The story behind the production of Hitler’s Madman is almost a Hollywood narrative in itself. Most of the details in this story are from Sirk interviews, primarily from Jon Halliday’s book in 1971 (revised in 1997). Detlef Sierck arrived in the US in 1939 from the Netherlands where he had directed the film Boefje. He left for the US when production was completed (and before its release). He had received a contract from Warner Bros. with the studio hoping to produce a revised American version of Sirk’s 1937 Ufa success Zu Neuen Ufern. After a year the contract was not renewed. Warner Bros. had a new script by Sirk but decided against making the film. Sirk (his name was changed soon after arriving in the US) spent his last $1,000 in buying a chicken farm in California. In 1941 he got an offer to lead a light opera company in San Francisco but this was withdrawn when the news of Pearl Harbour came through. Sirk had sold the chicken farm and was now growing alfalfa, but no agricultural labourers available to harvest the crop. In 1942 he secured a contract with Columbia as a writer, producing several scripts and pursuing various projects, none of which became productions. In the Summer of 1942 he was approached by a group of German émigrés and hired to shoot a film about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the head of German Security and the ‘Protector’ of Occupied Czechoslovakia who had died of his wounds in June.
The shoot was organised as an independent production with a very low budget, but with three bankable leading players and the producer was to be Seymour Nebenzal, who Sirk had known in Germany. Sirk initially viewed it as even lower lower than a ‘B’ budget, “more like a C or D”. It had to be shot in one week and had to have an American cinematographer. Jack Greenhalgh was nominally given the role but Sirk actually used Eugen Schüfftan who could not get official US accreditation through the ASC. When the film was completed it was due to be released by Republic which had an option for a month. When the month ran out, MGM stepped in to distribute and decided to re-shoot some scenes, adding extra material. Sirk was hired for the re-shoots (despite resistance from Harry Cohn at Columbia). The re-shoot was in October-November 1942 but MGM delayed the release until July 1943. By this time, Fritz Lang’s version of the story had already been released as Hangmen Also Die! with a script by Bertolt Brecht. Sirk’s film had originally been given the title Hitler’s Hangman and was completed before Lang’s picture but, now the title had to be changed to avoid confusion.
The Sirk version of the story sticks fairly closely to the actual events which saw two Czech soldiers trained by the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) parachuted into the country close to the mining village of Lidice. In the Sirk version the single parachutist is Karel (Alan Curtis), one of six who have landed in the country to stimulate resistance and form sabotage groups. Karel quickly finds Jarmilla (Patricia Morison) the girl he left behind when he escaped to England. The first part of the film follows his attempts to recruit local men to form groups of saboteurs. He meets some obstacles because the men are concerned about reprisals which could mean death or incarceration in concentration camps for family members. The attempt to assassinate Heydrich (John Carradine) in this story is opportunistic. Heydrich drives through the village at speed disrupting a local church festival and causing outrage. Karel finds out when Heydrich is due to make the return journey and plans an ambush. Although the ambush is successful, the retaliation is truly dreadful and the whole village is destroyed. All the men are killed and the women and children sent to the camps where few survived. These were the historical events which shocked the world in June 1942.
It’s difficult to judge Sirk’s direction of the film given the MGM re-shoots. In essence the main part of the film uses a few interior locations and a succession of sets representing the local woods where Karel hides and meets the men he knows. The village depends on wheat farming and also a coal mine. Some stock footage appears to be used and Sirk tells us that he aimed for a documentary approach, although I feel that this is undermined somewhat by the forest sets and the swirling mists. The re-shoots appear to have included three major scenes. The first sees Heydrich rounding up the young female students at the university in Prague and arranging them like a line-up of suspects in an American police station before selecting the prettiest to be sent to the Eastern front to ‘entertain’ the troops. The other two cover the massacre in the village and Heydrich’s death scene. These three stand out in terms of production values and the massacre scene in particular was praised by reviewers. Sirk handles his actors, American and a few émigrés, very well. There is a large group of extras for crowd scenes, mostly in the re-shoots I think. There are two diegetic music scenes featuring the Czech National Anthem being sung by children and then the men about to be shot. There is also a score by Karl Hajos assisted by two uncredited composers and, with the expressionist lighting in the forest and cave where Karel makes his base, an overall sense of melodrama is certainly present.
In the Halliday interview, Sirk reveals that during his Ufa days he had met Heydrich at a Berlin party. He makes the point in order to praise John Carradine’s performance which was criticised as being too theatrical. Sirk says he captured Heydrich perfectly. The script was the work of several writers. IMDb lists the novel ‘The Hangman’s Village’ by Bart Lytton as a source. I suspect this was a magazine article rather than a novel but it is mentioned in the film’s credits. The opening and closing sequences in the narrative are accompanied by readings from Edna St Vincent Millay’s poem ‘The Murder of Lidice’. This is undermined a little I think by the male voice reading it at the beginning which to me is too quick. At the end of the film lines from the end of the poem are spoken by the ghosts of the men murdered. I found this more effective and the whole ending is fitting as a melodrama crescendo. I note too from various credits that Edward G. Ulmer worked in several assistant roles on this film. In his interviewSirk notes that he feared by making this quasi B-picture, he might get trapped in the role of a B director rather like Ulmer. But it’s good to see Ulmer in the credits as he had been in Murnau’s films in the 1920s. You feel that he must have learned a great deal and helped to pass it on.
My final thoughts are that Hitler’s Madman has the propaganda feel that was common in many of the British films of the first two or three years of the war and that this carried over into the first two or three years of the American involvement when British films were already becoming more realist and more questioning. The final point to make is that the story of Heydrich’s assassination and its terrible retaliation remains a story that has attracted filmmakers, including two different approaches to ‘Operation Anthropoid’, the codename for the British-designed Czech operation, in 2016/17. In all, there have been eleven films so far and also a short drama documentary, The Silent Village by Humphrey Jennings in 1943, re-imagining the events as the destruction of a Welsh mining village by German forces. As for Sirk, he demonstrated that he could handle the material and the sensationalist promotion by MGM does not appear to have done his reputation any harm. However, he was stuck with a constricting Columbia contract for the next few years and he would struggle to get round it. I will try to cover his next few films over the coming weeks.
Here’s MGM’s trailer: