Film financier, Lew Grade was not at all pleased after screening the first rough cut assembly of Franklin L. Shaffner’s The Boys from Brazil (1978). The film, by Grade’s own tastes, was too long; the ending – a trio of Dobermans mauling to bloody death our antagonist – bordering on the grotesqueness of grand guignol. And something too was remiss about Gregory Peck’s take on Dr. Josef Mengele; Hitler’s exiled ‘doctor’ in name only, who had conducted some of the most heinous experiments on Nazi prisoners of war at Auschwitz. An extremely anti-Semitic sadist, the real Mengele used his position at the infamous concentration camp to conduct perverse research on live human test subjects, most of them children. The number of victims he eventually tallied from botched injections and monstrous surgeries is unknown. But Mengele had the wherewithal to realize such tryouts would not go unheeded after the war. So, in 1949, through the still very active S.S. pipeline, Mengele effectively disappeared to the underground, eventually resurfacing in Paraguay, then later, Brazil.
Viewing The Boys From Brazil today, one can empathize with Lew Grade’s apprehensions and anxieties. The film is an odd – at times, affectingly wicked – amalgam of the war movie, an espionage/thriller and, of all things, a light comedic farce; particularly Sir Lawrence Olivier’s take on Esra Lieberman, the bumbling pursuer of the truth (his character loosely based on Nazi-hunter, Simon Wiesenthal – a holocaust survivor). We first meet Lieberman, distracted from fielding a legitimate phone call, in his office with a ceiling so full of holes drizzling in water from a ruptured main, it vaguely resembles a sieve. Olivier is a talent beyond most. But his later movie career was generally marred by performances prone to flamboyance. Here, for reasons only known to him, he affects condescending amusement after learning from a Nazi-hunting novice in Paraguay that there are, indeed, exiled Nazis living and thriving in South America. A plot is afoot. But Lieberman couldn’t care less. Olivier persists in toddling along with an air of effete reluctance for most of the first third of this movie, growing less weary and more dire in increments as we methodically move into the last act finale.
But for starters, The Boys from Brazil plays very much with the buffoonery of a screwball comedy; Esra, suffering the nagging insolence of a doting sister, Esther (Lilli Palmer). I’ll just go on record here and state that any review of The Boys from Brazil ought to first acknowledge, with solemnity and hushed reverence, the persistent pall of those actual atrocities committed by Mengele at Auschwitz during the war. The film is only superficially interested in the enormity of the not-so-good Herr doctor’s deviant notions about science, further muddied by the casting of Gregory Peck to portray this depraved and soulless demigod. The public’s perception of Peck as an exemplar of moral integrity is decidedly at odds with the character. George C. Scott had originally been hired for the part but bowed out after reading the script. Scott might have lent credence to the part.
In lieu of this, Peck gives it the ole Joe College try; his performance invariably teetering toward amateur theatrics; evil by proxy or by way of the clichéd shifty-eyed cohort with menacing hand gestures and gritted teeth. To even attempt to bring Mengele and his debauched experiments to life in any sort of meaningful way as cinema fiction seems to fly in the face of the overwhelming human tragedy that actually unfolded behind those heavily fortified walls at Auschwitz; the extermination of 10,000 a day at the height of its ‘productivity’, to say nothing of the tortures endured at Mengele’s passionate persistence to plumb the depths of human degradation and suffrage, merely to satisfy his own twisted fascination with genocide on an epic scale.
