Director: Douglas Sirk
Warner Archive Collection

Brutal B-programmer concerning an infamous WWII atrocity. Warner Bros.’ Archive Collection has released HITLER’S MADMAN, the 1943 Producers Releasing Corporation/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production directed by Douglas Sirk and starring Patricia Morison, John Carradine, Alan Curtis, Howard Freeman, Ralph Morgan, Ludwig Stossel and Edgar Kennedy. A fictionalized account of 1942’s Operation Anthropoid, where Czech assassins took out SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard "the Butcher of Prague" Heydrich, and the resulting horrific Nazi reprisals against the city of Lidice, HITLER’S MADMAN mixes director Sirk’s complex subtextual concerns with straight-ahead (for its time) horror, in a B shocker that still packs a considerable punch. This fullscreen black and white standard DVD transfer hasn’t been remastered, but it looks quite good all the same; an original trailer is included as a bonus.

In the occupied Czechoslovakian village of Lidice, a small farming community 20 miles outside of Prague in the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, life for the citizens is simple: do what their German overlords say...or else. Young people like brother and sister Rupert (John Good, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY) and Jarmila Hanka (Patricia Morison, DRESSED TO KILL, QUEEN OF THE AMAZONS) pray for deliverance and freedom, but their father, Jan (Ralph Morgan, THE MONSTER MAKER, THE CREEPER), like the rest of the scared townsmen, advises caution: peasants like themselves have survived one yoke or another for centuries. Ex-patriot-turned-English guerilla fighter Karel Vavra (Alan Curtis, BUCK PRIVATES, THE PHANTOM LADY) has other ideas. Parachuting into his old hometown, Karel’s mission is to bring hope to the townspeople by stirring them into action; if millions of American and English boys are leaving their farms to fight for Czechoslovakia’s freedom, then the Czechs must do their part, too, with sabotage. Childhood sweetheart Jarmila is game, but the rest of the townsmen chicken out, conveniently abiding by the town priest Father Semlanik’s (Al Shean, SAN FRANCISCO) balm that God is with those who suffer in silence.

That silence is soon shattered when Bohemia and Moravia’s Gestapo “Reich Protector,” Reinhard Heydrich (John Carradine, SATAN'S CHEERLEADERS, THE MONSTER CLUB), decides that Lidice’s obedience isn’t total enough. Inhuman brutality follows, as Reinhard “the Hangman” Heydrich orders the execution of young father Anton Bartonek (Richard Bailey, ROAD TO THE BIG HOUSE); the forced white slavery of pretty Prague college students like Clara Janek (Jorja Curtright, M), who jumps to her death rather than suffer the rape of hundreds of German soldiers; and finally the execution by Heydrich himself of Father Semlanik. Now it’s time for the village to fight back, beginning with Clara’s father (Victor Kilian, TV's MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN) blowing up the town’s mine and himself (depriving the Germans of much-needed coal in the process). Ironically, it’s Mrs. Marta Bauer (a moving Johanna Hofer, VERONKIA VOSS), the grieving wife of German town mayor/weasel Herman Bauer (Ludwig Stossel, HOUSE OF DRACULA, MAN HUNT), having just lost her two soldier sons to the Fatherland, who tells Jan Hanka where the hated Heydrich will be on a certain fateful morning: on a deserted part of the road outside of town, where a car has to slow down to a crawl to navigate the turns. When Jan, Jarmilla, and Karel succeed in zapping Heydrich, they have no idea what’s in store for them...or for the village of Lidice.

The raising of Lidice and the almost total slaughter of its inhabitants elicited worldwide revulsion when its story was brazenly touted by Hitler’s Third Reich in June, 1942. Widely-feared SS officer Heydrich, a chief architect of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” was an embarrassingly high-value target to get taken out by opposition guerrillas, so an enraged Reich Furher Adolph Hitler and SS Chief Heinrich Himmler believed an overpowering response was needed to quell any potential rising tide of rebellion among the Reich’s occupied people. When incorrect Gestapo intelligence linked the towns of Lidice and Lezaky to the British Special Operations Executive-trained Czech guerrillas that killed Heydrich, reprisals against both towns were sickening in their barbarity: all males over 16 were summarily shot; the women of Lezaky were also killed while the women of Lidice were sent to concentration camps where most later died, as were all the children (81 of whom were gassed immediately). Every last animal in the villages was slaughtered, and both towns were completely raised, with Lidice’s remains covered in soil and planted with crops, as if it never existed. Final death toll: over 1,400 people taken in revenge for Heydrich’s assassination. It was an atrocity particularly stunning in its heartless calculation, during a time of seemingly daily similar outrages.

