Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"The Midnight Sun"

Betty Garde (left) and Lois Nettleton (right) struggle for survival during a solar apocalypse

“The Midnight Sun”
Season Three, Episode 75
Original Air Date: November 17, 1961

Cast:
Norma Smith: Lois Nettleton
Mrs. Bronson: Betty Garde
Intruder: Tom Reese
Mr. Shuster: Jason Wingreen
Mrs. Shuster: June Ellis
Doctor: William Keene
Radio Announcer: Robert Stevenson

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Anton Leader
Producer: Buck Houghton
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Phil Barber
Set Decoration: H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Editor: Jason H. Bernie
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Casting: Stalmaster-Lister
Music: Nathan Van Cleave

 And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week we see what will happen to a world that, with each passing hour, draws closer to the sun. This is a nightmare in depth in which we watch two doomed women spend their last hours struggling for survival against the fiery orb that moves over the top of a hot, still, deserted city. We call it ‘The Midnight Sun’ and we also recommend it most heartily.”
 
Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“The word that Mrs. Bronson is unable to put into the hot, still, sodden air is ‘doomed,’ because the people you’ve just seen have been handed a death sentence. One month ago the Earth suddenly changed its elliptical orbit and in doing so began to follow a path which gradually, moment by moment, day by day, took it closer to the sun. And all of man’s little devices to stir up the air are now no longer luxuries. They happen to be pitiful and panicky keys to survival. The time is five minutes to twelve, midnight. There is no more darkness. The place is New York City and this is the eve of the end, because even at midnight it’s high noon, the hottest day in history, and you’re about to spend it in The Twilight Zone.”

Summary:
            Norma Smith, a young woman, is alone in her apartment, painting the scene outside her upper-floor window. She swoons in the heat, wiping sweat from her brow. A huge, monstrous sun looms in the sky, pouring heat and blinding light down upon a deserted New York City. Norma looks into the face of the sun and quickly turns away, wincing in pain. She moves to her small kitchen where she allows herself a small ration of drinking water from a container in the refrigerator.
            Norma hears movement outside the apartment and opens her door to see a small girl standing in the hallway. The girl looks weary and her eyes plead for a taste from the water glass in Norma’s hand. Norma bends to give the girl some water when suddenly Mr. Shuster, the girl’s father, comes rushing down the stairs, yelling for the girl not to take the lady’s water. No one can afford to give away water anymore, he explains, pulling the girl away. The man’s wife follows behind him. They are sweating heavily and carrying suitcases.
            Mrs. Bronson, the middle-aged landlady, opens the door to her apartment and enters the hallway. Mr. Shuster tells Mrs. Bronson that he’s gotten hold of twelve gallons of gas and is using it to take his family to Syracuse to eventually try and make it to Toronto, where it is cooler. Norma and Mrs. Bronson wish the family luck and watch them leave the building. Norma and Mrs. Bronson are now the only two tenants remaining in the building. Mrs. Bronson speaks of a scientist who came onto the radio to explain that the Earth’s orbit has altered, bringing it closer to the sun each day. The thought causes Mrs. Bronson to break down, unable to voice the fact that the human race is doomed.

            Norma arrives home the following day struggling with two bags of groceries. Mrs. Bronson helps her get the bags inside the apartment as Norma describes the chaos of looting the grocery store. Norma has managed to acquire two cans of grapefruit juice. Mrs. Bronson grabs greedily at the cans, dropping one. She falls to her knees and apologizes. Norma comforts Mrs. Bronson before picking up the can and pouring each of them a glass of juice. A radio announcer comes on to report the news and slowly breaks down into delirium before being removed from the air. Soon after, the electricity shuts off. It is now a severely rationed service.
            Norma attempts to sleep, struggling to do so in the suffocating heat and permanent daylight. She crosses the hallways and knocks on Mrs. Bronson’s door. They stand in the doorway of Mrs. Bronson’s apartment, talking, when suddenly they hear a crash from upstairs. Mrs. Bronson cannot remember whether or not she locked the door to the roof exit. The exit door slowly opens. The two women dash into Norma’s apartment and lock the door. 

