It rubs me the wrong way when Americans call each other “traitors.”
That insult is unproductive and unkind. And it’s also untrue. There is no treason going on in 21st Century America. No one is on our doorstep looking to annihilate Americans. If there were, no one would take their side.
Real treason is a rare and remarkable act. Let me tell you about an example:
It all started in Berlin, 1933. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels offered director Fritz Lang a promotion to head of a major German film studio.
Lang politely declined. And then left Germany forever, ultimately settling in Hollywood.
Fast forward a decade: it was starting to look like Mr. Lang was wise to abandon his people. The Germans had picked a fight with everyone in the Slavic world at once. On paper, it looked like the Nazi war machine was winning. On the ground, however, Germans were outnumbered.
“Hangmen Also Die!” is a war-time thriller that is as suspenseful as it is insightful.
It takes place during a few eventful weeks in Prague during the spring of 1942. In the first few minutes, SS leader Reinhard Heydrich is assassinated by a Czech freedom fighter.
Following the killing, the Gestapo is put in charge of Prague. The city is on lockdown. The people are given a clear choice: give the assassin up, or face wave after wave of executions.
So begins a battle of wits and wills between Gestapo investigator Alois Gruber (Alexander Granach) and the people of Prague – particularly the Novotny family, who are the unfortunate folks who end up harboring the assassin.
“Hangmen Also Die!” is an exceptional film. It has some unexpectedly sophisticated observations about the relationship between Germans and Czechs.
In 1942, the Nazis have the guns and the power and the torture chambers. But the Czechs have all the resolve and the hate.
Fritz Lang doesn’t present the Czechs as good guys. He sees a sick new Europe where the Nazis have eradicated goodness.
German Jewish actor Alexander Granach has a fun, unexpected take on a Gestapo investigator. Gruber is like a hound dog in his relentless pursuit of the assassin. But he’s also like a dog in his personal life. He doesn’t care about politics. He doesn’t think the 3rd Reich is going to last a thousand years.
Gruber is enjoying the occupation of Prague knowing full well that it – and he – won’t last very long. He likes the power and the money, but only to the extent that they can get him beer and prostitutes.
Plenty of Czech people are killed in “Hangmen Also Die!” But the occupation has created a new, unstoppable Czech identity. They see themselves as cells in one superorganism; a superorganism hell-bent on violence and vengeance against Germans and whoever collaborates with them.
In an upsetting scene, the daughter of the Novotny family is panicking. She asks a taxi driver to take her to Gestapo headquarters so she can come clean. The cabbie stops and tells the crowd what she is doing. The angry Prague mob begins yelling at Ms. Novotny for collaborating. They begin throwing things at her and hitting her. She only survives because some Gestapo street cops whisk her away.
Fritz Lang gets it. This scene foreshadows the horror of 1945, when the Czech people took serious vengeance. The three million ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia were expelled. Tens of thousands of Germans – and Czech collaborators – were slaughtered in reprisal killings.
In conclusion, Fritz Lang left Germany. He was living in a country that was at war with Germany. He made a movie that praised the Czechs, who were on the verge of ethnically cleansing Germans.