Perhaps to offset the intensity that systematically builds throughout the last act, The Boys from Brazil has a queerly lighthearted atmosphere permeating its first act, even more weirdly equipoised by Peck’s potent mixture of faux benevolence and stern authority. Playing against his Teflon-coated image as a man of integrity, Peck’s Mengele becomes an outlandish angel of death. He gingerly coddles Ismael (Raul Faustino Saldanha); a terrified Paraguayan boy whom he has discovered, helped junior Nazi-hunter, Barry Kohler (ineffectually played by Steve Guttenberg) plant a primitive listening device inside the embassy he is staying at, before casually ordering one of his henchmen to kill the child. Later, Peck’s Mengele snaps like a twig at a lavish ball, assaulting – and nearly strangling – one of his most trusted assassins, Mundt (the inimitable Walter Gotell, more famously recognizable for his reoccurring role as KGB Gen. Gogol in the James Bond pictures), merely because he suspects him of betraying a directive to murder another unsuspecting civil servant living in Pennsylvania. In fact, Mundt’s orders have already been rescinded by a higher authority in this diabolical chain of command.
Ira Levin’s 5th novel was a mostly straightforward thriller. Regrettably, Schaffner’s movie takes time to hit its stride and get to the meatier part of Levin’s scenario; namely, Mengele’s genetic cloning of 94 offspring spawned from Adolf Hitler’s DNA; the children given to good middle-class homes scattered throughout the world. At least in theory, any one of these carbon copies has the potential to grow up and become the next megalomaniac. But of course, genetic compositing is only part of the experiment. These children must also grow up under similar lifestyle conditions to ferment their mistrust and hatred of humanity at large. Thus, Mengele has inaugurated a dastardly plan; to assassinate every one of the children’s adopted fathers, thus replicating the loss of Hitler’s own pater at the tender age of thirteen. It’s a monstrous endeavor to say the least; accepted without fail by Mundt, Fassler (Joachim Hansen), Hessen (Guy Dumont), Trausteiner (Carl Duering), Farnbach (Günter Meisner), Kleist (Jürgen Andersen) and Schwimmer (Wolf Kahler).
Heywood Gould does a fairly impressive job of condensing Levin’s novel into a manageable screenplay; the production bolstered by some spectacular set pieces; perhaps the most startling of all, Mundt’s assassination of an old colleague atop a snowy Swedish dam (actually photographed at Kölnbrein Dam in Austria). Another set piece takes place in a typical London flat; the smarmy Hessen seducing a tart, Nancy (Linda Hayden), merely to gain access to her landlord, Mr. Harrington (Michael Gough). In short order, Nancy is found by Harrington, naked and strangled to death in her bed. In turn, Harrington is forcibly hanged by Hessen, the pairs’ horrifically displayed remains discovered by Harrington’s wife (Prunella Scales). The Boys from Brazil is, of course, a product of its time; the 1970’s prone to grittier action, while simultaneously dispensing with the glamour and subtleties of golden age Hollywood storytelling. Viewed today, some of this bludgeoning of the old and time-honored edicts seems woefully deliberate and over the top. As a time capsule, however, the movie holds up remarkably well.
Immediately following Nino Rota’s lush and fracture waltz to underscore the main titles, we begin in Paraguay with Barry Kohler’s discovery of a plot involving dyed in the wool Nazi exiles from the defunct Third Reich. Barry tails Mundt to a secluded embassy, bribing the gatehouse boy, Ismael, into learning where the Mercedes is bound. He then follows Mundt to the airport, sent to collect wily puppet master, Eduard Seibert (James Mason). Under the cover of night, Mengele arrives by biplane. He is immediately taken to the embassy and reunited with his cohorts, initiating his plan against 94 unsuspecting victims scattered across the world. In the meantime, Barry has convinced Ismael to plant a homemade listening device in the embassy’s main room. Alas, while eavesdropping in on Mengele’s conversation from the outskirts of the embassy grounds, the signal is intercepted not only by Barry’s primitive recording device, but also a radio he gave to Ismael for helping him in his plan.