            Heavy footsteps stop at Norma’s door. A man calls out to be let in. Norma rushes to a table and picks up a gun. She moves to the door and cocks the gun, threatening the man and telling him to leave. After a silence, the man acquiesces. Norma moves to the window to watch him leave by the front exit. Mrs. Bronson unlocks the door before Norma can stop her and the man, lying in wait, burst into the apartment, sending Mrs. Bronson sprawling. Norma points the gun at him but he rushes her and takes it away, pushing her to the floor.
            Norma stands up to the intruder but Mrs. Bronson continues to cower near the sofa. The man opens the refrigerator and drinks all of Norma’s carefully rationed water. He sees Norma’s paintings spread out near the window. This causes the man to break down. He explains that his wife liked to paint. She has recently died from the heat, he says, soon after giving birth to their only child, a boy, who also perished in the heat. The man drops the gun and apologizes to the women, begging forgiveness before slowly leaving the apartment. 

            Norma calls Mrs. Bronson’s attention to a new painting she has recently completed. It is a picture of a waterfall. Mrs. Bronson looks at the painting and slowly descends into hysterics, imagining water cascading down upon her. She moves to the blazing hot window and leans against it. She shutters in the brutal rays of the sun and collapses down upon the floor, dead.
            Norma cradles Mrs. Bronson in her arms as the heat quickly increases, melting the paint on the canvases and causing the thermometer to burst. Norma screams in pain and falls to the floor, her eyes wide and staring, the life leaving her body.
            It is night now. Heavy snow pelts the frost covered windows of Norma’s apartment. Norma lies upon the sofa, a doctor at her side. Mrs. Bronson stands nearby. The doctor tells Norma that she has suffered a very bad fever that has only just broken. Speaking privately to Mrs. Bronson, the doctor informs her that he won’t be able to come back again. He has decided to move his family south, to Miami, where it is warmer. The Earth has gotten colder and colder ever since its orbit has changed, moving it farther away from the sun with each passing day. 

            Norma tells Mrs. Bronson about her terrible dream of a burning hot sun and remarks how wonderful it is to have darkness and cold again.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“The poles of fear, the extremes of how the Earth might conceivably be doomed. Minor exercise in the care and feeding of a nightmare, respectfully submitted by all the thermometer watchers in The Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:
            “The Midnight Sun” can be considered Rod Serling’s coda to his earlier episode, “The Shelter.” He substitutes the threat of nuclear annihilation with the threat of extreme natural disaster, yet both episodes function in relatively the same manner, as a lens through which to view the unpredictable methods in which human individuals maintain or lose their basic humanity in the face of imminent doom.
            What Serling achieves with “The Midnight Sun,” however, is clearly the opposite of what he set out to illustrate in “The Shelter.” With “The Shelter,” Serling attempts to display how quickly individuals can descend into violence and savagery when faced with a crisis. “The Shelter” functions to drive home the undeniable principle of social behavior that the person we are in public is not, to varying degrees, the person we are in private. He uses the catalyst of a life and death situation to show the ugly side of our hidden personalities, areas filled with suppressed prejudices. “The Shelter” uses hateful rhetoric and sudden, shocking acts of violence to drive this point home, with all of the action taking place between supposedly friendly neighbors.
            “The Midnight Sun” takes an entirely different approach to a similar situation by focusing on a more humanistic reaction to crisis. “The Shelter” is, perhaps unfairly, dismissed, or at least disliked, because of the pessimistic leanings of its narrative. Generally speaking, the negative response it generates in many viewers is evidence of its power and effectiveness. In other words, this is exactly the reaction Serling was looking for in his audience. He wanted people to be horrified by the behavior exhibited in the episode. However, for viewers that disliked the earlier episode, “The Midnight Sun” remedies this by presenting a small group of individuals that retain their basic humanity in the face of calamity. It is an episode that presents an optimistic view of ourselves, in its way as unbelievable in its extremes as is the behavior in “The Shelter.” Interesting to note is that, with “The Midnight Sun,” it is not until the final act and the end of Norma’s nightmare that any violence or death is shown on-screen. It is not until the climatic confrontation with a violent intruder, who eventually leaves begging forgiveness from those he has harmed, that the viewer is confronted with tangible evidence of society’s descent into chaos outside Norma’s apartment. Of course, the situation is eventually revealed to be a dream and when Norma awakens we are returned to a calm, collected setting despite the persistence of a deadly threat. The characters in “The Shelter” may have escaped the misfortune which is certain to befall the characters in “The Midnight Sun,” but their failure to maintain basic civility in the face of disaster indicates that these characters will never again possess a meaningful relationship among themselves. Serling stresses in both episodes that we can destroy ourselves without the need of any physical disaster.
            The viewer can assume that some of the residents of Mrs. Bronson’s apartment building died because of the heat, likely in a horrible state. Yet, we are never given evidence of this. The radio announcer speaks of maniacs, allowing the viewer to imagine the varied horrors individuals are inflicting upon one another in the lawless streets. Again, Serling never shows us any of this, or even a hint of it. Instead of showing the chaos of Norma’s grocery store trip, for instance, he merely has her speak of it after it is over. She does not appear to be physically harmed and she speaks of the experience not in a frightened way but rather in a sad, mournful manner, as though her experience left her feeling pity rather than fear.
            It aids the episode that Serling has no discernable political message to convey as he had in “The Shelter” or in the similarly themed “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” This allows Serling to concentrate solely on developing character, clearly his strongest talent as a writer. It is character which drives the episode along, aided by a strong central performance and serviceable support. It is important that Serling paid such close attention to character development as he is certainly not breaking new conceptual ground with “The Midnight Sun,” as tales of natural apocalypse have been a regular theme of popular science fiction since the early 19th century (for examples see editor Michael Kelahan’s 2010 compilation The End of the World (Fall River Press), which collects apocalyptic science fiction from 1816-1920). 

