The Twilight Zone: “Deaths-Head Revisited”/“The Midnight Sun”

The Twilight Zone: “Deaths-Head Revisited”/“The Midnight Sun”

“Deaths-Head Revisited” (season 3, episode 9; originally aired 11/10/1961)
In which a Nazi gets what’s coming to him...

If you’ve got a second, go look at Adolf Eichmann’s Wikipedia page. It’s all right, we’ll wait. (How was the weather this week? We had a damn snowstorm the day before the first day of spring, which just goes to show you that—oh, they’re back.) Doing a little background on “Death’s-Head Revisited” for this review, I found out the episode was in part written as a response to Eichmann’s trial in Israel, and, curious to learn more, I did some research. It’s a fascinating, terrible story of a man who almost escaped the consequences of his horrific crimes, but what really catches your eye is the photo near the top of the page. The face, with the smug half smile and the Bing Crosby looks, and the cap on his head with the skull on its brim. A young man on the rise; ambitious, arrogant, and one of the architects of a crime so stupefyingly vile it hardly bears comprehension. It’s hard to look away from a face like that, and the more I look at him, the angrier I get. Eichmann was executed in 1962. He was 56 years old. Part of me wants to think rationally about the value of eventual justice, no matter how paltry and insignificant that justice might be compared to the evil that merited it. Part of me tells myself that monsters are as much an expression of their time and circumstance as they are an extension of their own will. Part of me just wants to smash a fist into that face over and over and over again.

While Rod Serling’s script for “Deaths-Head Revisited” takes a slightly more sophisticated approach than fist-on-face, it’s an episode driven in no small part by fury; by a perpetually astonished rage at how vile humanity can truly be when left to its own devices. Using the show’s supernatural trappings as a way to provide just enough distance to catch the audience off guard, Serling goes for the throat, giving most of the episode’s running time to an avatar for the wronged dead, and providing that avatar with a calm, patient, relentless voice. There’s not much of a plot here, but that’s all to the good; in fact, there isn’t really a plot in either of this week’s two episodes, and it’s an approach well-suited to the show. Like “It’s A Good Life” before them, these are stories more driven by situation than by plotted incident. It’s a format uniquely suited to the show’s twenty-minute running time, and shows a way for Serling and the other writers to shift into a different kind of storytelling than the more traditional pieces earlier in the run. Basically, a mood piece doesn’t need a shock ending to work (even though “Death’s-Head Revisited” and “The Midnight Sun” both have nominal shock endings). The value is in coming up with a strong premise, and then simply exploring that premise until the clock runs out.

Which isn’t to say that this episode is some kind of avant-garde theater piece. On first glance, it’s pure E.C. Comics: a villain is introduced, his crimes are recognized, and then the torment can begin in earnest. There are only two locations: the first, a hotel lobby in Dachau, and the second, the former concentration camp that made Dachau infamous. The first scene is mostly there to set up the vile sadism of “Mr. Schmidt,” aka former SS captain Gunther Lutze. He checks into the hotel, and when the clerk behind the desk seems to recognize him, he screwed around with her head a bit before storming off for a tour of the countryside. The exchange isn’t hugely necessary, although it does establish how Lutze has been hiding all these years, which is a way to connect him to Eichmann, who must have been fresh in viewers minds in 1961.

As Lutze, Oscar Beregi is saddled with the almost impossible task of creating a larger than life symbol of evil who is still recognizably human. He succeeds; Lutze is vile, condescending, and sniveling by turns, but he’s distinct and specific enough to avoid caricature. Which isn’t to say the character is fully realized, exactly. Lutze’s function in the narrative is to represent something much larger than any one person, and there’s a certain generic Nazi-ism about him that does skirt the archetype. But that’s necessary, given the episode’s length and the point Serling is trying to drive home. If this was stretched out to a full hour (or, god forbid, even longer), we would’ve had more in-depth flashbacks, maybe a few scenes of Lutze living abroad to give us a better understanding of why he came back to Dachau, maybe a few scenes of Becker, the camp’s most articulate ghost, while he was alive. Theoretically, this could’ve worked, but it wouldn’t have had the same power of the shorter version, that direct, stark howl of pain over a crime that must never be forgotten.

