The Boys from Brazil is a 1978 thriller film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and written by Heywood Gould, based on Ira Levin‘s novel of the same name. It stars Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, with James Mason, Lilli Palmer, Uta Hagen, Steve Guttenberg, John Rubinstein, Anne Meara, Denholm Elliott, Walter Gotell, Michael Gough, Rosemary Harris, John Dehner, and Jeremy Black.
Dr. Josef Mengele (Peck) is trying to revive Hitler by cloning him 94 times and paralleling Hitler’s life by, at this point in it, having all the clones’ adoptive fathers killed when the clones (played by Black) are around thirteen/fourteen years old. Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Olivier) has learned of the planned assassinations and is trying to piece together what Mengele is doing.
While the film had a generally positive reception, with praise for Peck’s and Olivier’s performances, some critics have considered the plot to be dubious, even ludicrous, and the acting to be inane and overwrought, with bad imitations of accents. I consider this film worth analyzing, though, because it can be seen as an allegory on the danger of a revival of the far right, which has been happening in recent years in many parts of the world. Hence, though this film’s praise has been far from universal, it is an extremely relevant one for our times.
Here are some quotes:
“[Mengele was] the chief doctor of Auschwitz, who killed two and a half million people, experimented on children – Jewish and non-Jewish – using twins mostly, injecting blue dyes into their eyes to make them acceptable Aryans… amputating limbs and organs from thousands without anesthetics.” –Lieberman, speaking to Sidney Beynon about why he is searching for Josef Mengele
Sidney Beynon: Have you any idea how many men in their mid-60s die every day?
Ezra Lieberman: I try not to think about it.
“Would you like me to tell you who really killed him? God. To set free a stupid little farm girl after twenty-two years of unhappiness. Do Nazis answer prayers, Herr Lieberman? No, that is God’s business and I have thanked Him every night since He pushed Emil under that car. He could have done it sooner, but I thank Him anyway.” –Mrs. Doring (Rosemary Harris), to Lieberman
Lofquist: Good God man, you are an officer of the SS! Have you forgotten? ‘My honour is loyalty.’ Those words were supposed to be engraved on your soul.
Mundt (Walter Gotell): It isn’t Lundberg…[throws Lofquist off the dam, watches him fall to his death]…and it doesn’t have to be Saturday.
“Are you, my SD Chief of Security, telling me that a project twenty years and millions of dollars in the making will be dropped because of this insignificant impotent old Jew?” –Mengele, to Seibert
“You’re not a guard now, madame! You are a prisoner! I may leave here today empty handed. But you… are not going anywhere.” –Lieberman, to Frieda Maloney
“He betrayed me, he betrayed you, he betrayed the Aryan race!” –Mengele, of Mundt
Gertrud: [Mengele has just knocked Mundt to the floor] Get a doctor!
Dr. Josef Mengele: I *am* a doctor, idiot.
Gertrud: Don’t you come near him!
Dr. Josef Mengele: Shut up, you ugly bitch.
Eduard Seibert: [after discovery of Mengele’s plan by Lieberman] The operation has been terminated.
Dr. Josef Mengele: Terminated… by whose authority?
Eduard Seibert: General Rausch… and the Colonels.
Dr. Josef Mengele: [enraged] I told you… I told you from the beginning! Kill him! Kill him! It would have been so easy!
Eduard Seibert: Your operation has been cancelled.
Dr. Josef Mengele: No, *your* operation has been cancelled! Mine continues. [raising his hand] Heil Hitler.
Professor Bruckner: Cloning. What if I were to tell you that I could take a scraping of skin from your finger and create another Ezra Lieberman?
Ezra Lieberman: I would tell you not to waste your time on my finger.
[Bruckner begins listing the boys’ common features on a chalkboard] Professor Bruckner: Now, Mengele would certainly know that every social and environmental detail would have to be reproduced. Thus, if the parents were divorced when the boy was ten, this would have to be arranged…
Ezra Lieberman: [in horrified realization] Dr. Bruckner… the one who is cloned, the donor, he has to be alive, doesn’t he?
Professor Bruckner: Not necessarily. Individual cells, taken from a donor, can be preserved indefinitely. With a sample of Mozart’s blood, and the women, someone with the skill and equipment could breed a few hundred baby Mozarts. My God… if it’s really been done, what I’d give to see one of those boys. [turns around and sees the room is empty] Herr Lieberman?
