In a lot of ways, Ira Levin was the Dan Brown of the ‘60s and ‘70s. That is, he was a novelist with a bunch of very good, clever ideas (“What if a sweet young innocent was unwittingly impregnated by Satan?” “What if all the seemingly perfect wives in a seemingly perfect suburban community were really robots?”). He was a master of the outrageous storyline and the twist ending. Problem was, he was an absolutely miserable writer. We’re talking just plain bone awful here. I mean for godsakes, in one novel he actually penned the line, “She leaned forward, touched his knee, and looked at him feelingly.”
“Feelingly”? What the fuck does that even mean?
In any case, bad as they were, they were still popular and the stories were intriguing enough to inspire memorable films like The Stepford Wives, and on occasion even great ones like Rosemary’s Baby.
(Of course sometimes they inspired unbearable loaves like Sliver and A Kiss Before Dying, but we try not to think about them much.)
But then there were films like The Boys From Brazil.
In the mid-‘70s, advances in genetic research brought the real possibility of human cloning into the general consciousness, and people were a little freaked about it. A book titled In His Image, which claimed it had already happened, that a wealthy industrialist paid millions to get himself cloned (he hadn’t, really) became a huge bestseller. It also fueled a public debate that seemed to revolve around two questions depending on what side of the argument you were on: “What if we could clone Einstein?” and “What if someone cloned Hitler?”
I remember getting into the cloning debate with a strict Christian fundamentalist who had somehow also become a science teacher at my school. I brought up the Einstein argument and he dismissed it, insisting you couldn’t clone genius. Less than a minute later he came right back at me with the Hitler argument. So I guess you can’t clone genius, but you can clone evil. Or something like that. I didn’t push him on that one, figuring there was no point.
The same year the first all-star horror film about cloning, Embryo, was released, and seeing more dramatic, action packed possibilities in my dumb teacher’s argument, Levin took the cloned Hitler idea and ran with it. In 1976 he published another clunky bestseller with Hollywood written all over it. Hollywood loved Nazis, always had, and that year’s Marathon Man proved that even elderly Nazis on the run could be as profitable as the old fashioned kind. Hell, Laurence Olivier had even been nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of an escaped Nazi doctor who bore an intentional resemblance to Dr. Josef Mengele, The Angel of Death, whose eugenics experiments killed tens of thousands at Auschwitz. Levin took that idea one better by focusing on Mengele himself, living in South America and still up to his old tricks all those years after the war. Everyone knew Mengele was still alive and living in South America after all, and who’s to say at some point he didn’t clone Hitler a whole buncha times and scatter them around the globe?
As a movie, it was a sure thing.
So in came Franklin J. Schaffner to direct, and you couldn’t hope for much better than that. He’d directed Planet of the Apes and Patton after all, so he not only had class, he also knew a thing or two about speculative fiction and World War II types. And if you want to talk about class, get a load of that cast: Gregory Peck as Mengele (a last minute replacement for George C. Scott, who pulled out days before shooting, perhaps recognizing the train wreck that lay ahead); James Mason (who for some reason played an awful lot of Nazis); Uta Hagen (ditto); Steve Guttenberg (though no one knew who he was at the time) as an intrepid and slightly paranoid young Nazi hunter; comedian Ann Meara as a harried mother unaware that her fey and snotty son is actually a Hitler clone (which may help explain Ben Stiller) and Sir Laurence Olivier again, as a weary Nazi hunter (based on Simon Wiesenthal) on the trail, essentially, of the character he played in Marathon Man. It’s even been argued that he took the role of an elderly Jewish Nazi hunter as a form of penance for the earlier role.
So yes, it was a stellar cast packed with respectable actors who, in their later years, had come to recognize the simple economic advantages to acting in bad movies. And admittedly, things do get pretty goofy here. Of the stars on hand, it’s only Peck, that old stick in the mud, who finally lets himself loose for a bit of over the top scenery chewing, laying the pancake makeup on thick and adopting a heavy if traditional “Cartoon Nazi Villain” accent. He’s clearly having an awful lot of fun playing a bad guy in a nutty picture. (In the film’s most memorable line, Peck’s Mengele has just strangled a man nearly to death at a party when a woman screams for a doctor. Still bent over the prone body, Peck snaps around, glares at the woman, and snarls, “I…AM a doctor!”). If the others had followed his lead, well, this might have been a very different picture. As it is, the fact that they all play it so straight gives the thing a certain loopy but dignified charm. Or maybe they’re all just pretending they’re in another picture.
