Hitler's Madman, a WWII propaganda film, had a complex origin story: filmed shortly after the real events it depicts (the assassination of senior Nazi Reinhard Heydrich and the subsequent massacre of the Czech town of Lidice in reprisal), the appearance of Fritz Lang's similarly-themed Hangmen Also Die! caused its release to be delayed and it also suffered a title change from the catchier Hitler's Hangman. On the plus side, the tiny independent production, shot in just a week, was acquired by MGM and given a bigger budget for re-shoots to enhance its production values. But Sirk ruefully admitted the new scenes actually weakened the film's Poverty Row sensibility, which gave it a slight documentary flavor which was useful.
The Lang film is, I think, superior all round, but the two make interesting companions and Sirk's is tougher, in a way. Lang's movie, originally written by Brecht, attempts to build in a small victory, as a villainous collaborator is framed for the assassination. Sirk ends with the death of Lidice and its populace as spirits, calling for the audience to avenge them.
Lang, however, is interested in complexity: when the Nazis take hostages and threaten to execute them unless Heidrich's assassins surrender themselves, a powerful moral conundrum is illuminated. Sirk's film, with Ralph Morgan as mouthpiece, actually argues that complexity is a confounding illusion and that everything really does come down to simple questions of right and wrong: a defensible position if you have a figure like Heydrich to represent wrong.
Here, Sirk triumphs: the Hangman of Prague doesn't appear in Lang, whereas Sirk, who had actually met his subject at a UFA party, has John Carradine play him with remarkably controlled gusto. Sirk felt that the actor's dry, theatrical quality perfectly suited his character ("Carradine WAS Heydrich") and whatever the accuracy, he's strikingly effective. His uncanny elongation of body and face play like a political cartoon of his real-life prototype, and his hambone tendencies are, if not toned down, certainly focused in a useful way. Every scene with Carradine is horribly compelling, including his last, when he appears to hatch the Final Solution, something Hollywood didn't even know about yet.
The lipsmacking menace of Heydrich, much of it sexual, stands in contrast to Lubitsch's subtler work in To Be Or Not To Be, where that other great German cineaste used the idea that his Nazis had so over-indulged in cruelty as to be bored by it, to justify laid-back performances that eschewed propaganda cliché. It's a more cunning approach, but if we must have leering, beady-eyed Nazis, then Carradine, gloating over teenage Czech students arranged in some kind of horrific sex line-up, is an unbeatable manifestation of human monstrousness.
Unfortunately, Carradine is in very few scenes. Patricia Morison, whom Sirk admired, is top-billed, but she's paired with Alan Curtis, a mustache in search of an actor. Alone, she's good (shiny-eyed, lush-lipped, highly emotive), but, frustrated by her co-star's burnished wooden performance, she overplays to try and force something out of him. This means she never seems to be reacting to what he's actually doing, or listening to what he's saying, but to what she wishes he were doing or saying. Rarely have I see two actors so badly out of sync: one limpid, the other merely limp.
Sirk does better with the supporting cast, particularly stoic Ralph Morgan (whose brother, the Wizard of Oz, is affecting in Frank Borzage's stellar anti-Nazi tract The Mortal Storm). Admittedly, comedians Edgar Kennedy and Jimmy Conlin sometimes seem uncomfortable. The accents are all over the place in this, with a few real Germans and Czechs surrounded by Americans, some of whom attempt to sound European and some of whom don't bother. I think Lang and Borzage had the right idea when they tried to keep their films all-American, so you got a sense of that what happened in Europe could happen in the USA. Thus we get Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan and Lionel Stander in the Lang, and James Stewart, Robert Stack and Ward Bond in the Borzage. It makes for a consistency that's never distracting.
(In England, the documentarist Humphrey Jennings re-staged the Lidice massacre in a Welsh mining town in his short The Silent Village, never attempting to disguise the story's re-location to British soil and driving home the very real possibility that such atrocities were on their way to Allied shores.)
One of Sirk's best players is a real German, Johanna Hofer (not even credited), wife of the great actor Fritz Kortner. If the film has a Sirkian heartbreak moment, it's from her, as she learns of the deaths of her sons on the Eastern Front, which triggers her defection from the Nazi cause. If Sirk had a cast as uniformly good as Carradine and Hofer, he could have made a classic. Shortly later, he would...