HCF REWIND NO. 180: THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL [US 1978]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 118 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Journalist Barry Kohler stumbles upon a secret organization of Third Reich war criminals holding clandestine meetings in Paraguay and realizes that Dr Joseph Mengele, the infamous Auschwitz doctor, is among their number. He informs old Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman, who lives in Vienna, but Lieberman is not too bothered. Aided by a local boy, Kohler records one of the meetings and hears Mengele ordering a group of Nazis to kill 94 men, all 65 years old, in various countries. He rings Lieberman and plays him the tape before he’s killed. Lieberman proceeds to follow Kohler’s leads and begins travelling throughout Europe and North America to investigate the suspicious deaths of a number of aging civil servants….
Though it’s increasingly harder in these days of instant information, and God knows I myself am often prone to reading up on films before I watch them, I do actually believe that in many cases, the less you know about a film, the more rewarding it can often be. The Boys From Brazil is a very dark, slightly science fictional thriller in which we’re kept in the dark for a very long time as to what the dastardly Nazis in it are really trying to do, though we know it’s an ambitious, complex and worldwide plot. The hero gradually pieces things together and the audience eventually realises everything at the same time he does unless he or she is very knowledgeable on a certain area of history. I can imagine some cinema-goers in 1978 gasping as everything became clear. However, the back of the R2 DVD of the film [and it wouldn’t surprise me if the R1 was the same] clearly tells you what it’s all about and I think it’s a shame. All it had to say was something about a deadly Nazi plan, and I’m not going to give that much more away in this review. The film isn’t too well known now, after all, though there have been rumblings of a remake several times of late so this may change. I have very fond memories of it being a rare film I was allowed to stay up and watch as a child and being absolutely fascinated by the story and gob-smacked by the revelation of what the villains are really up to.
Novelist Ira Levin’s work had already led to commercially successful films of A Kiss Before Dying, Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby also having been very good indeed, so it was little surprise that his next The Boys From Brazil, with its frightening and clever plot, was almost immediately snapped up for filming. Franklin J. Shaffner isn’t much talked about now, but he was actually a top Hollywood director for quite a while with films like Planet Of The Apes, Patton and Papillon to his credit. Heywood Gould’s script altered little from the book while the production brought together three big Hollywood stars in their twilight years: Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck [who actually replaced George C. Scott] and James Mason [who had to be talked into it]. Olivier, playing elderly Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman, based his performance on real-life Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, though he actually also sounds a lot like German actor Albert Bassermann [Foreign Correspondent, The Red Shoes]. He had actually played a villainous Nazi two years before in Marathon Man, a character who was clearly based on the real-life Joseph Mengele, the so-called Angel Of Death who performed horrifying experiments at Auschwitz. Now Olivier’s character was facing the actual Mengele in the form of Peck, the latter in his only truly villainous role. The film had a mixed response both critically and commercially and was released in some countries in a slightly shorter version missing a few bits and pieces especially the final scene, ending the film in a happier light, while even today, a shot of an ear being bitten off is still missing from some versions including the UK one.
The Boys From Brazil adopts a breathless pace for its first half an hour or so, where it looks like Police Academy’s Steve Guttenberg is actually the hero. He’s a brave journalist who thinks nothing about risking his life to get information, though he’s not very bright, leaving the lights of his hotel room on despite knowing that people are after him. Crusty old Lieberman doesn’t seem intereasted at first, he’s busy trying to put a case against a German woman who murdered young girls in the World War concentration camps, but is soon drawn in when the voice at the end of the line is silenced forever. The film then becomes more leisurely, much of it consisting of Lieberman globetrotting and interviewing people, gradually working more and more out as he does, though there are some effectively staged death scenes, like a pushing from a Swiss dam which has a great Cold War spy movie feel to it. Shaffner doesn’t really give the proceedings enough urgency in the final third, adopting for a more low-key approach, but in these days of huge climaxes one has to admire a film that, despite telling a large-scale story set in multiple locations, boils down to a confrontation between two old men in a little house….well, and some Dobermans. One part of the especially bloody finale has the two old codgers try to bite and tear each other apart and, far from being one of the worst fights in cinema history as some have claimed, it’s actually entirely appropriate, because it’s exactly how two elderly guys, who wouldn’t have the ability to do cool things like martial arts moves, would fight, and you really get a sense of how these two arch-enemies truly and utterly hate each other and actually find it distasteful and painful to have to touch each other.
The script doesn’t need to throw in extraneous action scenes and just relies on its performances and the gradual uncovering of more and more information. There are some clever shots in the film, like a multiple mirror image of a boy, which foreshadow later things though they’re usually only noticeable in retrospect, and a really haunting sequence where Mengele visits the ruined maternity ward on his Paraguay compound. Mengele’s walking about and strange expressions [of pride? anxiety?] are intercut with quick shots of what actually went on many years ago, albeit still not giving everything away. We see quick images of women on beds, babies being injected with something, even some uncanny bits of striking weirdness like a nurse clapping her hands. The intense accompanying music is the icing on the cake for a really haunting scene that reeks of pure evil. As for the overall story, I’m going to stick to what I said earlier and not give everything away [just in case you decide to buy the DVD and not read the back cover!], but what was widely considered ludicrous at the time is actually now scarily believable with what scientists can do nowadays. In its own melodramatic way, The Boys From Brazil also has an ability to make the viewer think about ethical issues, right down to the final scene where Lieberman decides not to allow some seemingly justifiable killings, killings which many of us would probably agree with, to happen.
Olivier is quite wonderful in this film: yes, he overacts a little as he was prone to do in his later years, and his thick German accent sometimes makes him hard to understand, but he superbly combines weary vulnerability with steely determination. The real revelation is Peck, who may not sound quite as German as he should [and why are Nazis all speaking English in Paraguay anyway – surely they would either talk German or Paraguayan?], but is very very frightening. His makeup was based on a picture which was widely circulated for years in the belief that it showed a middle-aged Mengele, though it was actually of some poor South American who had the misfortune to be snapped by an overenthusiastic photographer. Mengele himself was much less impressive in his later years. I’ve actually often wondered why Mengele, who conducted some of the most horrifying medical experiments ever documented and was even suspected of continuing his ‘work’ in South America and this resulting in an area of Brazil having a very high birth rate of twin children and a substantial amount of the population looking Nordic, hasn’t been the bogeyman of more films. Maybe the subject is still just too distasteful? Peck somehow makes us believe the evil of a person who can callously [in an especially disturbing moment, even if we don’t see the operation] change the colour of a boy’s eyes. Sadly Mason, playing the somewhat despondent voice of the Third Reich, visibly and aurally struggles with his accent and role.
A major part of the film is played by Jerry Goldsmith’s very ominous scoring, right from his very clever main title music where a Viennese waltz gradually turns into a sinister march, musically illustrating how the beauty and sophistication of German and Austrian culture was swamped and perverted by the rise of Nazism. Though I feel it could have done with some more momentum in a few sections, I like the fact that The Boys From Brazil was made for the more patient viewer [as more films in the 70’s were], and it really is one of those films that is now more disturbing, timely and believable than when it first came out. Sometimes science catches up with science-fiction. So there’s been talk of remaking this, and I guess the science could be updated, but, even though the original isn’t a classic, I can’t say I’m too happy at the thought of, say, the younger characters getting more prominence or large-scale action scenes [no doubt incomprehensibly filmed], not to mention crappy CGI Dobermans. I’m sounding like crotchety old Lieberman at the beginning of The Boys From Brazil, just not wanting to know.