Ismael is taken to Mengele who weasels Barry’s whereabouts out of the child with the false promise his life will be spared. Instead, upon learning the location of Barry’s hotel, Mengele order the boy put to death. Arriving unnoticed back at his hotel, Barry does manage to play a portion of the recorded conversation over the telephone to Lieberman, who is more perturbed than fascinated at first. But his concern is peaked when he hears Mengele and his henchmen burst into Barry’s room, powerless to stop another murder. Prodded by the memory of Barry’s untimely death, Lieberman takes up the case, determined to track down the various civil servants who have suddenly and mysterious died under spurious circumstances. Lieberman’s first interview is Mrs. Dorning (Rosemary Harris), whose late husband (Richard Marner) was crushed to death in an automobile ‘accident’. Lieberman is marginally impressed with their thirteen year old son, Erich (Jeremy Black), who will later bear an uncanny resemblance to other children whose fathers have similarly met with shocking demises. Erich is terse and disrespectful toward Lieberman, encouraged by his mother to go and practice his music lessons while she becomes more transparent in her flirtations, informing Lieberman that her late husband was an abusive bastard.
Sometime later, Lieberman flies to Pennsylvania where he meets the infinitely more grief-stricken Mrs. Curry and her son, Jack (again, played with ineffectual resolve by Jeremy Black). Lieberman is immediately struck by the child’s physical similarities to Erich. He also begins to piece together the facts: all the dead civil servants were 65 and were cold and domineering parents. Lieberman’s investigation reaches a stalemate when he meets Frieda Maloney (Uta Hagen), an incarcerated former guard at Auschwitz who also worked for an adoption agency. Promised clemency for her testimony now, Maloney turns on Lieberman instead; still the embittered harridan who would relish the opportunity to see him incinerated inside one of Auschwitz’s ovens than betray her brainwashed loyalties to the hellish past. “You're not a guard now, madam!” Lieberman frustratingly informs her, “You are a prisoner! I may leave here today empty-handed. But you are not going anywhere!”
A short while later Lieberman attends the human geneticist, Professor Bruckner (Bruno Ganz) in his office. Bruckner explains the mechanics of cloning; the removal of eggs from a potential donor; the destruction of their original genetic matter, using ultraviolent light. The barren tissue is then replaced by newly-injected blood cells, the eggs reinserted into the uterus where they incubate and become embryos. It now becomes clear to Lieberman what Mengele has been up to; the perpetuation of a single man’s DNA to create 94 perfect clones of Adolf Hitler. In the meantime, Mengele entertains Eduard Seibert at his isolated and heavily fortified Brazilian jungle laboratory where, it seems, he has continued to probe the human condition through various experiments conducted on the impoverished natives living close by. Eduard warns that the trail is becoming much too hot to sustain Mengele’s prospects or, in fact, preserve his autonomy. But Mengele, consumed by the terrifying art he has wrought, plies Eduard for more time to carry out his diabolical plan.
Not long thereafter, Eduard hosts a lavish ball for the exiled Nazis and their sympathizers. Mengele is delighted to attend, but becomes enraged to find Mundt amongst the revelers. Mundt ought to be plotting his next assassination. Unable to contain his anger, Mengele violently attacks and nearly strangles Mundt as the alarmed party goers look on. When Mundt’s frantic date, Gertrud (Monica Gearson) pleads for a doctor, Mengele informs her of his medical credentials before telling her, “Shut up, you ugly bitch!” Led into a private room away from the other guests, Mengele is calmly told by Eduard his itinerary of assassinations has been canceled. Moreover, Eduard has seen to it that Mengele’s experiments at the remote plantation have been indefinitely and immediately suspended. Mengele’s victims have been disposed of and the laboratory leveled to the ground in an inferno set by mercenaries. Refusing to surrender his crusade, Mengele now departs for the United States, to Lancaster Pennsylvania, to murder his next victim; Henry Wheelock (John Dehner) a reclusive dog breeder specializing in Dobermans. It won’t be easy. Wheelock is surrounded by his adoring pets who positively ooze menace towards any outsider in their midst. Mengele convinces Wheelock to place the animals in an adjacent room, but then murders him in cold blood to await his son, Bobby’s return from school.
