21 December 2009

The Ghost-Grey Cat Presents: (4) Pull!

You are standing in the doorway of the diabolic, the dangerous, the deadly.  -- Host E.G. Marshall

One of the goofier reactions to Nazi Germany is to imagine that Adolf Hitler somehow survived the fall of Berlin.  According to the cliché, he either hid for the rest of his life, waited to be recreated via genetics, or had his soul hidden somewhere.  In the 1970s, it provided the basis for both campy radio shows (such as one of the subjects of this post) and more serious science-fiction movies.  It survives to this day, having most recently appeared in a Venture Bros. episode several weeks ago.

In that Venture Bros. episode, the characters recognize the convention.  Doc Venture mocks the uniformed Nazis who've ordered him to build a new body for Hitler.  Hank claims that his video-game expertise qualifies him to fight them for real.  When I watched that happen, it occurred to me to take another look at one of the campiest episodes ever run on the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, one that assumed that Hitler still lived in 1975.

My research for that proposed post turned up another interesting fact.  With 1399 episodes under its purview, it shouldn't be surprising that CBS Radio Mystery Theater had a few pairs of episodes that are almost exactly alike.  The most obvious example is 1976's "Afterward" (Episode 441) and 1979's "The Man in the Black Cap" (1010), which both descended from the same Edith Wharton story.  And some pairs are even worse than that.

The best such pair of such episodes aired just two months apart in 1975.  The first one, "The Rise and Fall of the Fourth Reich," is the one that I had planned on reviewing alone.  As it turns out, however, its plot follows the same outline as "Goodbye, Carl Erich."  Both stories carry the same three elements:
  1. The broken man:  Act 1 introduces us to a German man who, whether through childhood abuse or decades of self-neglect,  has withered into a barely functioning person.
  2. The rescuers:  For whatever reasons, two other Germans come to their broken countryman's aid.  Whether their role in his recovery is direct or not, the result is the same.  Over the course of Act 2, the broken man begins to heal in spirit and/or body.  He becomes not merely competent but also powerful in his own right.
  3. The betrayal:  Just as the newly empowered man is about to lavishly reward his benefactors, they utter a secret about themselves.  In minutes -- not incidentally, the last ones of Act 3 -- their revelation undoes all their progress.
In short, the victim's life takes a trajectory like a clay pigeon, one that's launched into the air then shot just as it reaches its maximum height.   Pull!

Episode 275:  The Rise and Fall of the Fourth Reich
First aired:  16 May 1975
Author:  Henry Slesar

Play the teaser
But I thought you were a good German, a loyal German. -- Adolf Hitler
In "Rise and Fall," the Hitler-still-lives meme combines with weird science to produce CBS Radio Mystery Theater's second campiest episode.  (1974's "The Breaking Point," which revolves around a surgically enhanced chimp, may be the campiest episode ever.)
  • The broken man:  Adolf Hitler lives, all right -- in squalor.  His flight from the fires of 1945 Berlin went on and on, ending in México, D.F.*, only because he ran out of energy and hope.  As voiced by Robert Dryden, languishes in the Mexican capital's worst slum, exhausted, virtually blind, and at the edge of senility.  He has forgotten his past so completely that he now calls himself Marcos.
  • The rescuers:  Aside from his impoverished landlady, the only people who care about him anymore apparently work for East Germany's infamous Stasi.  One of its agents (Paul Hecht), representing himself only as "Günther," has found Hitler, and now plans to restore him.  Dr. Bundeschaf (Joe Silver), a one-time Nazi scientist, joins Günther in Mexico.  Having perfected a rejuvenation serum on apes during World War II, Bundeschaf applies his expertise to Hitler himself.  Within ten days, "Marcos" begins to benefit from Bundeschaf's work: he realizes that he is really Adolf Hitler.
  • The betrayal:  When a jubilant Hitler tries to give Günther his own Iron Cross, he discovers the truth about his rescuers.  Günther reveals that he is a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust.  Bundeschaf's past provides no comfort, as can be heard in the clip below.  Günther stabs Hitler, Bundeschaf allows him to bleed to death, and Hitler can only ask about the point of all this.  Here is the end of Act 3, including RMT host E.G. Marshal's remarks:
    Episode 275's last 106 seconds

"And so, Adolf Hitler dies," declares Marshall at the final curtain.  As a twist, it wasn't worthy of The Twilight Zone (whose music you hear at the end), the later Outer Limits or even a M. Night Shyamalan movie.