“Not Mozart. Not Picasso. Not a genius who will enrich the world. But a lonely little boy with a domineering father, a customs officer who was 52 when he was born. And an affectionate doting mother who was 29. The father died when he was 65 when the boy was nearly 14… Adolf Hitler.” –Lieberman, to Bruckner
Ezra Lieberman: Did you kill Wheelock?
Dr. Josef Mengele: [sarcastically] No, he’s in the kitchen mixing us some cocktails!
“Do you know what I saw on the television in my motel room at one o’clock this morning? Films of Hitler! They are showing films about the war! The movement! People are fascinated! The time is ripe! Adolf Hitler is alive!” [Takes photo album and places it on his lap] “This album is full of pictures of him. Bobby Wheelock and ninety-three other boys are exact genetic duplicates of him, bred entirely from his cells. He allowed me to take half a liter of his blood and a cutting of skin from his ribs.” [laughs] “We were in a Biblical frame of mind on the twenty-third of May 1943, at the Berghof. He had denied himself children because he knew that no son could flourish in the shadow of so godlike a father! But when he heard what was theoretically possible, that I could create one day not his son, not even a carbon-copy but another original, he was thrilled by the idea! The right Hitler for the right future! A Hitler tailor-made for the 1980s, the 1990s, 2000s!” –Mengele, to Lieberman
Dr. Josef Mengele: You are a clever boy. Are you not? You do not do well at school, but it’s because you are too clever. Too busy, thinking your own thoughts. But you are much smarter than your teachers, hah?
Bobby Wheelock: My teachers are nowhere.
Dr. Josef Mengele: You are going to be the world’s greatest photographer, are you not? Have you ever felt superior to those around you? Like a prince among peasants?
Bobby Wheelock: I feel different from everyone sometimes.
Dr. Josef Mengele: You are infinitely different. Infinitely superior. You are born of the noblest blood in the world. 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. [raising his hand in a heil motion] Adolf Hitler.
Bobby Wheelock: Oh man, you’re weird.
Dr. Josef Mengele: Bobby!
Bobby Wheelock: [screaming] You freaked out maniac! [to dogs] Bite!
David Bennett: We have the right and we have the duty.
Ezra Lieberman: To do what? To kill children?
The movie begins in Paraguay where Barry Kohler (Guttenberg)–a former member of the militant Young Jewish Defenders, but who now works alone, like Lieberman–has been tracking down members of the far-right Comrades organization. Through the help of a Paraguayan boy named Ismael (played by Raul Faustino Saldanha), Kohler is able to plant a bug to record a meeting of these ex-Nazis, chaired by Mengele in his mansion.
What is significant about having so much of this story associated with South America (Hitler clone babies born in Brazil, these Nazis in Paraguay) goes far beyond the obvious fact that many ex-Nazi war criminals went there to hide and avoid being brought to justice. Fascism is the logical extreme of capitalism and imperialism; and South America, as “the backyard of the US,” has been dominated by the US for decades and decades.
Any attempt by South, Central, and other Latin American countries to liberate themselves from the yoke of US imperialism, through democratically electing leftist governments, is thwarted either by CIA-influenced coups (Chile in 1973, Bolivia in 2019, Guatemala in 1954, to give a few examples) that install right-wing dictatorships, or it is sabotaged through starvation sanctions (Venezuela). So a movie with Nazis in the land of Operation Condor is chillingly fitting.
Kohler and Ismael are discovered for having bugged the room where the meeting is held. As Mengele is walking before a lineup of the Latino servants (including Ismael) while holding the removed bug, it is interesting to see the stark contrast between the Nazis, as domineering members of the white bourgeoisie, and the swarthy servants, as the intimidated proletariat.
Oh, the difference between the First and Third Worlds. Mengele is aptly wearing a white suit.
Kohler and Ismael are killed, but Mengele, before giving the order to kill the boy, gives him an avuncular smile–another chilling contrast.
Gregory Peck researched his role thoroughly, for he shows the same affected charm to children that Mengele was known to have shown. Back when Mengele was doing his sadistic medical experiments on Jewish and Romani children in the Nazi concentration camps, he was called the “Angel of Death.”
