Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Twilight Zone: Death's-Head Revisited

In a story about a former Concentration Camp commandant confronted by his victims' ghosts, it would be disastrous for these murdered spirits to act like typical ghosts. You know what I mean: swooping out of dark corners, popping out of shadows. and turning murderous and vengeful.

Instead, writer Rod Serling and director Don Medford offer a restrained, stark approach. These Holocaust victims only confront their tormentor with the weight of his crimes and evil, and that is horror enough. They seek not revenge but justice against the real monster.

Oscar Beregi plays Gunther Luntze, a former S.S. captain visiting the remnants of Dachau years after the war. His sadistic nature is revealed in the first scene when he checks into an inn. The clerk seems to recognize Luntze, who is using a false name, but quickly, he turns the tables, all but ordering her to tell him there's a concentration camp nearby, even though she'd rather not admit it. When she finally cracks, she says the camp should be torn down.

As he tours the camp, Luntze remembers his power and authority and smiles nostalgically. That's when he is confronted by Alfred Becker (Joseph Schildkraut), a former prisoner, still in a striped uniform. Luntze downplays and rationalizes what he did as just another soldier following orders, but Becker won't let the captain avoid the consequences of his actions.

When Luntze hears what sounds like people moaning in pain, he gets nervous Becker notes that sound didn't used to bother him. Those voices are reacting, he says. "They just heard you offer the apology for all the monsters of our time: we did as we were told."

The performances by Beregi and Schildkraut are the centerpiece of the episode. Becker is a puffed up bully, a tyrant who's never accepted responsibility for his actions, a perfect fascist. He begins slick, confident, and controlling, and as he's confronted by Becker and the other prisoners, he grows increasingly unhinged as he runs out of rationalizations and denials.

Becker is not a firebrand avenger. More than anything else, he is a sad figure, speaking in a calm, flat voice, a messenger informing Luntze of the facts. His true nature is revealed when an enraged Luntze lunges for him, saying he should have killed Becker when he had the chance. That's when the captain remembers; he did kill him.

Becker doesn't attack Luntze, turn into a monster, or become angry. He simply states it would be a waste of time, that precious little time Luntze has left, for the captain to kill him again.

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