Twilight Zone’s ‘Deaths-Head Revisited’: Aesthetic PTSD, Archetypal Nazis and the Question of the War Criminal – Part 1/3

Editor’s note: This 3-part blog series on war crime, with special attention to the representation of Nazis in prime-time American TV, was written before the events in August in Charlottesville, VA and are not reflective or responsive of contemporary events involving terror white supremacy, neo-Naziism groups, etc. As this 3-part blog series focuses on the fictional representations of war criminals in American television, thoughtful discussions are absolutely welcome on topic. I understand that these topics have become more relevant in current politics; however let me be clear about where I stand on this issue. I absolutely denounce racism and bigotry of all kinds, and consider this a safe place for open and thoughtful discussion. Any comments encouraging racism, white supremacy, anti-semitism, anti-social behaviour and violence will not be tolerated; comments will be reported and removed. 

This blog entry is part one of three: the purpose of this series is to explore how perpertrators of war crimes are treated after the war in various points of genre television. This blog focuses specifically on The Twilight Zone (referred to in this blog as TZ) episode ‘Deaths-Head Revisited‘ as it focuses specifically on the question of how to deal with war criminals post-war. The second blog will focus on the 1981 episode of Magnum, P.I., ‘Never Again… Never Again’. The final entry focuses on a 1993 episode, ‘Duet’, in the science fiction programme Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Each blog will examine how those who committed crimes of war are treated within these television episodes. As always, spoilers are ahead. 

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‘Deaths-Head Revisited’ – Twilight Zone
Season 3, Episode 9
Aired: 10 November 1961
Teleplay by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Don Medford

It is not an exaggeration to say that TZ is preoccupied with war, in particular WWII. Out of the 156 episodes of the classic programme, a vast number of episodes deal with war in one form or another: ‘King Nine Will Not Return’, ‘The Thirty-Fathom Grave’, ‘The 7th is Made Up of Phantoms,’ The Encounter’ all deal with survivor’s guilt and post-war identity. ‘Time Enough At Last,’ ‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street’, and ‘The Shelter’ all deal with the looming threat of nuclear war, and ‘He’s Alive’ (an episode I will write on further) explores the rise of fascism and America. ‘A Small Talent for War,’ ‘Judgement Night,’ ‘Third From The Sun,’ ‘The Last Fight’, ‘Two’, ‘The Passersby’, ‘Still Valley’, ‘A Quality of Mercy’ each have war as a main theme within the stories.

The reasons for this are hardly straight forward, but I’d like to address several potential reasons here. Firstly, the programme premiered in 1959 – a mere 14 years after the end of the Second World War ended. Secondly, the American involvement in the Korean War (1950-1953) was still a fresh wound and, unlike the Second World War, the Korean War was seen as a ‘bad’ war that America should not have been involved with (much like the Vietnam War (1961-1968). Thirdly, the Cold War, starting in 1947, saw an increase in perceived threats from Cuba with Fidel Castro’s rise to power and push for Communism (and therefore an increased panic for seeing Communism as a threat to America) and the Communist insurgent movement in  North Vietnam (the Viet Cong), foreshadowing the threat that would ultimately be used to justify the American involvement in the Vietnam War. In short, America in the late 1950s was suffering from the ghosts of fresh past wars and the uneasy looming spectre of feared nuclear war. 

Moreover, Rod Serling himself was a war veteran of WWII, one who was, by many accounts, dealing with what would be recognised today as PTSD. Born to a Jewish family, he enlisted for military service as a paratrooper the morning after his high school graduation in 1943. He was transferred to a demolition platoon, and eventually had a reputation for going against orders. Serling received several medals, including the Purple Heart, but even after being discharged in 1946, Serling found civilian life tainted by his military experiences, saying ‘I was bitter about everything and at loose ends when I got out of the service. I think I turned to writing to get it off my chest.’  His father also passed away soon after he was discharged, adding to Serling’s struggles with depression and trauma.

Lastly, and perhaps more immediate, it could be argued that this episode is inspired by the kidnap and the trial of the German Nazi SS Oversturmbannführer, Adolf Eichmann, a major organiser of the Holocaust. In May of 1960, the Israeli Security Service captured Eichmann in Argentina, delivering him in Jerusalem for trial in an Israeli court for his crimes in WWII. During the trial, Eichmann was enclosed in a bulletproof glass booth. Eichmann was found guilty and sentenced to death, executed on 1 June, 1962 by hanging. This event is something that will further explored in the third instalment of this series focusing on DS9‘s ‘Duet’. However, in terms of the TZ, this event most certainly could have impressed Serling enough to question how justice could ever truly be given for the events of the Holocaust.

With this context, it is understandable that so much of Serling’s work would come with anti-war sentiments. Twilight Zone was, in effect, a way for him to work out issues of his own PTSD through a safe and displaced medium: science fiction. More than a few of Serling’s episodes can be viewed as a sort of aesthetic working of his own PTSD, and this episode, perhaps more than most.

