The hangman of the film’s title is Reinhard Heydrich, one of Hitler’s top men, No. 2 in the SS, put in charge of the occupied city of Prague. He was killed by a British commando team in 1942, and the Germans shot 1600 people and destroyed Lidice in retaliation. At the time this movie was made, according to Wikipedia, the actual story wasn’t known, and the film makes it the act of the local resistance movement.
The film was the work of the Expressionist master, Fritz Lang, with Bertolt Brecht and others helping out on the writing. It’s a long film for that time, over two hours, and it’s filled with shadows, menace, brutality, and a bit of Hollywood wartime feel-good sentimental patriotism. Mostly, it’s scary and claustrophobic. It tells a story of the assassin attempting to elude the Nazis, torn by his duty to the underground and the knowledge that the Germans have arrested hundreds of innocent people to shoot in batches until he is discovered.
The Hangman of Prague makes his entrance in the beginning, shown as a strutting peacock and a sadist. At first, I thought I was watching Klink from Hogan’s Heroes. In general, the Gestapo are shown as brutal, sadistic, and full of themselves. We get a close-up of one looking at himself in a mirror while he squeezes a big pimple on his face during a break in his desk work. The depiction of interrogations, though without much explicit violence, is chilling. One old lady is made to stand by a chair that is designed to come apart if she puts her weight on it for relief. The film is filled with sick little details like that.
The most interesting character in the film is Inspector Gruber of the Gestapo played by a well known Jewish character actor of the day. Gruber is a sexual libertine and a heavy drinker. In contrast to many of the Nazi villains who are uptight sadistic militarists, he is earthy and almost casual in his mannerisms, but he is very clever.
Here we see him at work in his office. No uniform, sitting down and giving orders, a modest (venus pudica) nude in the background. He is on a long leather couch. Could this office be the commandeered space of a psychoanalyst?
With business over, Herr Gruber gets down to business with his secretary who was behind the screen.
In Lang’s earlier classic, M, the image of a balloon floating upwards was used to indicate the murder of a child. There is a similar use of images to indicate or punctuate actions in this film, as well as to build character. In this image, Gruber is shown pulling us his socks and tieing his shoelaces – a frequent action for him. It distinguishes him yet again from his fellow Nazis, always so spit-and-polish. Here, he does it front of a naked statue, in a place that doubles as a workplace and a place of sexual indulgence.
On the track of the assassin, Gruber breaks in on a couple in the midst of a tryst, or so it seems. (In fact, the woman is pretending in order to hide a fugitive.) Gruber is not put off by her state of undress – he rather enjoys making her uncomfortable while he thoroughly ransacks the room. He also enjoys the possibility, slim he thinks, that he has simply blundered into an adulterous rendezvous. It’s all the same to him!
Later, Gruber carouses all night with some prostitutes, and forces one of his suspects, the actual fiance of the young woman, to join him. He thinks he can wear him down with drink, women, and jealousy. (The guy isn’t in on what his girl is involved with.) The lipstick on his cheek jogs his memory about a detail in his meeting with the girl and he’s off to get her. He knows she’s involved in the plot!
He finds the real killer of Heydrich, a local surgeon, but the doctor kills him before Gruber can turn him in. Like the balloon floating upwards, his hat, falling to the ground and rolling about under the table on which he is being throttled to death indicates his end. His left foot dangles nearly to the floor, its sock and part of his calf visible. When his body if found in a cellar coal heap, planted there to pin the blame for the assassination on a collaborator, only his calves, shoes and socks are visible.