Alas, the conditions are rife for a showdown as Lieberman gets to the remote farmhouse ahead of Bobby and is confronted by Mengele at the point of a pistol. He is wounded by Mengele but narrowly escapes his own assassination after freeing the Dobermans, who attack and badly mangle Mengele as Lieberman defenselessly looks on. Mengele is momentarily spared his gruesome fate by Bobby, who doesn’t know what to make of the situation of these two strangers, badly battered and lying on the floor inside his living room. Mengele speaks with pride, attempting to sway the boy’s empathy, “You have it within you to fulfill ambitions one thousand times greater than those at which you presently dream, and you shall fulfill them, Bobby. You shall. You are the living duplicate of the greatest man in history – Adolf Hitler!” Bobby, however, remains unconvinced. Moreover, he thinks Mengele just plain ‘weird’. Sensing all is not lost, Lieberman informs Bobby of Henry’s murder. The child discovers his remains tossed down the cellar steps and sets the dogs on Mengele as retribution. The pack mauls him to death, one animal immediately going for the jugular.
A short time later, Lieberman, who is recuperating inside a hospital, is implored by another Nazi hunter, David Bennett (John Rubinstein) to expose Mengele’s cloning scheme to the world. Instead, Lieberman burns the list he has complied of children’s names and their whereabouts. After all, without Mengele’s intervention, these children should be allowed to grow and prosper with hearts and minds of their own. Unlike the end of Ira Levin’s novel, there is no guarantee in the film any of them will grow up to become the next Adolf Hitler. Then again, there is no suggestion either made that they won’t!
The Boys from Brazil is a darkly cynical and occasionally thought-provoking movie whose ‘cloning scenario’ must have seemed pure science fiction back in 1978, but has since proven to ring ominously with more than an ounce of truth in the intervening decades. The book, not the movie, seems more plausibly allegorical than suspense-laden fiction now. Without Levin’s context, Franklin Schaffner’s flick is little more than a jigsaw puzzled ‘who done it?” with the ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ factored in. This might have worked; except, both Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck are so ostentatious in their characterizations they virtually eclipse the material with rank theatrics. These aren’t towering performances so much as supercilious gestures of glad-handed thrombosis; the clots created by each attempting to outdo the other, neither complimentary nor competitive; merely, a veritable mishmash of acting styles. Olivier comes out marginally better. Peck is decidedly out of his element. His speeches become perfunctory when anchored to platitudes; recitations that never rise to a more sinister menace. Instead, Peck is boastful and flashy, more the carnival barker than this bedeviled and bloodthirsty architect of a New World Order. The Boys from Brazil is still highly watchable. But it never quite attains a status befitting its star power. This is its shortcoming, and indeed, its genuine shame besides.
There’s nothing shameful about Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release. As part of an agreement between Shout! and ITV Films in Britain, The Boys from Brazil sports an identical and very snappy 1080p master. Overall, the image is generally sharp, colorful and free of age-related debris and other artifacts. Fine detail in hair, skin and fabrics really pops. Flesh tones look quite natural. Ditto for film grain. The various locations are breathtaking; the frosty blue-white of snowy in Vienna, the lush tropical splendor in Paraguay: it all looks precisely as it should. You’re in for a treat. A few brief scenes near the end can appear marginally soft, though not to any degree where they might distract. Although ITV has not ‘restored’ this image, it also hasn’t applied any untoward DNR, edge enhancement or other artificially digitized ‘clean up’. The film looks very film-like, right down to some extremely minor gate weave. The 2.0 mono DTS audio is crisp and sonically on very solid ground. While Nino Rota’s more intense and ominous score is at the mercy of this slightly tinny sound field, dialogue is naturally placed, is crisp and clean with no hiss or pop. *Please note: the back cover indicates a runtime of 118 minutes. But this is the full 124 min. cut. The one oversight here…no extras! Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)