He charmed the little kids (typically twins), giving them candy, etc., before doing such sick things to them as injecting blue dye into their eyes (to make them “acceptable Aryans”), amputating limbs, removing organs, or sewing kids together–without anaesthetic–to make them into conjoined twins. One story of him doing this last, cruel operation on a pair of Roma children, who later died of gangrene after days of being in agony, is especially heart-breaking.
Lieberman has received the tip from Kohler about the planned murders of those 94 men (Europeans, Canadians, and Americans, mostly civil servants), and he begins his investigation. The problem is, Lieberman is no longer listened to or taken seriously. Such a change in fortune is symbolic of mainstream liberal society’s growing apathy to the dangers of fascism. Sidney Beynon (Elliott) finds Lieberman annoying, and tries to avoid him.
Similarly, over the past ten years, there has been minimal outrage over the US’s replacing Yanukovych‘s Ukrainian government with one tolerating neo-Nazis, or over far-right politician Marine LePen‘s near victory in France, or the fascist rumblings in Poland, Greece (though suffering a setback, Golden Dawn could rise again), Austria, or Spain…to say nothing of Bolsonaro in Brazil, Añez in Bolivia, or, of course, Trump, with his concentration camps for immigrant kids, his apologist attitude towards the right-wing militias attacking BLM protestors, and the federal officers shoving Portland, Oregon protestors into vans to be taken God knows where.
As Lieberman interviews the widows (Harris, Meara) of the men killed so far, certain patterns emerge: the murdered fathers are in their mid-sixties, while the mothers are much younger. Each family has a son about 13 or 14 years old…and the boys look exactly alike! Even their personalities are similar: gruff, rude, belligerent…the hallmarks of a spoiled child. The fathers are similarly gruff and harsh-tempered, and the mothers generally dote on their boys.
When Lieberman learns that the boys are adopted, that’s when he starts to put it all together. Furthermore, the adoption arrangements were done by Frieda Maloney (Hagen), an ex-Nazi who, as a guard in a camp, “strangled young girls with their own hair, bayonetted infants,” and who is now incarcerated. He goes to the prison holding her and interviews her there, tolerating her antisemitic taunts as best he can.
Through this interview, he learns where and when a victim will soon be hunted down: a man named Henry Wheelock (Dehner) in Pennsylvania, owner of a number of Doberman pinschers trained to attack and kill anyone who might threaten his life.
Meanwhile, General Rausch and the colonels leading the Comrades organization are getting nervous about what Lieberman is finding out, so they finally terminate Mengele’s operation, infuriating him and making him carry on alone. The lack of commitment of Colonel Eduard Seibert (Mason) and the others to the Nazi cause parallels, on the other side of the political spectrum, Lieberman’s lack of commitment to the antifascist cause at the end of the film, when he refuses to give David Bennett (Rubinstein) the list of names and addresses of all the Hitler clones so the Young Jewish Defenders can kill them.
Lieberman learns about cloning through an expert on the subject, Professor Bruckner (Bruno Ganz, who incidentally also played Hitler, decades later, in Downfall). Though many critics considered the film’s portrayal of the cloning of a man to be scientifically ludicrous, I think we should focus instead on what the cloning symbolizes.
While fascism today obviously isn’t and cannot be the same as it was back in the 1920s and 1930s, the same basic ingredients for its resurgence today are here as they were back then. Fascism is an ideology promoted and allowed to grow by the ruling class whenever their power and privileges are threatened by a working class uprising.
Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, et al all rose to power as a response to failed socialist revolutions in their respective countries. Similarly, in today’s world, left-wing anger towards the excesses of neoliberalism has resulted in right-wing reactions like Trump, Bolsonaro, Añez, etc. They’re not exactly the same as the old Nazi reactions of the 1930s, of course, but neither are the Hitler clones exactly the same (in personality) as Hitler.
Bobby Wheelock, the closest approximation the movie offers to Hitler, is a photographer, not a painter. Though his father, Henry, has a gruff personality comparable to that of Alois Hitler, and Henry has racist attitudes of his own (he claims that it’s “the niggers” that Americans need to worry about, not the Nazis [!]), Bobby clearly loves his adoptive father, and avenges his murder by sicking his Dobermans on Mengele (ironically making ‘Hitler’ the hero of the film). When Alois died, however, little Adolf wasn’t exactly heartbroken, for now he could freely pursue his dream of becoming an artist and be spoiled by his mother, Klara.
