold out.  So Nasha settles for the turnips. 

A limousine driver is arrested for idling his engine when there is an order for strict control of the use of petrol.  A man in the Czech Resistance tells a colleague that Vanek is arrested, so the carriage must be used.  The colleague gets on the carriage and drives his horse away. 

Vanek, however, is still free.  He comes to the corner across from the Apothecary shop.  He then goes over to Nasha at the grocers and asks her if she has seen a taxi cab waiting?  She says yes, but the Occupation police gave him some trouble.  They drove off with the driver.  Vanek hears the sound of a whistle blow and hides behind a door of a shop.  The German in charge of a small group of men asks Nasha which way did a man run?  She deliberately misdirects the soldiers and they all head off in the wrong direction. 

Vanek walks warily on the streets of Prague.  German soldiers are asking people on the street to show their identification papers.  Vanek ducks into a movie theater.  He tries to hide there in the dark, but the people all of a sudden are telling each other something about Heydrich.  A man with a swastika armband stands up and orders the film be stopped and the lights turned on in the theater.  He demands to know who started the round of applause?  Someone says the unknown soldier started it.   The Nazi official tells everyone that no one can leave the theater.  With that the people start immediately leaving the theater.  The official tries to stop people, but someone knocks him out cold with a fist to his face. 

The news that went through the theater was that of the attempted assassination of Heydrich.  A state of emergency is declared. 

Vanek tries to rent a hotel room, but the woman there is afraid and won't let him rent a room. 

Nasha's father, Prof. Stephen Novotny, comes home with the news that Heydrich has been shot.  Nasha says that she thinks she saw the man who may have shot Heydrich.  Dad tells her to be quiet and come inside his office.  He tells his daughter that she is to tell no one that she saw the man that shot Heydrich.  That bit of news will spread like wildfire and the Gestapo will soon learn of it. 

The limousine driver arrested earlier in the day is now accused of being the driver of the get away car for the shooter of Heyrich.  They take him to be tortured, but the very broad-shouldered driver knocks both of his guards down and then jumps through a window.  He dies. 

Vanek waits in a small restaurant.  Two German soldiers come in telling the patrons that all restaurants, cafes, theaters and public buildings are to close immediately.  And there is a curfew imposed at 7 p.m.   Anyone violating the curfew is subject to being shot. 

Jan Horak, Nasha's fiancé, is over at Nasha's home.  Her mother tells Jan that he has to leave soon now because he can't violate the curfew.  He says good night and leaves.  As he descends the stairs he passes Vanek with flowers in his arms. 

The doorbell rings at Nasha's place and she figures it's Jan.  She is absolutely shocked to see Vanek's face.  He explains that he got her name and address from the grocer lady.  He also explains that he has no where to go.  She lets him come in and goes to hide him, but her mother sees the man and wants to be introduced.  Vanek has to introduce himself because Nasha does not know his name. 

It is already now after curfew, so mother invites Vanek to dine with them.  At the table mother brings up the subject of the shooting of Heydrich.  Nasha's brother Boda turns on the radio for the latest news.  He then goes to cut a slice of bread off a huge bread loaf and cuts himself.  Mother thinks the wound will require stitches.  Vanek looks at the wound and says it will not require stitches.  He asks for cotton, iodine and a bandage to stop the bleeding. 

The announcement says anyone aiding and abetting the shooter of Heydrich will be executed. 

Emil Czaka, brewer, looks through the Gestapo files to see what they may have on him.  His friend catches him doing this and teases him about it.  That makes Czaka a bit nervous. 

Vanek is going to be sleeping on the couch in father's study.  Dad says he's going to bed.  What he does is listen to the radio for the British broadcast station.  The news  is that the shooting of Heydrich may lead to a blood-bath in Czechoslovakia as the Germans start taking reprisals against the Czechs.   

The grocer Mrs. Georgia Dvorak is in Gestapo Headquarters.   The Gestapo wants the grocer to tell them who was the woman who directed their men in the wrong direction when they were chasing after the assassin? 