            Initially, Serling included two additional characters in his teleplay that did not make into the finished episode. Shortly after the Shuster family departs, a refrigerator repairman finishes repairing Mrs. Bronson’s refrigerator. This excised scene was placed into the teleplay to show how desperate times have become for the remaining citizens of the city. When the repairman tells Mrs. Bronson that the job will cost her $100 and he can only accept payment in cash, Mrs. Bronson, who uses a charge account, offers her wedding ring as payment, which the repairman declines on principle. Interesting to note here is that the wedding ring calls direct attention to the fact that Mrs. Bronson is or was married, something otherwise left out of the finished episode if one is not paying close attention to the Mrs. in her name. If left in the episode, it leaves a wide spectrum of possibilities as to the fate of her husband. Has he been dead for years? Did he die earlier in the heat? Did he abandon her when she refused to leave her apartment building? Was he killed by some maniac? It is clear to see that the repairman character was unnecessary to move the narrative forward but it is still an interesting exchange that adds gravity to the situation.
            The second excised character is that of a policeman that arrives after Norma’s grocery trip. He appears in the doorway of her apartment in a tattered police uniform and explains that the police are making rounds to all those left in the city to inform them that the police are disbanding and that no more help will be available from the civil force. More importantly, it is this character that gives Norma the gun she later attempts to use to get rid of the intruder. When the policeman determines that the two women have no protection against any psychopath that may come into the building, he gives Norma his service revolver.
            For viewers that would like to read the excised scenes with these characters, Serling includes them in his adaptation of the teleplay for his 1962 collection, New Stories from the Twilight Zone, a book that has been reprinted dozens of times since. The decision to cut the two scenes resulted from Associate Producer Del Reisman’s concerns about both budget and time constraints. Ned Glass portrays the repairman and John McLiam portrays the policeman, with the scenes excised in post-production. 

            Interesting as these scenes are, however, it was probably wise to cut them for no other reason than logic, as it is highly unlikely that members of any occupation would still be making service rounds at this late date in the crisis. After showing scenes of completely deserted city streets, the idea that a refrigerator repairman would be out making services rounds and presumably leaving his family at home is preposterous. Especially if the streets are as dangerous as the radio announcers indicates. The refrigerator repairman also states that he is trying to get his family north, not only reinforcing the notion that it is absurd he would be out making service rounds but adding another mirrored juxtaposition to the doctor’s journey south at the end of the episode, a parallel which was previously established by the northern journey of the Shusters. The policeman continuing to do his job is a bit more believable but his character appears only to say that he won’t be around any longer.
            Serling’s adaptations of his teleplays often allowed him to elaborate and expand upon dialogue, setting, and characters with little of the space limitations of the television series. In his adaptation of “The Midnight Sun,” Serling presents extended dialogue sequences, including a harrowing extension of the radio announcer’s on-air breakdown, as well as more subtle changes, such as the fact that the Shusters are traveling to Buffalo and not Syracuse, as in the episode. Serling also ramps up the violence and impact of the situation in his adaptation. One memorable scene is that of Mrs. Bronson’s death, describing how portions of the woman’s face are burned away onto the scorching hot glass of the apartment window as she presses against it. The intruder is also a bit more violent in the adaptation, going so far as to slap Norma across the face during their encounter. Interestingly enough, Serling’s adaptation of “The Shelter” is also included in New Stories from the Twilight Zone and presents a fascinating juxtaposition of the two similarly theme stories.
            “The Midnight Sun” was directed by Anton M. Leader, born in Boston in 1913, who began his directing career in New York radio, at the helm for several memorable episodes of Suspense (1942-1962), working with many Golden Age Hollywood stars. Leader moved to Los Angeles in 1948 and began to work in the burgeoning television medium, where he was directing by 1954 with his first credit for the mystery anthology series The Web (1950-1954; 1957). He continued to work on anthology series in the 1950s, including work on Celebrity Playhouse (1955-1956), Four Star Playhouse (1952-1956), and The Ford Television Theatre (1948-1957). Leader could hardly avoid the flood of western television programs that descended upon the small screen in the 1950s and 1960s, helming episodes of The Adventures of Jim Bowie (1956-1958), Rawhide (1959-1966), and The Virginian (1962-1971). His science fiction and fantasy credits include episodes of Lost in Space (1965-1968), Tarzan (1966-1968), and Star Trek (1966-1969).
            Leader previously directed the excellent first season Twilight Zone episode "Long Live Walter Jameson" and, like that technically challenging episode, he again displays his directing skills behind the camera. Aided by Emmy Award-winning cinematographer George T. Clemens, Leader manages to convey the inherent suffocating atmosphere of the episode with an effective number of subjective camera shots. In one particularly memorable shot, Leader focuses down on Norma as she awakens from sleep with a long shop from the ceiling of the apartment. As she comes awake, Leader brings the camera swooping down to a close shot of her confronting an empty water glass. It is a marvelous shot and one which Leader managed to expertly employ in an episode otherwise devoid of opportunities for camera flourishes.
            Adding verisimilitude to the atmosphere is the fact that the episode was filmed in summer on a set without air conditioning. Though the actors were continually spritzed with water, much of the sweat and weariness in their performances is authentic. Leader even went so far as to occasionally have the temperature brought up on set to simulate the setting of the episode.  
            Leader is perhaps best known for directing the film Children of the Damned three years later in 1964. This film was the sequel to the classic 1960 science fiction thriller Village of the Damned, taken from John Wyndham’s 1957 novel, The Midwich Cuckoos. Children of the Damned, though greatly different in tone than its predecessor, has gained a loyal following in the years since its release and is a fine film in its own right. Leader died in Los Angeles on July 1, 1988, aged 74 years.
            Although ably supported by Betty Garde and Tom Reese, both of whom perhaps succumb a bit too much to melodramatic acting, the episode relies heavily upon the performance of Lois Nettleton, here playing Norma Smith. Nettleton brings to the role a calm, steely reserve, giving a highly effective and unusual performance during a time in which women were mostly cast in a science fiction play to panic and scream. She does get the one ringing scream off but it comes as the fever subsides and the nightmare breaks down.
            Nettleton was born in 1927 in Oak Park, Illinois. She was a former beauty queen (Miss Chicago 1948) who began an acting career at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and made her Broadway debut in 1949 in Dalton Trumbo’s comedy The Biggest Thief in Town, using the stage name Lydia Scott. Nettleton remained committed to stage work, appearing on stage well into her seventies. Although she did not make her official film debut until 1962, for Period of Adjustment, Nettleton quickly moved from the stage to the television screen, making an early appearance in an episode of Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949-1955) in 1954. Her genre television credits include an adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859) for The Dow Hour of Great Mysteries (1960), an adaptation of Conrad Aiken’s 1931 short story “Mr. Arcularis” for Great Ghost Tales (1961), The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-1965) (in Alec Coppel’s “The Dark Pool”), and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1969-1973) (for an adaptation of Rene Morris’s 1966 short story “I’ll Never Leave You-Ever”). Nettle went on to win two Daytime Emmy Awards for her portrayal of Susan B. Anthony in The American Woman: Profiles in Courage (1976) and in 1983 for “A Gun for Mandy,” an episode of the Roman Catholic anthology series Insight (1960-1983). Nettleton was nominated for three Primetime Emmy Awards. She died on January 18, 2008 in Woodland Hills, California, aged 80 years.
            I ultimately feel that “The Midnight Sun” is an underrated episode, one of the efforts well above average that warrants a repeated viewing to fully appreciate the nuances of directing and acting on display. Anton Leader only directed two episodes of the series and both are outstanding scripts (one from Charles Beaumont, one from Serling) that Leader manages to effectively frame in a stylized array of subjective camera shots which enhance both the performances and the carefully realized settings and effects. “The Midnight Sun” remains an episode perhaps remembered for its unexpected ending but certainly not an episode which fully relies upon it. And this is what separates it from the less successful episodes of a similar type. It comes recommended. 


Grade: B

Notes:
-Anton Leader also directed the first season episode “Long Live Walter Jameson.”
-Lois Nettleton appears in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "I'll Never Leave You-Ever." In 1993, Nettleton recorded a reading of Rod Serling's prose adaptation of "The Midnight Sun" for Harper Audio. 
-Betty Garde also appears as a passenger in the second season episode, “The Odyssey of Flight 33.”
-Jason Wingreen also appears in the first season episode “A Stop at Willoughby” and (uncredited) in the fourth season episode “The Bard.” He appears in two episodes of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, "The Nature of the Enemy" and "Silent Snow, Secret Snow."
-June Ellis also appears (uncredited) in the first season episode “What You Need.”
-William Keene also appears (uncredited) in the second season episode “The Prime Mover.”
-Rod Serling adapted “The Midnight Sun” into a short story for New Stories from the Twilight Zone, first published in May, 1962 by Bantam Books.
-“The Midnight Sun” was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama, starring Kim Fields.
-“The Midnight Sun” was adapted into a graphic novel by Mark Kneece (writer) and Anthony Spay (illustrator), first published in May, 2009 by Walker.
-The waterfall of which Mrs. Bronson speaks is The Taughannock Falls in Taughannock Falls State Park, located in Ulysses, New York, in Tompkins County. The park is northwest of Ithaca, which is the county seat.
-The effect of the melting paint was achieved by painting wax onto a hot plate, which could then be heated up to melt the wax.

--Jordan Prejean            

Friday, July 8, 2016

"Deaths-Head Revisited"

Captain Gunther Lutze (Oscar Beregi, Jr.) is haunted by former
Dachau prisoner Alfred Becker (Joseph Schildkraut).



“Deaths-head Revisited”
Season Three, Episode 74
Original Airdate: November 10, 1961

Cast:
Captain Gunther Lutze (aka Mr. Schmidt): Oscar Beregi, Jr.
Alfred Becker: Joseph Schildkraut
Hotel Clerk: Karen Verne
Doctor: Ben Wright
Taxi Driver: Robert Boon

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (Original Teleplay)
Director: Don Medford
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: Jack Swain
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Phil Barber
Set Decoration: H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Editor: Bill Mosher
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Casting: Stalmaster-Lister
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“This is the lobby of an inn in a small Bavarian town, and next week we’ll enter it with a former SS officer. It’s the first stop on his road back to relive a horror that was Nazi Germany. Mr. Joseph Schildkraut and Mr. Oscar Beregi demonstrate what happens to the monster when it is judged by the victim. Our feeling here is that this is as stark and moving a piece of drama as we have ever presented. I very much hope that you’re around to make your judgement.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:

“Mr. Schmidt: recently arrived in a Bavarian village which lies eight miles northwest of Munich. A picturesque, delightful little spot onetime known for its scenery, but more recently related to other events having to do with some of the less positive pursuits of man. Human slaughter, torture, misery, and anguish. Mr. Schmidt, as we will soon perceive, has a vested interest in the ruins of a concentration camp. For once, some seventeen years ago, his name was Gunther Lutze. He held the rank of captain in the SS. He was a black-uniformed, strutting animal whose function in life was to give pain. And like his colleagues of the time, he shared the one affliction most common amongst that breed known as Nazis: he walked the Earth without a heart. And now former SS Captain Lutze will revisit his old haunts, satisfied perhaps that all that is awaiting him in the ruins on the hill is an element of nostalgia. What he does not know, of course, is that a place like Dachau cannot exist only in Bavaria. By its nature, by its very nature, it must be one of the populated areas…of the Twilight Zone.”

Summary:
            Former SS Captain Gunther Lutze, under the handle of “Mr. Schmidt,” decides to revisit his past on a trip to Bavaria. It’s been seventeen years since the Dachau concentration camp ceased operations as a haven of misery and anguish. Captain Lutze, craving the power and pleasure of his former life as an SS camp guard, decides to visit the abandoned facility and recapture his former glory.
            He walks the grounds and admires the lynch posts. He strolls through the barracks and imagines rooms full of weak, half-starved prisoners at his mercy.
            While reminiscing about happier days Lutze encounters a man dressed in prison rags. Startled, he decides to leave but finds the entrance gate locked. So he turns his attention back to the stranger. He realizes that he knows this man. His name is Alfred Becker. He was a prisoner here. Lutze assumes Becker to be the camp caretaker now. He tries to make small talk but Becker immediately launches into a verbal assault, telling him that he was a monster seventeen years ago and that he is a monster still. He tells him that his crimes cannot be expunged by simply stripping off a uniform or changing a name. But now, Becker tells him, he shall be judged for his crimes accordingly.
Lutze attempts to leave again but instead finds himself inside the prisoners barracks surrounded by men that were once the subjects of his madness. They are his jury. And they find him guilty of unspeakable crimes against his fellow man. The punishment, Becker says, is his sanity. For the rest of his life Captain Lutze will live with the pain and the memories of those that died by his hands. Outside again, he tumbles to the ground, begging Becker to have mercy on him. But mercy does not come.
            Later.
            Two men, a doctor and a taxi driver, kneel over the sedated body of Captain Gunther Lutze. The driver says he dropped Lutze off only two hours ago and he seemed fine. The doctor seems equally puzzled. He looks at the empty buildings as if they might hold the answers. “Why do they allow this place to remain standing?” He asks the driver. But the driver doesn’t have an answer. So they sit in silence, listening to the wind softly whistling through the abandoned ruins of a Hell once known as Dachau.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“There is an answer to the doctor’s question. All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes. All of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the grave diggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone, but wherever men walk God’s Earth.”


Commentary:
            It’s no secret that Rod Serling possessed a special brand of hatred for abusive authority figures for it is featured prominently throughout his writing and is the main reason he created The Twilight Zone. He wanted an open platform for social criticism without the interference of network censorship. What often got Serling in trouble with networks and advertisers during his years as a writer of live dramas were his thinly-veiled interpretations of real events. Two famous examples are his 1956 script, “Noon on Doomsday,” filmed for The United States Steel Hour, and his 1958 Playhouse 90 script “A Town Has Turned to Dust” (directed by John Frankenheimer and featuring Williams Shatner). Both scripts were based on the 1955 murder of Emmet Till, a black teenager who was lynched in Mississippi and whose killers were eventually acquitted. Both stories received unyielding disapproval from sponsors. So the networks, ABC and CBS respectively, took measures to set the sponsors at ease by altering the script and eliminating any similarities to actual events or people. The result both times was a story so far removed from Serling’s intended idea that he could hardly take credit for it.
            On The Twilight Zone Serling had full creative control so if the network didn’t like a particular script they couldn’t alter it without his permission. But because it was a fantasy program the show oddly received little opposition from either the sponsors or CBS despite the fact that many episodes—mostly Serling’s—are overtly political. Many are even based on current events of the time.
Serling had already touched on the recent Cuban Revolution earlier in Season Three in “The Mirror” which features a fictionalized but deliberate depiction of a young Fidel Castro. Actor Peter Faulk gives a brilliant but highly unflattering portrayal of the controversial dictator and Serling’s script is filled with violence, corruption, betrayal, cowardice, and the murder of the fictional dictator’s chief officers (most of whom were based on real political figures). At the end of the episode the Castro lookalike commits suicide. It was a bold choice in 1961 to say the least.
In “Deaths-Head Revisited” he comments on the recent capture and on-going trial of Adolf Eichmann, a former German Schutzstaffel (SS) lieutenant colonel and head of the Gestapo Office of Jewish Affairs who directly oversaw the mass deportation of European Jews into ghettos and extermination camps. He is considered by many to be the most significant figure of the execution of the Holocaust. After the war he was captured by the United States military but managed to escape and eventually took refuge in Argentina under the alias Ricardo Klement. He was captured by Israeli forces in 1960 and executed for war crimes in 1962. His trial was widely covered in the media.
It seems appropriate that Serling, a Jewish-American war veteran, would have felt a connection to this story. It feels very much like a Rod Serling script with Eichmann, the man credited with the concept of extermination camps, as a standard Serling villain who almost gets away with his crimes but ends up at the mercy of a court of Jewish Israeli officials. In Serling’s version Captain Lutze follows a similar path. Serling’s proclivity for turning current events into television scripts was his way of making a statement that was relevant to his audience but would also capture the atmosphere of the time for subsequent generations. Because Serling wrote the script as the trial was taking place he was basically commenting on a piece of history as it happened, one that was still a sensitive subject even in 1961.
Serling would return to the Eichmann story several years later in a prose piece called “The Escape Route.” It was first published in a collection of novellas called Seasons to be Wary (Little, Brown, 1967). It tells the story of Josef Strobe, a Nazi war criminal secretly living in Argentina. His life after the war has been a miserable one spent constantly on the run for the crimes of his past. He walks into an art gallery one day and becomes engrossed in a painting in which he sees his face on the body of a fisherman. The scene is a peaceful one and Strobe closes his eyes and imagines himself in it. To his surprise he is briefly transported into the painting where he can feel the sun on his face and the water beneath his fishing boat. He returns to the gallery several more times attempting to transport himself into the painting permanently, each day getting closer and closer. Later in the story Strobe’s cover is blown by a former Auschwitz prisoner who recognizes him. When the elderly man refuses to stop antagonizing Strobe he drunkenly strangles him to death. With Israeli agents closing in on him Strobe breaks into the gallery. It’s dark inside. He prays to God to place him into the picture and then vanishes. It is later revealed that the painting of the fisherman has been replaced by one featuring a giant wooden crucifix at a concentration camp. On the crucifix hangs Joseph Strobe, formerly of the German Third Reich, his face screaming in agony for all of eternity. While “Deaths-Head Revisited” focuses on Eichmann’s trial, “The Escape Route” concerns itself life on the run in South America, eliminating many of the plot conveniences present in the earlier version. However, by the time Serling wrote "The Escape Route" in 1967 several high profile Nazi officials had been captured and put on trial including former SS commandant Franz Stangl. Serling makes the point of mentioning Eichmann, Stangl, and several others in his story so Strobe is likely an amalgamation of several different people. Serling later adapted this story into the final segment of the pilot episode for Night Gallery which first aired on NBC on November 8, 1969. It was directed by Barry Shear and features remarkable performances from Richard Kiley and Sam Jaffe. This later, often overlooked, story comes highly recommended for those who enjoy “Deaths-Head Revisited.”
            Historians often note the widespread media coverage of the Eichmann trial for awakening public interest in the Holocaust, details of which were still largely unknown. It is also credited with exposing several South American countries as postwar refuges for former members of the German military seeking to escape prosecution. Former Argentine President Juan Peron lived in Italy for a short time and was a fascist sympathizer and admirer of Benito Mussolini. In the years after the war, with the help of various officials in the Roman Catholic Church, he secretly organized a system of “ratlines” out of Europe. It is estimated that he supplied refuge for thousands of Nazi war criminals. Many of these individuals were never caught including Dr. Josef Mengele, nicknamed the "Angel of Death." Mengele conducted unspeakable experiments on prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Other socialist-leaning South American countries including Brazil, Chile, and Paraguay also provided asylum for former Nazi officials. In 1976 Ira Levin published his political suspense novel, The Boys from Brazil, which centered around a revitalized Nazi party in South America and featured actual Nazi officials, including Mengele, in leading roles. It should be noted, however, that many of the same countries that harbored German war criminals remained neutral during the war and were also a safe haven for Jewish refugees and other Europeans fleeing Hitler’s reign such as Oscar Beregi, Jr.
A German SS officers hat featuring the Totenkopf or
"death's-head" emblem.

The term “death’s-head” is the English translation of the German word Totenkopf which refers to the skull and crossbones insignia that appeared on the uniforms of various German officers including the Schutzstaffel. It’s a German military tradition that dates back to the eighteenth century.
Despite the fact that setting the story at the Dachau concentration camp presents certain problems with plot structure the ghostly camp setting is still quite effective. The set that doubled for Dachau was a building on the MGM backlot that was often used for westerns. Although Eichmann was briefly stationed at Dachau for military training early in his career he was never a guard there. The Dachau concentration camp, located in Bavaria in Southern Germany not far from the town that shares its name, was opened in 1933 and was the first Nazi concentration camp in existence. It became the model for subsequent concentration camps. It was liberated by American troops in April, 1945. In the years immediately following the fall of the Third Reich the camp was, appropriately, used to house political prisoners including hundreds of former SS officers. It was officially converted into a war memorial in 1965.
Serling manages to deliver a script that is both compelling and historically significant with “Deaths-Head Revisited” but it is certainly not without flaws. It’s an episode that packs a heavy dramatic punch initially—via the ghostly imagery and compelling dialogue—but in subsequent viewings the weak plot structure becomes increasingly noticeable. It seems highly unlikely—almost unthinkable—that a Nazi war criminal on the run for his life would revisit one of the most notorious concentration camps of World War II—which, in reality, would be heavily guarded by Allied forces. It also seems unlikely that Lutze would recognize Becker so quickly but not remember murdering him until the end of the episode when it is most convenient for the plot. It feels as if Serling wanted to comment on the atrocities of the holocaust but also mirror the events of Eichmann’s trial at the same time. The resulting plot seems weak at times which unfortunately overshadows a strong political message and superb dialogue.
Serling should be commended, however, for creating compelling characters that basically represent the two ideological sides of the holocaust which is surely no easy task. Gunther Lutze is the malevolent face of Nazi Germany as Eichmann was to the general public in 1961. And like Eichmann he attempts to justify his crimes, claiming that he was only following orders. Alfred Becker is the voice of every victim of the holocaust and of the growing public sentiment as the Eichmann trial drew more and more attention. Becker’s dialogue is uniquely compelling and is some of the best Serling ever penned for the show. These characters are brilliantly brought to life by Oscar Beregi, Jr. (1918 – 1976) and Joseph Schildkraut (1896 – 1964). Despite being on opposing sides in this episode the two Hungarian-born actors were actually close friends and had known each other for many years. Beregi left Hungary (along with his father, actor Oscar Beregi, Sr.) in 1939 as Hitler’s forces began to spread across Europe. He settled for a time in Chile before moving to the United States. Given his physical stature and thick Hungarian accent he was frequently cast as a Nazi. Schildkraut (son of an actor Rudolph Schildkraut) was a veteran of stage and screen. In 1937 he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Secret Life of Emile Zola. He also famously portrayed Otto Frank in both the stage (1955) and screen (1959) versions of The Diary of Anne Frank. Although most of his well-known roles were sympathetic characters he usually gravitated towards villains and devious characters. His performance as Alfred Becker is remarkable.
While “Deaths-Head Revisited” has its setbacks it remains an important episode of the show and one of Rod Serling’s personal favorites. Serling’s combat experiences during World War II influenced his writing considerably throughout his career and the social repercussions of war and of the holocaust are featured prominently in his work. He felt that every creative medium, especially television, had an obligation not only to entertain but to discuss complex political topics that were often avoided by networks and advertisers. By keeping his finger on the pulse of social consciousness he was able to capture specific moments in time with a dramatic flair that was uniquely his. “Deaths-Head Revisited” should serve as a historical television benchmark and a testament to Serling’s stand on intolerance and his belief in the basic human rights of all people.


Grade: B


Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following:
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum


Notes:
--Oscar Beregi, Jr. also appeared in the second season episode, “The Rip Van Winkle Caper,” and the fourth season episode, “Mute.”
--Joseph Schildkraut also appeared in the third season episode, “The Trade-Ins.”
--Ben Wright also appears in the first season episode, “Judgement Night,” and the third season episode, “Dead Man’s Shoes.”
--Don Medford directed four other episodes: Season One’s “The Passage for Trumpet,” Season Two’s “The Man in the Bottle,” Season Three’s “The Mirror,” and Season Four’s “Death Ship.”
--“Deaths-Head Revisited” was adapted into a graphic novel by Mark Kneece with art by Chris Lie as part of a series developed by the Savannah College of Art and Design (Walker Books, 2009). You can also listen to the Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring H.M. Wynant.


--Brian Durant