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The Boys from Brazil: Reviving Nazism

The Boys from Brazil: Reviving Nazism

RAMNATH N PAI RAIKAR | NT NETWORK

By 1970, Hollywood had its fill of films based on the true as well as imaginary incidents from the Second World War, and moved to storylines which dealt with tracking down Nazis hiding all over the world. ‘The Odessa File’ (1974) and ‘The Marathon Man’ (1976) were two of such many films. ‘The Boys from Brazil’ (1978), based on a 1976 novel by the popular American writer, Ira Levin also tackled a similar theme. In fact, Levin had loosely based Yakov Liebermann – changed to Ezra Lieberman in the film – the Nazi hunter in his novel on the real life counterpart, Simon Wiesenthal.

As soon as the novel was published and went on to become a bestseller, producer Martin Richards brought its film rights at a price between $500,000 and $550,000, worked on its script with Heywood Gould, and decided to sign Robert Mulligan as the director. However, Mulligan put a condition that the age of the characters of Ezra Lieberman and Dr Josef Mengele be reduced. Richards chose to ignore the condition and decided to sign Franklin J Schaffner instead. Schaffner had previously directed ‘Patton’ (1970), the winner of several Academy Awards including the Oscar for Best Picture. ‘The Boys from Brazil’ (1978) was the only other movie related to World War II that he directed. Richards then got 20th Century Fox involved in the production on the basis of the director.

Laurence Olivier was more than willing to play the Jew Nazi-hunter, having played a Nazi dentist in ‘The Marathon Man’, two year earlier. Gregory Peck replaced George C Scott, who was initially cast as Dr Mengele but had pulled out before principal photography began. Peck agreed to portray Dr Mengele only because he had wanted to work with Olivier. Actor James Mason was not interested in the script for this movie, until he found out that Peck and Olivier were already signed-up. He then expressed interest in playing either Lieberman or Dr Mengele but had to be satisfied enacting Eduard Seibert. Actress Lilli Palmer made one of her rare screen appearances in the film playing the role of Olivier’s sister.

Both, Olivier and Peck worked extensively on their German accents, not that Olivier needed as much help as Peck did. In fact, the dialogue coach, Bob Easton worked with Peck for six weeks before they were happy with his speech patterns. Interestingly, Peck carried pictures of Dr Josef Mengele in his wallet for twisted inspiration, and his family got used to his overplaying the doctor around the house for a few dark laughs. Furthermore, Peck had his famous ‘widow’s peak’ hairline shaved off, his eyebrows cropped, put on moustache, dyed his hair with black shoe polish, and then had added white face paint make-up, resulting in his uncanny resemblance to photographs of the real-life Dr Mengele.

Furthermore, to prepare for the roles of the Hitler clones, actor Jeremy Black was sent to a speech studio in New York City by 20th Century Fox, for learning how to speak with both, English as well as German accent. This eventually became the only film performance of Black.

Despite its title, none of the film was shot in Brazil. It was in fact filmed in four countries: Austria, Britain, the US, and Portugal, with Portugal doubling for Paraguay. The scenes that were set in Massachusetts were shot in London. The story of the film is set during the period from November 1978 to February 1979.

Composer Jerry Goldsmith stirred up another gothic score, as brazen and operatic as the clarion call of his then recent ‘Omen’ (1976) soundtrack, thus adding an appropriate layer of Wagnerian doom to proceedings.

Lew Grade, who partly financed the film, was not happy with the end result, feeling that the climax was too gory. Grade said that he protested but Schaffner, who had final cut rights, overruled him.

The publicity for the film stated that it was the first villainous role of Peck’s career. Peck felt that his portrayal of Nazi war criminal was the only completely unsympathetic role he ever performed. However, his characters in ‘Duel in the Sun’ (1946), ‘Moby Dick’ (1956) and ‘The Bravados’ (1958) have often been described as negative.

When released, ‘The Boys from Brazil’ received mixed to positive critical reviews. Produced at a budget of $12 million, it went on to garner $19 million, including $7,600,000 in rentals.

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, but failed to win any statuettes. Ironically, it was Olivier and not Peck in the meatier lead role, who was nominated in the Best Actor category.

A brief end segment with Bobby Wheelock in a darkroom was restored to some versions of the film, in later years. In this alternate ending, after Lieberman burns the list in his hospital bed, the scene transitions to Bobby in a darkroom developing photographs of Lieberman and Dr Mengele, with a piercing glare coming from his steely-blue eyes as he focuses on Dr Mengele’s shark tooth necklace before fading to the end credits.

The film had 25 minutes cut when released in West Germany, theatrical as well as all subsequent television, video and some DVD releases. In 1999, by Artisan Entertainment, and in 2009 by Lionsgate Home Entertainment, the film was released uncut on DVD in the US and Germany. In 2015, Shout! Factory released the film on Blu-ray.

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