The Gestapo come to arrest father.  He is going to be held hostage along with many other Czechs as a hostage to assure greater cooperation with the Gestapo.  In fact, a lot of intellectuals are taken as hostages. 

Nasha tells her fiancé that there is only one hope to save the hostages and that is for the assassin to give himself up.  Boda returns home from school early.  He says they closed the schools for an entire week.  They say it's because of the killing of Heydrich, but he has heard that the school will be used as a hospital to provide care for the German wounded from the battles on the eastern front. 

Vanek now makes an appearance as Dr. Franticek Svoboda working to take care of his patients.  His first patient is a man that works with Svoboda in the Resistance.  He congratulates the doctor on his success.  The doctor is upset because the Germans have grabbed over 400 hostages.  He tells his colleague that he is going to give himself up.    The colleague tells him that he was chosen as a representative by the Czech people to kill the Nazi hangman.  He is not to blame if the 400 hostages are killed.  He also asks what is 400 men compared to a monstrous war in which millions are killed?  If the Germans get Svoboda, millions of Czechs will think that it is impossible to resist the Germans, because they will all end up dead.  Should all the Resistance people surrender too to avoid reprisals from the Germans? 

Svoboda's next patient is Nasha.  She asks him what is he going to do about the 400 hostages?  He says "nothing" and Nasha really lets him have it.  She says the doctor is the only one who can save her father.  She says even the Gestapo can't be as inhuman as he is.  Nasha catches a carriage to take her to Gestapo Headquarters.  Inside the cab is a restaurant flier that has stamped on it:  "Citizens of Prague  KEEP SILENT!"

Nasha realizes that the cab is going the wrong way.  The Resistance man that talked with Svoboda jumps into the cab and starts telling her that whether she likes it or not she is involved in a war.  Nasha refuses to listen to the man, breaks a window and calls out to a Czech policeman to stop the carriage.  The carriage stops and the Resistance man gets out on the other side and walks quietly away. 

Nasha jumps out and starts telling her tale of the driver who wouldn't take her to where she wanted to go.  A crowd has gathered around the carriage now.  The policeman asks her where does she want to go?  To the Gestapo.  The people gasp at the very name of the Gestapo.  The policeman asks her if the Gestapo called for her to come in?  No.  A woman comes up to Nasha and asks:  "Well, if they didn't send for you, what business do you have with those butchers?"  Another woman asks:  "Who you squealing on, you little Judas?"  And now the women start hitting Nasha with their hats.  Nasha screams and that gets the attention of the German police.  The policeman says he will take Nasha to Gestapo headquarters. 

At headquarters, she is given a pass and told to wait.  Nasha asks the secretary where is the wash room?  The secretary tells her and now Nasha starts walking around.  Nazi officials sent her to different people and finally she is taken to the man who tortured Mrs. Georgia Dvorak.  The Gestapo fellow goes to his superiors to tell them this woman knows more than the story she told to save her father from being a hostage.  He comes back and tells Nasha that he was hoping she was coming in to collect the one million mark reward for the assassin. 

Mrs. Dvorak is brought into the office.  She is asked if this is the girl that misdirected the Gestapo men chasing the assassin?  Mrs. Dvorak says no.  She is taken out.

[How does it feel Nasha, you who came to turn in the assassin, to not be turned into the Gestapo by a  fellow Czech who herself faces death at the hands of the Gestapo?]

The superiors call the fellow talking with Nasha and tell her that she is going to be set free.  But then they detain her because of some bureaucratic reason of paper work or something similar.  They need time to go through Nasha's family's apartment.  The Gestapo men break a lot of the possessions of the family as they rifle through drawers and cabinets. 

The hostages are awakened and formed into two lines. It looks like every 11th person in line will be shot today. 

