The Boys from Brazil
(SPOILERS) Nazis, Nazis everywhere! The Boys from Brazil has one distinct advantage over its fascist-antagonist predecessor Marathon Man; it has no delusions that it is anything other than garish, crass pulp fiction. John Schlesinger attempted to dress his Dustin Hoffman-starrer up with an art-house veneer and in so doing succeeded in emphasising how ridiculous it was in the wrong way. On the other hand, Schlesinger at least brought a demonstrable skill set to the table. For all its faults, Marathon Man moves, and is highly entertaining. The Boys from Brazil is hampered by Franklin J Schaffner’s sluggish literalism. Where that was fine for an Oscar-strewn biopic (Patton), or keeping one foot on the ground with material that might easily have induced derision (Planet of the Apes), here the eccentric-but-catchy conceit ensures The Boys from Brazil veers unfavourably into the territory of farce played straight.
Mengele: You’re the living duplicate of the greatest man in history.
Because Ira Levin’s novel has an irresistibly absurd premise. Not so much the cloning – there are plenty who will tell you, perhaps most famously Donald Campbell, it’s alive and well and abundant in underground bases and amongst celebs and politicians, as much as there are those who suggest it’s one of science’s many deceit-conceits, and that any such apparently misfiring clones are either doubles and/or those with their MKUltra programming breaking down – but the minutiae of setting up the mystery.
Levin begins with an inscrutable poser; why are men of about 65 across nine different countries earmarked to be murdered over the next two and a half years? The answer is a nice little nature-nurture riff, for clones of Herr Hitler have been furnished with as similar as possible environmental conditions to ensure they grow up to be fully Fuhrer-capable, which means daddy issues (although, taken to its logical conclusion, one would surely be required to muster a handy world war, a home country in dire straits and need of rehabilitation, and some very dapper uniforms).
Levin previously showed a shrewd grasp for the punchy and commercially becoming with Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, so it’s no wonder this was snapped up as ideal Hollywood fodder. Unfortunately, the snapper was the transatlantic Lew Grade, he of the more-miss-than-hit film empire and latterly Raise the Titanic. Levin taps in to the deranged science of The Stepford Wives in order to explore genetic engineering at its most horrendous – at one point, Schaffner even has a character deliver a lecture on the subject with the help of film reels and a white board – but most especially, he explores the Hitler mythos. After all, he’d already done the devil’s child, and this was the next logical progression (The Boys from Brazil also, in Jeremy Black, found a far more convincing child psychopath than the two-years-prior The Omen).
There’s no need to interrogate the actual terrain of World War II and the rise of National Socialism – see the works of Anthony Sutton for a peek into the philosophy and financing of such excursions – when you have a made-to-measure bogeyman – or men – assuaging any doubts over motive. So too, the double-header of the equally invidious Josef Mengele personified as a white-caked Gregory Peck surveying his Dr Moreau-ish Paraguayan retreat and confirming every dreadful report about the man and more.
This kind of extravagance, legitimised by acting legends like Sir Larry, James Mason and (well, slightly less so) Peck is, in a way, doing the same thing as Marathon Man: inviting the fiction to run parallel with the official history and underpin it (in contrast, the forbidden nature of questioning the official history, running as it does in this case risk of censure, fine or imprisonment, should in itself make one deeply uneasy). It’s only really with Spielberg and his slapstick Nazis that Hollywood gets the true measure of the simplistic view encouraged, nay demanded, of us (of course, he would then recant to sombre and universal acclaim with the less cartoonish but more lurid and manipulative Schindler’s List).
Spielberg, in the “innocence” of his youth, knew to have fun with his Nazis, but there’s precious little sense of vim and energy to Schaffner’s film, as relentlessly schlocky as it is. I suspect that is, in part, because Schaffner has no facility for the absurd, less still for the thriller. After all, he was earlier responsible for a Best Picture Oscar nominee so inert it makes the average Sir Dickie biopic look like a thrill ride (Nicholas and Alexandra).