Although I have a great deal more to say about Twilight Zone and war, as well as Serling’s impact on genre television (and will, at some point), I want to turn attention specifically to the episode, ‘Deaths-Head Revisited’ (‘DHR’). I would argue that ‘DHR’ is certainly one of the most significant episodes of TZ; furthermore, I do not believe it is overstating matters to argue that this episode is one of the most significant episodes of any television programme in the history of television in relation to war. 

Conflict, criminality and atrocities are never an easy topic to tackle, especially in television. Limited by framework of the show, time, network restrictions, expectations of the audience, and even budget, discussing what should happen to those perpetrators of war crimes — in particular, those who have faced no negative consequences for their involvement in war crimes — is a difficult task. Magnum, P.I., and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, with WWII so far in the past, both approach war crime and war criminals with more hesitancy – perhaps even delicacy, attempting to show more shades of grey between good and evil. 

With Serling’s own history, still reeling from the recent trauma of WWII, this episode of TZ is anything but subtle. As a programme, TZ has plenty of subtle social commentary, but this episode is sophisticated, relentless and unapologetic in its attitudes toward war, war crimes and those who committed them.

‘DHR’ makes no attempts to soften the blows: it has every intention of breaking not just the main character of the episode, but the viewer as well. On numerous occasions, I have shown this episode to others. In every single case, the person I have shown it to has broken down in tears. Several times I have been asked to pause the episode for a few minutes so that they may take a break from the intensity, but no one has ever asked me to turn it off. In every single case, the person I have shown it to sits in silence for about 10 minutes after the episode finishes. After one viewing, a friend told me, ‘well, that was a fucking punch to the face, I’m going to have an emotional black eye for a month. That is the best thing I’ve ever seen. And I never want to see it again. I hate you for making me watch it. Thank you.’ 

The plot to ‘DHR’ is, in fact, very simple: Guther Lutze, a former S.S. Captain of the first concentration camp, Dachau, returns to the camp to relive his ‘glory’ days. As TZ was filmed in monochrome, the episode is visually stark and grey-scale. As nearly every scene is set at a former concentration camp, the mis-en-scenes for most of the episode are primarily in darker rooms with little light. Some very interesting camera work helps sell the episode, particularly toward the very end. It is the acting and directing that really showcases this story. 

Like DS9‘s ‘Duet’, discussed in part three of this blog series, the primary action is between two people, in this case, Becker (played laconically by Joseph Schildkraut) and Lutze. On screen for every moment of the episode, Oscar Beregi plays Lutze: although he was fantastic in a variety of other programmes (Mission: Impossible and Untouchables, in particular), Beregi is probably most famous for his Twilight Zone appearances, and this episode in particular. The character of Lutze could have very easily gone into caricature, as he is the perfect trope of the archetypal Nazi. As Zack Handlen argues, however, ‘Beregi is saddled with the almost impossible task of creating a larger than life symbol of evil who is still recognisably human. He succeeds; Lutze is vile, condescending, and snivelling by turns, but he’s distinct and specific enough to avoid caricature.’

The episode follows Lutze as he checks into a hotel in Bavaria, returning to the town of Dachau. Serling’s voice over tells us that 17 years have passed, and the shadow of the Holocaust still rests heavily on this town. 

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As Lutze speaks fondly of the concentration camp up the hill, the woman running the Inn he checks into is aghast and tells him ‘most of us would like it burned to the ground.’ Unlike many TZ episodes, there is no surprise ‘twist’ in the plot in the end: it is clear from the beginning that something will happen to Lutze in punishment for his ‘nostalgic’ trip up to Dachau. Rod Serling’s opening monologue leaves no guess as to what to expect in the episode: Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 16.55.50.png

As Lutze walks through the disused camp, he gleefully remembers himself shouting at those interned in the camp, a sadistic smile often creeping across his face, caught up in a nostalgia intentionally designed to make the viewer squirm. 

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Things take a turn when Alfred Becker, still clad in the prisoner uniforms given to the Jews in the camp,  appears, welcoming Lutze back to the camp.

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Lutze recognises him, and they exchange awkward pleasantries: 

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Lutze begins to hear noises throughout the compound, and reacts uneasily. He bristles when Becker calls him ‘Captain’, arguing that he is not a soldier anymore.