The Gestapo searchers report that they found nothing suspicious in the family apartment.  Now the interrogator has Nasha sign a write up of what happened to her.  The interrogator also tells her that in a few minutes the first 40 hostages will be shot.  Nasha is shocked to hear this, but the interrogator tells her that her father is not among the selected 40.  She is free to leave now. 

Nasha goes home and mother tells her that she told the Gestapo that it was Nasha's fiancé Jan who stayed over at the house the one night.  Nasha goes over to Jan's place to make sure everything is alright.  Jan tells her that he spent all day at Gestapo headquarters.  Now he asks Nasha who was the guy who stayed over the previous night?   She tells him not to ask her.  He will just have to trust her. 

The next  morning Nasha is arrested.  In fact, her whole family is interrogated.  Nasha is told to answer truthfully or they will force her to talk. 

Nasha is put in a cell.  Mrs. Dvorak is already there.  Nasha goes over to check on her.

A note with flowers comes for Nasha at the apartment.  The Gestapo grabs the note and the flowers. The note says that Karel Vanek will call on her tonight at 5 p.m.  When the Gestapo are finished with Nasha, they let her go.  Nasha returns home and finds the note and the flowers.  Shortly afterwards, Dr. Svoboda arrives.  He starts talking to her about what's going on, but hands her another note saying the Gestapo have the placed wired.  So they talk together, but never really reveal anything like a confession to the murder of Heydrich.  The head of the Gestapo says to release the entire family and they will start anew on finding the assassin. 

At a Resistance meeting Emil Czaka, brewer, says he is worried about the 850 hostages that have been arrested so far.   Many of these men are highly accomplished and are the leaders of Czechoslovakia.  He wants the assassin to be turned over to the Gestapo.  Emil's suggestion is unanimously defeated. 

A man listening to Emil speak is very suspicious of him and he advises that the Resistance group be done away with.   The traitor that was spoken of earlier speaks perfec German, but Emil doesn't speak German at all.  Herr Gruber tells Emil that he may have stepped too far out on a limb, so Emil wants a body guard with him at all times.  The answer is no.  So Emil says he will pay Gruber for police protection.  So Gruber says Emil will pay him 2,000 marks per day.  Emil thinks the amount is totally excessive, but he has little choice but to go along with the amount. 

Gruber calls Nasha saying that her father will be executed at 6 a.m.  She can come down before hand to say her goodbyes. 

Nasha has ten minutes only to talk with her father.  At the end of ten minutes, dad is placed on a truck and driven away.  Gruber is in the room now with Nasha and he tells her she can still save her father, if she will just tell them the name of the man who she helped escape from the Gestapo.  Nasha says nothing and walks out of the room. 

The Resistance is setting a trap for Emil Czaka.  They want to see if perhaps he really does know how to speak German.  Emil is introduced to Mr. Debidge who is just in for a visit with them.  The waiter tells a joke in German and Emil roars with laughter.  Everybody now knows he speaks German.  They figure that Emil is the spy in their midst.  Emil starts to run and a big fellow grabs him, but Emil is able to push him away.  Now two large men grab Emil, but they can't stop him from yelling out for the police in the main room of the restaurant. 

The police burst into the room.  They shoot Mr. Debidge twice in the back.  Emil holds one of the Resistance people while a policeman pistol whips the big fellow that had struggled so much to hold Emil under control.  Another Resistance fellow fights with a policeman, breaks away to make a run for it, but he is also shot in the back.  The waiter is helping a man get out of the back window, but they stop when the policeman says halt.  [Talk about a poorly planned trap for a spy!]  The trap turned into a fiasco for the local Resistance. 

The Nazis want four speakers from each barracks to be selected and to prepare to make a statement that the assassin must turn himself into the authorities.  The Czech hostages are none too happy about that demand. The hostages discuss the matter together. 

Eight captive Resistance people are brought into Gestapo headquarters.  Emil taunts a couple of the prisoners and starts two ruckuses.  Gruber tells Emil to stay out of it.  What he wants is for these prisoners to talk about this Resistance person Debidge.

