Film review of the Nazi hunter sci-fi thriller starring Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier and James Mason.
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner. 20th Century Fox/Lew Grade/Producers Circle/ITC
Producer: Stanley O’Toole, Martin Richards.
Writer: Heywood Gould.
Camera: Henri Decae.
Music: Jerry Goldsmith.
Sets: Gil Parrondo.
Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier, James Mason, Lilli Palmer, Uta Hagen, Steve Guttenberg, Denholm Elliott, Rosemary Harris, John Dehner, John Rubinstein, Anne Meara, Jeremy Black, Bruno Ganz, Walter Gotell.
Ageing Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Olivier) is tipped off by a young Jewish American operating on his own (Guttenberg) about a mysterious meeting in South America headed by the infamous war criminal Dr Josef Mengele (Peck), a man Lieberman has chases unsuccessfully for many years. Despite infirmity and a lack of funds, he sets about investigating why Mengele is plotting to murder several seemingly inconspicuous men in various locations around the world over the next two years.
The atrocities committed by the Nazis during World War II, on such an unthinkable scale and level of inhumanity, must have seemed unbelievable, perhaps ridiculous, to a war weary public of 1945. After the full realisation of the Holocaust had sunk in, were humans capable of doing such things to other humans? Was this level of death real or even possible?
1940’s and 1950’s cinema saw a lot of heavy WWII traffic that continues to this day (Brad Pitt has made several WWII films himself, including the just released Fury), much of it very similar – honourable, action-packed chronicles of various key figures, developments and battles.
But stranger products started to emerge as the patriarchal Hollywood studio system dwindled in the 1960’s and the Nuremburg trials saw the full horror of Nazi war crimes being discussed in the public domain. It was now possible and permissible for artists to stretch the normative boundaries of the stories they wished to tell. The realms of impossibility were removed when the extent and mindlessness of Nazi actions were increasingly revealed.
This truly odd addition to the WWII film canon, although it isn’t set during the war and doesn’t really focus on it at all, based on the best-seller by author Ira Levin, is one such film.
Levin had also written the modern day devil worshipping book-turned-movie-blockbuster Rosemary’s Baby and focused here on Mengele, a real-life devil in a white coat and stethoscope, attempting to genetically clone Hitler and replicate as much as he can the environmental conditions Hitler experienced when growing up. The aim is to produce at least one Fuhrer to create a Fourth Reich in the future.
Levin wrote many a taut, solidly fashioned book, but even in light of current advances in genetics this is utter tosh. Schaffner as director had helmed many mighty epics, keeping a tight reign on the scientific histrionics in films such as Planet Of the Apes (1968), but here seems unable or unwilling to control his actors and his story. The nature versus nurture debate is entirely eschewed; Hitler experienced many other formative events in his life, including serving in the First World War, slightly more difficult for a scientist to recreate in the real world. This is a silly late addition to Schaffner’s oueuvre.
Clearly Olivier was up for a run of Nazi nonsense in the late seventies. Following his performance in Marathon Man (1976) as a Nazi war criminal on the run whom was loosely based on Dr Mengele, here he plays a man entirely based on legendary Nazi hunter and writer Simon Wiesenthal, the man who helped bring Adolf Eichmann, one the architects of the ‘The Final Solution’, to justice.
Quite how an actor of Olivier’s calibre arrived at such a flippantly, deliberately over the top, half-parodic performance is difficult to say. He met Wiesenthal in person who offered tips on how best to play him. I’ve seen interviews with Wiesenthal and although Olivier nails the accent (slightly nasal Austrain, with a tendency to a higher pitch), he over eggs the gesticulation and theatrical mannerisms. This is a classical actor’s interpretation of a historical figure, full of artistry and flare, but not a jot of realism.
Peck duly follows suit, perhaps duped by the great man’s decision to play this as if it were a high camp comedy chase across the world. Upright and quietly heroic Peck had essayed a clutch of performances that could be described as ‘villainous’ (the sweatily lustful ranch heir in Duel In the Sun, 1946, Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, 1956) with mixed but agreeably surprising results. His Mengele is too pantomimic to be fully credible.
There is a brief description of the horrific experiments this man actually conducted on Jewish prisoners (mostly children), but he comes across as the bigoted uncle one tries to avoid at infrequent and uncomfortable family gatherings rather than the actual ‘Angel of Death’.
It is up to the wonderfully nuanced performances of the supporting cast to carry the can for them. Mason is quietly officious as an aristocratic Nazi who works in the background against Mengele whilst pretending to be his supporter.
Legendary acting coach and classical actress Hagen puts in a rare film appearance as an imprisoned, vicious and gleefully unrepentant former concentration camp guard who strangled girls with their own hair, based on Hermine Braunsteiner (another of Wiesenthal’s captured Nazi’s). In a single scene she out acts Olivier by taunting and insulting him.
Harris (Aunty Em in the recent Spiderman films) puts in an early appearance as a recently widowed Nazi wife who happily reveals her shapely legs to Olivier despite being dressed in mourning clothes.