Premiering on October 5, 1978 in New York City, New York, the compelling, highly entertaining, and suspenseful “The Boys from Brazil,” was directed by Oscar winner Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton). Written for the screen by Heywood Gould (Trial by Jury), the film is based on the novel of the same name by best selling author, Ira Levin. The one hundred and twenty-five minute movie is a very interesting mixture of the genres of drama, sci-fi, and thriller.
Beginning in South America, in Paraguay, a young Jewish man named Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg) is tracking and photographing the activities of former Nazis. He contacts famous Nazi hunter, Ezra Lieberman, a man he has already mailed packages to which contain photographic evidence that Nazis are present in the country. Lieberman assures Kohler that he is fully aware that former members of the Third Reich are in South America, but that if Kohler continues to spy on those in hiding, there may be one less Jew in the world. He implores Kohler to get out of the country as soon as possible.
Lieberman’s character is based on real life Nazi Hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor, who dedicated his life after World War II to brining Nazis to justice. He is portrayed by multiple award winner, and the extraordinarily accomplished, Sir Laurence Olivier. Olivier was nominated for Best Actor for his role in the film at the 1979 Academy Awards; he lost out to Jon Voight. As an aside, the same year, the Academy bestowed the Oscar for lifetime achievement on Olivier for his overall body of work. In addition, Oscar winner Jerry Goldsmith (Mulan) was nominated for Best music, Original score for the film.
Disregarding Lieberman’s warning, Kohler continues his spying. With the help of a little boy, who has access to a mansion where a secret meeting is going to take place, Kohler bugs the house. With the bug in place, and with the use of a two way radio, the other one of which he has given to the child who hangs around the house, Kohler will be able to listen in on what is being discussed. What he hears regards a project that is being launched, which has been twenty years, and millions of dollars, in the making. A plan which will be carried out over a two and half year period, requiring the assassinations of ninety-four men, all of whom at the time of their killings will be sixty-five years of age. None of the men targeted are Jews; all of them work in a minor civil servant capacity, and all are married to women who are a number of years their junior. The operation is the brainchild of Dr. Josef Mengele, acted against type by Academy Award and Golden Globe winner, Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird). Peck comes off as calculatingly evil, and quite menacing in the role – a role he took on, primarily, because he wanted to work with Olivier.
In real life, Dr. Josef Mengele, was a German SS officer and physician, stationed at Auschwitz concentration camp. His moniker, “The Angel of Death,” was a fitting one considering the heinous experiments he performed on unwilling Jewish and Gypsy prisoners. He was especially fixated on operating on twins, in an attempt to trace the origins of numerous genetic diseases. In addition, he was also heavily interested in heterochromia, which is a physical trait where a person’s irises are two different colors. He would conduct experiments in order to see if he could artificially change a person’s eye color.
During the meeting, while out on patrol, one of the guards of the house passes the little boy, who is listening to the discussion on his radio. He quickly grabs the radio from the child’s hands, and proceeds to alert the men of his discovery. An enraged Mengele orders the would be assassins in the room to tear the place to shreds until the bug is found. Once radio contact is broken, Kohler knows that he is in trouble, and if nothing else, has to at least inform Lieberman of what he has heard before anything happens to him.
Kohler places a second phone call to Lieberman. While talking, they abruptly get cut off, and the Nazi Hunter suspects that something terrible has happened. Without a great deal of financial resources at his disposal, Lieberman begins investigating Kohler’s claims by traveling to locations close to Austria where he lives. At the start of the film, Olivier plays the character as a cranky, aging man, who is unhappy about being woken up out of bed by the ringing of the phone, regardless of what Kohler has to tell him. Once, however, the plot progresses, and Lieberman begins to piece together the truth regarding Mengele’s plans, Olivier imbues the character with a new found vigor.
What Lieberman begins to uncover are the similarities regarding the deaths of the sixty-five year old, civil service workers, just as Kohler described from what he heard. What he finds even more striking, as he is visiting the homes of the deceased men, is that the male child of each household, has an identical look from one to the next. They all have blue eyes, black hair, and a standoffish demeanor. The four boys that are shown to the viewer, Jack Curry, Erich Doring, Simon Harrington, and Bobby Wheelock, are all portrayed by the same actor, Jeremy Black, in the only movie, he has appeared in. After “The Boys from Brazil,” he left film acting to pursue a career as a stage actor in New York.
The other performers of note in the film are: “Golden Globe” winner James Mason (Lolita) as Eduard Seibert. His character is running the security for the assassination operation. At first a supporter of Dr. Mengele, Seibert becomes concerned when Lieberman begins to investigate the deaths of the men who are being killed. He is anxious to have Mengele abort the operation, but that is something the doctor refuses to do; Uta Hagen (The Other), as a former concentration camp nurse, Frieda Maloney, who Lieberman interviews in prison, in order to ascertain more about Mengele’s plan. The screen time she shares with Olivier is short in duration, but executed powerfully; Lilli Palmer, (The House that Screamed), portrays Lieberman’s concerned sister, Esther; In addition, Rosemary Harris (Spider Man) as Mrs. Doring, in the role of the wife of one of the assassinated men. The movie also features supporting turns by Denholm Elliot in the role of Sidney Beynon. Fans of the first three Indian Jones films will recognize him as the man who portrayed the character of Marcus Brody; and Bruno Ganz (Downfall) appears as Professor Bruckner.
Lieberman eventually discovers that Dr. Mengele has cloned ninety-four different boys to have the exact same physical attributes as someone from history…A person from whom he took blood and skin tissue prior to the end of World War II. The significance of the assassinations of the boys’ fathers is also brought into focus. Not only is it important to Mengele that the children share the man’s DNA, but that the children’s backgrounds must also be as close as possible to mirror reflections of the man, especially as it pertains to the family dynamic of a tyrannical father and a doting mother.
What person’s DNA has Dr. Mengele used for his diabolical cloning experiment? Will Lieberman figure things out in time in order to stop him? What will happen to the cloned boys if Lieberman is successful? What could be the consequences if Lieberman is not successful?
I would venture a guess that a good many of you have viewed this riveting film, if not in the movies, then on broadcast television or on cable where it has oft been shown over the years, and already know the answers. For those of you who don’t know the answers because you have not seen this mesmerizing thriller, I don’t want to spoil it for you. Olivier and Peck turn in masterful performances in this movie and if you are a fan of both, or either of them, and have somehow missed it, “The Boys from Brazil” is a must see.