Dr. Svoboda talks with what's left of the Resistance leadership.  He says that Debidge was badly wounded in the shoot out in the restaurant.  He came to see Svoboda to tell him his instructions for what he is to do next.  Svoboda says that Debidge has a plan to both save Svoboda and the rest of the hostages. 

A taxi driver comes into talk with Gruber.  He thinks he dropped off one of the wanted Resistance men at 61 Czerny Street, but he's not sure.  Gruber throws the man out for not remembering where he dropped the Resistance man.  After the guy leaves, Gruber remembers seeing that street address recently in his paperwork.  He frantically goes through the papers on his desk until he finds the street address of 21 Czerny Street.  The person who lives there is Dr. Svoboda. 

Gruber and the Gestapo pay a visit to Svoboda's apartment.  They don't find Debidge, but they do find Nasha in the other room in her slip.  While Gruber talks, Svoboda notices that blood is dropping down onto an exposed newspaper  He goes to get two glasses of red wine.  He pretends to stumble and throws the red wine onto the newspaper with the red blood. 

Now the fiancé is brought in and he is surprised to see his girl with Svoboda.  Nasha is also shocked to see her fiancé.  Gruber says he just wanted Horak to know what his fiancé is up to.  He says he will leave the three of them alone to talk things out.  Nasha figures that the Nazis are still listening to them so she just rudely tells Horak that she just fell in love with the doctor.  Horak leaves and walks out of the apartment with Gruber. 

Svoboda locks the apartment door.  He and Nasha retrieve Debidge from behind one of the curtains.  The man looks very weak. 

Meanwhile, Gruber takes Horak to a night club.  He gets a girl for himself and one for Horak.  After a drink or two, they take the party over to Horak's place. 

Debidge tells Nasha that in the plan that he has almost everything depends on her.  He also says he thinks the people of Prague will come to help them. 

The next day Gruber is absent from work, because he is still hung over from the party he had over at Horak's place. 

The body of Heydrich lies in state.  It took him weeks to die from his wounds.  And so now the Germans want to hurry up the executions.  Now every two hours more hostages will be killed, unless the name of the assassin is turned in. 

Svoboda and Nasha are eating at a restaurant.   The spy Emil comes in for his dinner.  The couple have a toast, but Nasha drops her glass when she see a suspicious man at still another table.  Nasha has a note sent over to Emil.  Emil reads the note but disregards it.  So Nasha goes over to speak with Emil directly.  It looks like she's telling him off.  Emil's two bodyguards come over to ask the lady what does she want from this gentleman?  The suspicious looking man comes over and shows his badge that shows he from the Gestapo.  He takes the note out of Emil's pocket and reads it.   He takes  Nasha by her arm and says they will discuss her situation somewhere else.  Meanwhile, Emil is to be taken down to Gestapo headquarters by the two body guards.  Emil forgets to take his gold cigarette lighter with his initials on it and Svoboda picks it up off the table. 

Down at headquarters, the interrogator reads the note:  "I recognize you --  must talk to you privately at once."  The interrogator demands an explanation from Nasha about what does she want to talk about that's so urgent?  Emil says that Nasha thinks she recognizes him as the man who might have shot Heydrich.   Emil starts laughing at this ridiculous notion, but the interrogator goes to check with his superiors about this. 

The Germans pick out three men, perhaps to be executed. 

The Gestapo commandant talks with Nasha and wants her to tell her whole story, but it better be truthful.  Nasha says she was on the street corner in question on the day Heydrich was assassinated.  She saw Emil running.  He ran around the corner and then jumped into a cab.  So now the commandant wants the cab driver brought in as well as Emil.  The cab driver identifies Emil as the man who he picked up that day.  More and more witnesses are brought in and they all finger Emil.  Four people from the restaurant where Emil always eats say that on the day that Heydrich was shot, Emil did not eat at the restaurant. 