It was too good for any of those.

As a kid hearing that for the first time, I shouted in joy, pumped my fist triumphantly in the air and even made woofing noises.  I wouldn't do that again until a decade later, when the Chicago Bears made their legendary Super Bowl run.  The thought of Hitler suffering a punishment that even remotely fit his crime brought joy my heart.  It fell to my parents to explain that maybe I shouldn't celebrate anyone's death that much.

Grade:  96/100.  If it weren't so intentionally campy, it would get a much lower grade.  As camp, though, it beautifully executed.

A few final notes:
  • The episode does feature some of the worst Spanish ever spoken on English-language radio.  Yo, Henry Slesar, it isn't el este muerto.  "He this dead?"  Really?  The proper sentence is el está muerto.  Even in 1975, writer Slesar should have known better.
  • Just how did Hilter manage to keep his Iron Cross?  Shouldn't he have lost it after 30 years on the run?
  • Bundeschaf is German for "national sheep," or, more exactly, "federal sheep."  Ooooooo-kay.
  • Although neither East Germany nor the Stasi are mentioned in the script, Günther's nationality and occupation can easily be inferred from the background he sketches of himself.  He might be a West German counterspy, but why would he then hide this operation?

    Episode 309:  Goodbye, Carl Erich
    First aired:  16 July 1975
    Author:  Sam Dann
    Play an excerpt

    What's so funny about a human being in distress? -- Karl-Erich Müller**
    In tone and genre, "Goodbye, Carl Erich" could not be any more different from "The Rise and Fall of the Fourth Reich."  The genre shifts from pulp-fiction to straight drama; the setting, from post-Nixon México, D.F, to Weimar-era Hamburg; the twist, from the triumphant to the tragic.
    • The broken man:  When 7-year-old Karl-Erich Müller (Hecht, in a completely different role) lost his father in World War I, he withdrew so completely that he lost the ability to even speak.  He has reached adulthood with a strapping body but a feeble mind.  Desperate for some way to help him, his impoverished mother (Bryna Raeburn) pesters our protagonist until he finally agrees to visit him at his home in late January, 1928.
    • The rescuer:  Psychologist Heinrich Stammler (Kevin McCarthy) doesn't begin treating Karl-Erich until Act 2 begins.  15 weeks later, in a poignant moment featured in the Except above, Karl-Erich manages to order a loaf of bread on his own.  By February 1929, Karl-Erich has gained independence.  By 1931 (and deep into Act 3), he has gone much further, having risen high into the ranks of the ascendant Nazi party, and won the heart of one of Germany's most popular actresses.  All along, Karl-Erich keeps reporting his progress to Stammler, whose otherwise rightful pride blinds him to the Nazi threat.
    • The betrayal:  This one isn't as intentional as the one in "Rise and Fall," but it's almost as twisty.  When Stammler announces his intention to emigrate to America, Karl-Erich tries to bribe him into staying.  Stammler responds by telling him that he has "committed a crime:" he was born a Jew.  He leaves his protégé sitting on a chair, shocked back into perpetual silence.  Stammler has given, he's taken away, and when the final curtain falls, he's gone off to the safety of America.
    Karl-Erich may have taken a bad path once he won his independence, but I keep wondering why Stammler waited until the end to tell Karl-Erich about himself.  Did he have such little faith in Karl-Erich's stability, or his ability to accept the truth?  Maybe writer Dann -- by far the most prolific scribe of RMT episodes -- addressed that issue when he expanded "Goodbye, Carl Erich" into a full-length novel.

    Grade:  94/100.  Dann isn't my favorite RMT writer, but this one works pretty well.
      * D.F. = Distrito Federal, or Federal District.  México, D.F., is the local name for Mexico City.
      ** I'm assuming that writer Dann has Americanized Karl-Erich's name.  Could a German speaker please straighten me out?

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