A number of details about Hitler’s life don’t seem to have been paralleled in the clones. Little Adolf had a younger brother, Edmund, whose death had a profound effect on the future Führer. While Edmund was alive, little Adolf was a happy, confident boy who did well at school; after Edmund died, little Adolf grew bitter and morose, and his academic performance declined, leading ultimately to his quitting high school at about 16, his underachievement as a young man, and the frustration he must have felt from his failures.
Furthermore, Alois Hitler was a patriotic Austrian, loyal to the Habsburg Monarchy; whereas Adolf cultivated German nationalism, which I suspect was, at least unconsciously, meant as a big “screw you” to the father who had beat him and tried to dominate his life. I suspect that the Anschluß gave Hitler glee from the thought of dominating the country Alois had so loved.
None of these historical issues are dealt with in the film. (If they are dealt with in Levin’s novel, which I haven’t read, anyone who has read it can enlighten me in the comments below–I’d appreciate that.) It seems odd that families capable of having their own kids (i.e., ‘Edmund’ equivalents) would be eager to adopt, even to the point of being rejected by adoption agencies until the Comrades organization offered them babies. And how would every adoptive father’s nationalism be guaranteed?
Still, with all these differences from the life of the actual Hitler, the clones still seem dangerously close to their original, especially Bobby Wheelock, who in an added final scene (with a similar ending in Levin’s novel), admires his photos of the bloody Nazi and Jewish visitors to his house, and gazes with awe at Mengele’s jaguar-claw bracelet.
The scene before that one, with Lieberman in hospital and Bennett visiting him, disappointed a number of critics. Bennett and the Young Jewish Defenders want to find and kill the boys, while Lieberman takes on the wishy-washy liberal attitude that killing innocent children makes the killers no better than Nazis.
The point is that the Hitler clones are too dangerous to be left alive, free to develop, grow to adulthood, and be whatever kind of men they will be. The cruelty of killing teenage boys must be weighed against the cruelty of allowing 94 potential fascists to rise up and, quite possibly, take over the world, then kill millions of Jewish, Roma, and other children.
The logic of killing the Hitler clones is understood in a symbolic, not a literal, sense. The clones symbolize the resurgence of fascism, something we’re seeing today, as I pointed out above, and something Levin was prophesying. That the boys are clones is symbolic of how like-minded far right-wing thinkers are: embracing capitalism, hating foreigners, pushing for state authoritarianism and ultra-traditionalism, promoting patriotic historical narratives, using violence to achieve their ends, and not thinking independently.
In contrast, the ideological differences between different leftist groups (anarchists, Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyists, etc.) are huge…hence, our difficulties in uniting against the right. Moderate conservatives, and even some liberals, find reason to unite with (or at least wink at) fascism if their class privileges are threatened; hence, the current revival of fascism that Levin’s novel and this film are warning us about.
What many fail to appreciate is that fascism never really died…it just went underground, as the Comrades organization represents in the movie. The Nuremberg trials were more of a show than anything else. Many ex-Nazis not only went unpunished, but were given jobs in the American and West German governments, the rationalization being that they were needed to help fight the communists during the Cold War. Small wonder East Germans built the Berlin Wall, calling it the Anti-fascist Protection Rampart.
So, when Mengele says that his clones are “A Hitler tailor-made for the 1980s, the 1990s, 2000s,” we should understand what he means in an allegorical sense. The novel and film should be seen as a prophecy for our times. When Mengele tells Lieberman he was in his motel watching TV programs about Hitler, and that “People are fascinated!” and “The time is ripe,” this should be understood as a foretelling of the contemporary resurgence of fascism.
If Peck’s Mengele and the other Nazis in the film seem absurd to you, consider how absurd fascist ideology is in general. ‘If your life is hard, don’t blame the rich–blame foreigners for taking away your jobs! Blame the Jews: after all, capitalism is bad only when they practice it! Fight imperialist wars to strengthen the Motherland–get your aggression and hatred out of your system in that way!’ Far too many people take these idiotic ideas seriously, so the film’s over-the-top acting is fitting.
On the other hand, there’s the liberal who either trivializes the fascist threat, or ignorantly equates fascism with communism: this is the thanks the Red Army gets for having done most of the work defeating the Nazis, losing about 27 million Soviet lives.
This is why studying history is so important.