So instead of something complex, we get: Lutze checks into a hotel, then goes to visit the abandoned camp at Dachau. He wanders around, having flashbacks to his time at the camp. (Beregi plays this with a disturbing sort of proud satisfaction, like a man looking back over a job well done. There’s a professional pride evident on his face that is so much more ugly than simple villainous glee.) Suddenly, a man appears in a ragged prisoner’s uniform. The man has hollow eyes and a soft, endlessly patient voice. He says his name is Becker, and that he was in the camp while Lutze was in charge of the place. Lutze tries to laugh this off, but slowly, implacably, Becker walks the ex-captain through his crimes, bringing him to a trial by a jury of other camp ghosts, before finally sentencing him to a life of madness. The next thing we see, Lutze is raving while men take him away to a mental hospital. Someone wonders why the Dachau camp hasn’t been torn down, and Serling closes out the episode with his usual solemn gusto, explaining that such testaments to man’s inhumanity to man must always remain standing.

As narratives go, it’s not exactly Primer. Everything’s arranged to get us to Becker and what amounts to a ten monologue (interspersed with occasional protests from Lutze) about the Holocaust. This could’ve been dramatically inert or, worse, bordering on camp (something about Serling’s writing, no matter how sincere, always seems perilously close to something a Bond villain might churn out), but Joseph Schildkraut’s measured performance keeps things grounded, and the direction by Don Medford makes sure the episode never becomes dramatically inert. In other Twilight Zones, a story this simple has been a liability, as characters bash their head again and again against the obvious, dragging out the running time until things take a sudden, unexpected turn that everyone playing the home game figured out ages ago. But here, that plodding, unrelenting repetition works to great effect. There’s no question as soon as Lutze steps into the camp that he’ll suffer some sort of punishment for his vileness, and the fact that Lutze doesn’t immediately realize that Becker is a ghost is almost laughably stupid. But then Lutze doesn’t come across as all that bright; and besides, he isn’t the point here. The point is Serling’s attempt, through a pulp script and some TV cameras, to make sure men and women like Becker have another voice crying out for them, if only for a moment; to look back over a history that let men like Lutze and Eichmann have their way for far too long, and at far too great a cost, and say no, enough, this must end. To make some sense out of madness, in an artificial, but direct, way. That’s what stories do.

What a twist: The ghosts of Dachau do not rest easily. Lutze is forced to endure the pain he caused others, and is driven mad as a result.

Grade: A

Stray observations:

  • There some ugly images in this (the hanging men are stark), but Becker’s, “In this room, the things you did to human beings were unmentionable” is very stark.
  • “All the Dachaus must remain standing.”

“The Midnight Sun” (season 3, episode 10; originally aired 11/17/1961)
In which if you can’t stand the heat, you die...

I hate the heat. I think it’s because I grew up in Maine; we have hot days here, and, worse, humid hot days, but summer only lasts the three months, and spring is pretty hit or miss. So I never had a chance to really get used to a long, sustained streak of burning warm weather. But really, I don’t think this is specific to me. Extremes of temperature in either direction are miserable, but there’s something hateful about the heat. If you’re cold, you can put on a sweatshirt, start a fire, get naked next to somebody in a sleeping bag. (At least, that’s what they do in the movies.) If you’re hot, there are only so many clothes you can take off, so much ice water you can drink, so many blankets you can kick to the floor. The air-conditioning helps a little, if you have it, but even when it’s running full bore, you can still feel the hot air underneath everything, sticking to your lungs and your armpits, filling the room. And the sun, of course. Can’t forget the sun. Take a nap in a cool spot, wake up twenty minutes later to find yourself half on fire from a shift in the heavens. Nice days, the sun is a cheerful source of energy and light. Hot days, and it’s a torturing god.

Most of us have experienced a hot day, or week, or month, that felt like it would never end (probably more of us now than ever before), which is one of the reasons “The Midnight Sun” works so well. The episode does such a good job at selling the pure misery of Norma (Lois Nettleton) and her doomed neighbor Mrs. Bronson (Betty Garde) that it’s hard to watch at times; there’s no hope to be found here, and where “It's A Good Life” offered some relief in the outlandishness of its threat, perpetual, agonizing heat is a much more direct torment. The cast, script (another one by Serling; after a so-so start to the season, he’s going gangbusters now), and direction (by Anton Leader) keep finding ways to make the characters’ hellish circumstance feel real. Like the way everyone’s desperate for a drink; and the sweat stains and flushed foreheads; the way Norma burns her hand on the windowsill; and finally, the way the paint melts and the thermometer mercury boils through its glass shell. For almost twenty minutes, the sense of claustrophobic physical discomfort is relentless.