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 17.29.58.pngThe long-used defence, ‘I did as I was told’, is something that is directly interrogated in a variety of post-conflict narratives, but here this is, in fact, used as evidence against Lutze as Lutze jumps nervously from the continued sounds throughout the compound. Becker, in a calm and even detached tone, tells Lutze,Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 17.36.32.png


Lutze offers half-hearted apologies, essentially blaming Becker for not being able to let the past stay in the past: ‘I had hoped that with the passage of time, sanity would have returned – people would be willing to forget the little mistakes of the past.’ Becker balks at Lutze’s definition of ‘little mistakes’, explaining, ‘you ask too much Captain Lutze, far too much. Why not ask for the earth to stop revolving in its axis? Don’t ask the impossible… Do not ask forgiveness from those whom you have destroyed to a point past forgiveness.’ Serling is leaving absolutely no doubt to his message: no excuse, no argument, no apology is ever enough to exonerate those who took part in the Holocaust atrocities. 

The question of ‘following orders’, of being simply a cog in the war machine who ‘did what I was told’ is one that is directly addressed not just here, but also in Magnum P.I.‘s episode, ‘Never Again… Never Again’ and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s ‘Duet’. As will be discussed in the second blog of this series, Magnum, P.I. holds the position that in war, there are no ‘little fish’ – those who claim they were ‘following orders’ are not absolved from being held accountable for the crimes and atrocities they witnessed (or took part in) in war – that anyone who stood by and watched the atrocities happen and did nothing has blood on their hands they cannot wash off. Deep Space Nine, as explored in the final blog in this series, appears to take a more forgiving position, seeming to argue that the ‘little fish’ could not have stopped what was happening and, therefore, should not be held accountable. Lutze’s insistance that it is Becker who is at fault for not letting it go is dismissed by both Becker and Serling.  

It is at this point that Becker declares Lutze is on trial for his ‘crimes against humanity’. Lutze blusters that this trial is ‘inhuman’, and tries to leave. He falls, and as he opens his eyes, he sees he is surrounded by dozens of victims:

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He sits up, and the camera angle spins with him, and then pulls into close-ups of the audience:

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The direction in this scene is absolutely fantastic, as it manages to visually create the looming anxiety and panic that Lutze experiences – and the silent, seething rage that Becker exudes.

As Becker reads the crimes against Lutze to the jury of ghosts, Lutze becomes more less and less  composed as they go through the evidence of his trial to the jury of ghosts. He shouts and screams, and then passes out. When he comes to, Lutze is informed by Becker that the jury has reached their verdict of guilt. Lutze continues to scream and even tries to strangle Becker at one point:

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But Becker is transformed into a wooden post, and Lutze suddenly finds himself outside in the compound.

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It is now that Lutze’s judgement is given:

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The episode ends with Lutze being carried off, presumably to an asylum. The taxi driver who had driven him up to the camp and the doctor who had examined him wonder what could have turned him mad in only two hours, and the doctor looks around the camp bitterly, saying ‘Dachau. Why does it still stand? Why do we keep it standing?’ In the closing, Serling answers the question he himself poses:
Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 18.22.35.pngSerling’s ‘Deaths-Head Revisited’ offers absolutes: those who inflicted unimaginable torment onto others with sadistic glee will find judgement one way or the other: for Captain Lutze, this means spending the rest of his life feeling the agony he inflicted onto others to the point of madness. But his torment is not over: for Serling, a religious man, the final and worst judgement to come to pass will be from God, presumably to suffer for an eternity in hell for his crimes. 

Certainly, out of the three programmes examined, this episode takes the harshest view toward war criminals. Due, perhaps, to the fact that it is chronologically the closest to WWII (and Serling’s own experiences as a Jewish American in the war), Twilight Zone understandably takes the most severe position regarding war criminals. ‘Deaths-Head Revisited’ is unapologetic, brutal, shocking and angry. Serling leaves no room for debate in this statement: Becker promises Lutze’s madness is not revenge, but justice – and his sentence is swift and absolute. Those who recognise the Holocaust as a mistake, such as the Bavarian woman in the beginning of the episode receives no recompense: she acknowledges the horrors not with nostalgia, but with revulsion. She faces a different kind of pain: that of the Vergangenheitsbewältigung – struggling to accept and rebuild after the damage of the Holocaust. 

However, In ‘Deaths-Head Revisited’, Serling is clear: those who, like Lutze, see the Holocaust as glorious are unequivocally and absolutely responsible and will suffer for their crimes – in one way, or another. 

This series on how war criminals are acknowledged in American genre television will continue in this three-part series: the next blog focuses on Magnum P.I., ‘Never Again… Never Again’, and examines the differences in how the war criminal is acknowledged.

 

 

 

‘A war is like when it rains in New York and everybody crowds into doorways, ya know? And they all get chummy together. Perfect strangers. The only difference, of course, is in a war it’s also raining on the other side of the street and the people who are chummy over there are trying to kill the people who are over here who are chums.’ – Hawkeye Pierce, ‘The Interview’.  

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4 thoughts on “Twilight Zone’s ‘Deaths-Head Revisited’: Aesthetic PTSD, Archetypal Nazis and the Question of the War Criminal – Part 1/3

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