Set in 1978, The Boys from Brazil is a classic thriller in which an evil group of old Nazis are planning to resurrect the Third Reich. Safely ensconced in Paraguay, the Nazi’s are unopposed except for an old Nazi hunter, Ezra Lieberman, (Lawrence Olivier) and two college kids from a group called the Young Jewish Defenders. Led by the inhumanely sadistic Dr. Joseph Mengele (Gregory Peck), the Nazi’s have made 94 clones of Adolph Hitler and have spread them across Europe and North America.
But there is a flaw in the Nazi’s plan. Even though they have 94 copies of Adolph Hitler running about, how can they be sure that they will grow up wrong? (Or ‘right’, depending on how evil you are) It is the portrayal of the Nazi’s attempts to instill a destiny into the now 11-13-year-old boys that has made The Boys from Brazil the most intelligent popular work about cloning and human identity done in the past three decades.
The film poses a fascinating question. Is a boy who’s cloned from Hitler an individual in his own right or a malignant seed waiting to blossom into a tyrannical genocidal maniac? The Nazi’s aren’t at all sure so, every attempt is made to duplicate Hitler’s upbringing. Adoptive parents are found who match Hitler’s parents in age, occupation type and temperament. As the movie progresses, the Nazis are attempting to replicate another facet of Hitler’s life story. Since Hitler’s father died when he was 13, a lot of dear old dads are due for some nasty visitors from Paraguay.
It’s these murderous plans and the murder of an aspiring Nazi hunter, Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg) that leads to the involvement of Lieberman. Frail yet courageous, Lieberman begins to piece together the Nazi plot. At first he is merely puzzled and a bit annoyed, but gradually the horror mounts as piece after piece falls into place. It all leads up to a showdown between Lieberman and Mengele, whose lives are held in the pasty hand of a 13-year-old clone of Hitler.
The story line of this movie is great, indeed, but it’s the acting that makes it truly superb. In a massively successful blow against type casting, the all American good guy, Gregory Peck, transforms himself into a snarling, sadistic war criminal. He has no mercy and no remorse—only an animal desire to commit every crime of the Third Reich again, and on a global scale. Laurence Olivier and James Mason transform themselves perfectly as well, but to less effect. Nobody is as evil as Peck’s Mengele.
The cast has an astonishing depth in that even the bit players are capable of carrying a major motion picture. In fact much of the cast either had already or were about to do just that. Every word, gesture and action is played by a pro that knows exactly who and what his character is and why he does what he does. Very few movies have been better cast. The sheer skill in the portrayal of humanity leaves small yet memorable moments throughout the film that haunts the viewer long after the TV is switched off.
There’s also a superb job of set design that is subtly chilling to anyone with knowledge of Hitler’s life. The hints of his hobbies and affectations literally scattered through much of the world brings a sense of reality to the audacious plot. The soundtrack is predictable, being mostly Strauss and Wagner. There are almost no extra features to speak of other than some difficult to navigate text but none are needed. The Boys from Brazil is a truly superb thriller with a hopeful yet ambiguous message about the perplexing quandary of nature versus nurture and personal identity.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article