And so of course this tragedy, unapologetically, was a natural for Hollywood exploitation. What gives HITLER’S MADMAN a decided weight over similar programmer fare of the time is its florid-yet-deadly serious tone, no doubt due to the people involved in the production, many of whom were refugees themselves from Nazi Germany — first-hand witnesses to the nightmarish German state. Producer Seymour Nebenzal (Lang’s M and Pabst’s PANDORA’S BOX), director Douglas Sirk (MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, SIGN OF THE PAGAN), uncredited co-scripter and production designer Edgar G. Ulmer (THE BLACK CAT, DETOUR), story writer Emil Ludwig, and cinematographer Eugen Schufftan had all been forced out of Germany when Hitler and the Nazis came to power (half of the tiny budget was reportedly supplied by a German émigré to the States). That low-budget HITLER’S MADMAN (shot in seven days just four months after the real events by Nebenzal’s tiny Angelus Pictures indie, through PRC) struck some kind of powerful chord with the bigger studios — if not morally, then at least financially — is evident when first Republic Pictures took out an option to release it, and then Metro of all places, a then-unheard of proposition for the Tiffany studio (Louis B. Mayer was fanatical about what he slapped Leo the Lion on...and that never included cheapjack, out-of-house product). Mayer promptly remedied that situation by ordering retakes and added scenes, plugging into this new material a little self-promotional cheesecake, as well, with gorgeous Metro starlets Ava Gardner, Leatrice Gilbert and Mary McLeod sexually threatened by Nazi Carradine. All this tinkering led to HITLER’S MADMAN getting beaten to the punch by United Artists’ similar HANGMEN ALSO DIE!, which came out in March, 1943. Sirk’s movie, however, did solid business (in the face of unimpressed reviews), and is now arguably the better-remembered of the two.

Seen today, HITLER’S MADMAN has not only a lurid, pulpy drive to it that's certainly unusual for a Metro B of the time, it also features a fairly sophisticated, layered subtext that's typical of Sirk, even at this early juncture of his Hollywood career. While the movie's opening should give anyone pause, as narrator Carey Wilson intones Edna St. Vincent Millay's banal The Murder of Lidice, Sirk quickly establishes that HITLER'S MADMAN is going to be more than just cardboard speechifying and crude propaganda. In the Hanka household, the tense dynamics between the cowardly, resigned father and his yearning-to-be-free children is just the first of many such fraught families, battling along generational lines that Sirk would depict in his subsequent American dramas. Sirk's and the screenwriters' take on appeasement and the threat of violence may at first glance seem equally complicated, but it plays out as bracingly simple (particularly viewed against today's dangerous, quivering "moral equivalency" movement). It takes the murder of innocent, brave Father Semlanik for Jan to finally realize that "those who suffer in silence" will suffer in vain; that his younger days of searching for the gray between the black and white of all issues and problems, doesn't work when the stakes with the Nazis are so stark: kill or be killed. Sirk drives this home with one of HITLER'S MADMAN's most grotesque — and grotesquely funny — scenes. As stolid German dope Mayor Bauer is himself dragged off by the Gestapo, after giving his two boys' lives for the Fatherland, his frenzied, terrified response perfectly captures the idiocy of pledging misguided loyalty to a murderous regime that will eventually turn on its own, should it prove convenient: "Mama! Mama! They're taking me! Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!" And while one or two scenes smack of tawdry men's magazine titillation (the Metro-demanded scene of the young girls lined up for sexual inspection), Sirk and the screenwriters give unexpected shading to most of the exploitation proceedings here. Ironically, another Metro scene — Heydrich's death — tricks us into thinking that he's having a change of heart, declaring he doesn't want to die for anyone, including Hitler, while predicting Germany will lose the war. However, we're yanked back to reality when he states his only mistake was not killing nearly enough Czechs in reprisals. HITLER'S MADMAN's fade-out may strike some as hopelessly melodramatic, as the ghostly victims address the audience through the fires of Lidice's remains, declaring they will prevail. However, Sirk's determination to keep HITLER'S MADMAN's tone relentlessly grim from the start (the screams of the women being dragged off to the camps will chill you in their realism), allows it to be a powerful coda that works perfectly within his brutal, outraged narrative schematic.

Warners' fullscreen, 1.37:1 standard black and white transfer is reasonably sharp, with okay image detail, solid blacks, and the expected levels of grain. Contrast varies sometimes, but this is down to the original materials, which do show quite a few image anomalies, such as white scratches and dirt. The Dolby Digital English mono audio track is given a strong re-recording, with a clean, loud level and little if any hiss. No subtitles are available. (Paul Mavis)