Three more hostages are selected from each barracks to be executed by  the Germans. 

More witnesses come in to testify against Emil.  Now the guy is really getting scared.  He says that all these people are lying.  He says it's a fantastic frame-up.  Emil says he wants to have Gruber come down here because he talked to him on the phone around 2:30 p.m. But no one has been able to contact Gruber.

Gruber is still offer at Horak's place.  He starts saying that Nasha and Svoboda staged the whole thing.  This mean that it was either Svoboda or Debidge who was the assassin and Horak's fiancé was in the thick of it with them.  He is going to call Gestapo headquarters.  Horak tries to stop him and the two fight it out.  Gruber wins the fight. 

Gruber tells a tied-up Horak that he is going to confront Svoboda. 

Boda comes over to Horak's apartment looking for him.  He rings the doorbell, but there is no answer.  Horak is able to push a lamp on an end table over onto the ground.  It makes a lot of noise and Boda hears it.  He looks through the key hole and sees Horak tied up.  He grabs the knife from his pocket and starts sticking it into the key slot.   The boy gets in and releases Horak.  Horak heads over to the hospital where Svoboda works.

Gruber confronts Svoboda and Dr. Pilar who substituted for Dr. Svoboda in an operation on the day Heydrich was shot.  The two doctors start to close in on Gruber, but he pulls out his pistol and holds them at bay.  Dr. Pilar throws a scalpel at Gruber but it falls short.  He starts to telephone Gestapo headquarters when Horak comes in and slugs Gruber.  Now Svoboda throws some towels over Gruber's face and starts to suffocate him. 

Horak now goes over to Gestapo headquarters.  Horak tells about being out the night before at a night cub with two women.  Then the party was transferred over to Horak's place.  Gruber left around 10 a.m. saying he was going over to Emil's house. 

The commandant calls Emil's house and talks to someone on the phone.  Emil comes in to speak with the commandant and the commandant starts firing questions at him.  Where was Emil from 10 to 12 p.m.?  The commandant answers the question saying Emil was with Gruber during this time period at Emil's home.  Emil demands to know who said this?  The commandant says Emil's butler just told him on the phone a moment ago. 

Now Emil and the Gestapo go to Emil's house to talk to the butler.  The butler confirms that Gruber was here.  The guard machine guns the study door open and the Gestapo go in to investigate.  They find Gruber's calling card.  In a desk drawer they also find a pistol made in England of the same caliber that killed Heydrich.  Now the commandant orders the arrest of Emil.  And then a message is brought in that the dead body of Gruber was found in the cellar under a huge pile of coal. 

Now Nasha is told she is free to go.  The remaining hostages will be released tomorrow morning. 

The Gestapo takes Emil for a ride.  Then they stop the car, let Emil out, remove his handcuffs and tell him he is free to go.  They tell him to run.  He starts running but is shot in the back and falls onto the street.  He gets up to go into a church, but is shot in the back a second time.  That's all for Emil Czaka. 

Later, a Gestapo report says:  "however, the investigation proved beyond all doubt, that the aforementioned Czaka cannot have been the assassin."  It goes on to says:  "but in view of the fact that the sharpest terror failed to force the people to denounce the real assassin, we are compelled to save the face of the German occupational authority and choose the lesser evil by accepting Czaka as the assassin  --  and thus close the case."


Good film.  Now the assassination and aftermath were not like they were portrayed in the film.  A film closer to the truth is  Operation Daybreak (1975).   Nevertheless, the plot of this film is very creative and interesting to watch.  The film often praises the heroism and courage of the Czech people in the resistance to the Nazi occupational forces.  And in the film the people are an important component of the Czech Resistance.   I wasn't all that impressed by the acting.  It's all right, but not good.  (Oh, Gene Lockhart as Emil Czaka, brewer, was good in his role as the spy.)   The film is clever in its ending, but I still prefer "Operation Daybreak" because it is much closer to the truth.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


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