Olivier knows the kind of movie he’s in, and has a bit of fun with aging Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman. And as pilloried as his performance was in some quarters (Pauline Kael), Peck – replacing George C Scott – is also decent ham value in a picture Time Out’s David Pirie observed boasted “more phoney German accents than a prep school version of Colditz”. Perhaps a hungry young wunderkind would have serviced The Boys from Brazil with the lack of respect it deserved (Brett Ratner pre-fall from lack of grace, had been attached to a remake, which would have been exactly what it didn’t need, given his it’ll-do Red Dragon).
There really ought to be twinkle in the filmic eye after delivering a gratuitously gory finale – Lew Grade blanched at it, but Schaffner had final cut – in which Mengele is cathartically savaged by young Hitler’s kill-crazy Dobermans, and yet Lieberman is unwavering that the boy – even the boy Hitler – is not the man, in answer to Steven Moffat’s philosophical favourite “Would you Kill Hitler as a child?” He is thus the personification of forward moral thinking. Unlike David Bennett (Crazy Like a Fox’s John Rubinstein), who wants to do for every little young adult ubermensch running about the place pulling the wings off butterflies as a warm-up act. But you know what? It looks like Bennett was right, as the last shot leaves us under no doubt that having done for Mengele has left young Bobby Hitler with a powerfully sadistic leaning (pouring over piccies he took of death by Pincher). Well, more than the one he already had.
Brazil should be tense, taut, thrilling, but alas, it rarely picks up any momentum. Early on, there’s some urgency as twelve-year-old Steve Guttenberg scopes out Josef and listens in on his meet cute. There are individually strong scenes, but the climactic confrontation between Mengele and Liberman isn’t all that, depicting them rolling around on the carpet biting and scratching at each other. 1976 offered evil Larry and good Greg; this time it’s reversed, but their separate vehicles then (Marathon Man and The Omen) are both markedly superior.
Still, there’s a potent encounter between Lieberman and a very up-for-it Frau Doring (Rosemary Harris, later Aunt May), adjusting her skirt in come-hither fashion as Lieberman probes her about her recently-offed husband. Mason’s Colonel Seibert can barely conceal his delight when he informs Mengele, whom he evidently considers to be a nut, that the entire operation has been terminated. There’s also a particularly striking – because it’s so grim – murder sequence in which Sky du Mont beds Linda Hayden’s lodger, slits her throat and then hangs her landlord Michael Gough from the ceiling fan while wife Prunella Scales obliviously makes dinner downstairs.
Indeed, you can’t fault the casting, which also includes Denholm Elliot, Ben Stiller’s mum Anne Meara, Bruno Ganz (he has to give Sir Larry the lecture, and manages to make it look almost natural) and Walter Gottell (Gogol in the Bond series). A scene where the latter throws an old comrade off a dam after the latter urges him to follow orders and kill the man he has been told to – not realising it is him – is quite nicely done too.
The Boys from Brazil has the inclination of a big movie, but it’s then-fashionable propensity for uncensored gore and nudity is at odds with its old-school production style. And then there’s the concern that it’s maybe delivering both too much and too little. The Fourth Reich in South America is little more than a couple of full-dress fundraisers, so there’s absolutely no chance we’ll be following Mengele to his base in Antarctica (if indeed, Antarctica is the Antarctica we are told it is).
Mengele: You are infinitely different. Infinitely superior.
Perhaps surprisingly, The Boys from Brazil received three Oscar nominations (including Sir Larry and for Jerry Goldsmith’s score), although this was a point where even more overt fantasy (Star Wars) was being considered for the top prize. The movie made money, but not shed loads, reflecting its rather limited pedigree. It should have been ideal popcorn fodder, feeding as it did into thirty years of “What happened next?” lore. Instead, it’s mostly big, broad and banal.