It’s difficult to watch, and if the episode had turned into another one of Serling’s critiques of the ways mankind can turn selfish and hateful in a crisis, it would’ve been too much. But there’s a surprising amount of mercy in the story, which, as mentioned above, is more of a mood piece than anything approaching a conventional plot. We see Norma painting in her apartment (Nettleton is terrific, in a role that mostly requires her to suffer, sweat, and go out of her mind), then meet some of the neighbors just as their leaving the city. We learn how hopeless the situation is: the Earth has somehow been knocked out of its elliptical orbit and is now moving closer and closer to the sun. The closer it gets, the hotter it gets, and eventually, in two or three weeks at the latest, the world will burst into flame, and everyone will die. Norma goes to the store and gets some juice, which she shares with Mrs. Bronson, the only other person in the building. They hear a warning on the radio (from an announcer who angrily protests the point of giving weather reports during the apocalypse) about potential prowlers; police are telling everyone to keep their doors locked, since they’re too busy monitoring outgoing traffic to patrol the city. A man (Tom Reese) does break into the apartment. Norma tries to scare him away with a gun, but he takes the gun from her, drinks her water, and then breaks down, apologizing for his behavior, and talking about losing his wife and children to the heat. The man leaves. Then Mrs. Bronson dies. Then the heat gets worse, and Norma goes insane. Then...

Hold that thought. Here we have another episode, which, for the most part, has very little plot, and is all the better for it. Again, in a longer episode, more would have to happen. Maybe there’d be scientists working to save everyone, or Norma would have a brother across town that she needed to visit, or there’d be some immediate peril that would kill time until we remembered that, oh yeah, everyone’s doomed so it doesn’t really matter. A longer episode would also have given us more time to think through just how nonsensical the premise is; it works because the impact is so visceral, and because it’s over before you have time to start asking difficult questions. (Although, sure, this part is “all a dream” anyway, but I’ll get to that.) At twenty minutes, there’s enough time for us to like Norma and Mrs. Branson, for that awful sinking sensation of a life without hope.

There’s also just enough time to see people being kind to each other, even though they know the end is coming. Norma offers her water to the little girl who lives upstairs, and the neighbors are polite and apologetic as they leave. Mrs. Branson goes a bit mental when she drops a can of juice on the floor, but she’s immediately ashamed of herself. Even the man who breaks into the building turns out to be not that bad of a guy; he’s lost his wife and kids, and it’s hard to blame him for going ‘round the bend. Where in other episodes, Serling has used the pressures of encroaching crisis to bring out the worst in his characters, here he’s content to simply show us that good men and women can be broken, but still show kindness and compassion to one another. The hell here isn’t other people. It’s the world itself. That makes the episode easier to watch, but somehow more painful in the long term, because you can’t kid yourself that Norma or anyone else we meet deserve their fate. There’s no justice being done here, no punishment for any recognizable crime. It’s just humans suffering at the whim of a cosmic accident, a twist of fate that no one could have foreseen, and nothing could have prevented.

As for the “twist,” the episode leading up to the final scene is so good that the ending doesn’t really matter that much. It turns out Norma has been in the grips of a fever the whole time, and dreaming; in the actual world, the Earth is in the grip of endless, wintery night, spinning out of its orbit and moving away from the sun. That’s clever enough, and can be seen as one extra turn on the screw just in case we weren’t already convinced that God is a dick, but it’s not necessary. It’s too clever, really, so obviously artificial, like so many clunky twists end up being; ha-ha, you thought it was one way, but it’s really the other way. There’s some momentary relief at the sight of all the snow before we learn what’s really going on, which gives the last scene a certain vicious kick, and Norma’s final comment about how nice it is to feel cool again is haunting enough. But take that ending away, and the previous eighteen minutes are still just as frightening and memorable. It’s the sun that stays with you: the light that never goes out. I never thought before how awful that could be.

What a twist: Norma thinks the Earth is getting closer to the sun, but it’s actually getting further away.

Grade: A

Stray observations:

  • I love how tactile this episode is, in a way that an episode that was entirely about the cold wouldn’t have been. Something about seeing actors sweat and pant in the heat just gets you in the nerve endings. And those melting paintings were nightmarish.
  • “Baby didn’t live more than an hour. Then she followed after.” -two very sad sentences

Next week: Todd goes back to the Civil War in “Still Valley,” then deals with the lingering effects of “The Jungle.” 

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