In a nutshell, Levin’s core premise goes like this: In an effort to guarantee the future of the Reich, Mengele decides to clone Hitler. Okay, simple enough, and apparently the actual “cloning” part is a snap even though we never see his lab and he never discusses his technique in any detail. If Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz are any guide, he probably just took one of Der Fuhrer’s hairs, put it in a Petri dish, added warm water, then did something unspeakable with another human being. But we’ll let it slide. It’s not a science film after all, so we simply need to shut up and accept a few things as given.
Okay, the cloning all finished, the real tricky business is finding the right parents and proper social circumstances, he sets up a phony adoption agency run by Uta Hagen and gives her strict instructions to keep an eye open for parents who closely match Hitler’s own in background, temperament, economic status, and age. Oh, and they need to be white too, but maybe that goes without saying. To hedge his bets, he disperses 92 clones across Europe and the States. That established, his troops keep a careful eye on the families to insure the proper things happen at the proper time to mirror Hitler’s own upbringing. His civil servant father, for instance, died at age 65. So there you go, a wave of seemingly unconnected assassinations of 65 year-old civil servants.
Neither Mengele nor Levin explain exactly how they plan to replace Hitler’s, um, sort of formative, y’know, World War I experience, but I guess we have to let that one slide too.
By the time the film begins, all this is well underway. The rest of the film is devoted to Mengele socializing with old Nazi pals and Guttenberg’s eager young Nazi hunter trying to convince the tired and reluctant Ezra Lieberman (Olivier) that there’s some high weirdness afoot. Grumbling all the way, but finally seeing enough evidence to be convinced, Lieberman undertakes an investigation and, much to his surprise begins running into 14 year-old boys everywhere he turns who look exactly the same. I mean exactly, right down to the freckles and the pale blue eyes. Damned kids even comb their hair the same way (LIKE HITLER, EZRA! LIKE HITLER!). Not only that, but they’re all rude, arrogant little bastards who could use a good smacking around.
A word about the clones here. In his one and only film appearance, a kid named Jeremy Black got to play 92 would-be Hitlers; it’s not that he did a bad job exactly. I’m sure he was instructed to be an obnoxious, arrogant little shit given that he was playing, y’know, Hitler. And I’m not going to harp on the bad science. In 1978 no one really knew what the hell cloning entailed or represented or how it worked, so novelists and filmmakers kept things as absolutely simple as possible. I’ll accept that all the little Hitlers weighed the same and had the same complexion and the same accent. But that hair business always nagged at me.
Well, then, the conspiracy finally comes together and we get the final confrontation between Lieberman, Mengele, one of the little Hitlers, and a couple of Dobermans. There’s no denying it’s a hugely entertaining film for whatever reason, and seeing Peck lighten up a bit for once is maybe a relief more than anything. Schaffner in simple technical terms is a solid filmmaker and an excellent storyteller. The film looks very good and snaps along at a nice pace and it’s fun to see all these actors working together.
But still, hoo-boy…it’s like Levin ran with the “What if someone cloned Hitler?” question, but never really thought it through too far. If you start to scrutinize the plot at all, things start crumbling pretty quickly. The only response then is to let a whole bunch of things slide, and I mean the whole story, and just open another beer and wait for Mengele to show up on screen again.
In spite of the critical savaging it received at the time (I remember Siskel and Ebert laughing and laughing through their review), The Boys from Brazil was nominated for three Oscars. Hard to believe maybe (unless you’re as cynical about the Oscars as I am), but it was up for editing, which was justified. Jerry Goldsmith’s score was nominated too, but he’s always nominated. Then Olivier was nominated as best actor, which I guess settled his hash with God for playing that Nazi. Peck wasn’t nominated for some reason, and Olivier didn’t win.
I’ve spent nearly 40 years waiting for the sequel in which Lieberman travels the world, blowing away little Hitler clones. I guess that one never got off the ground.