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

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

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.”

            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.
            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.”

            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 William 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 Jewish Europeans into ghettos and extermination camps. He is considered by many to be the most significant figure in 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 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 The Season 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

--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


  1. Thanks for the interesting post. Seeing these episodes only in syndication, it's easy to miss the topical references, such as the Eichmann trial. I've been to Dachau and it's a haunting place. This is a hard episode to forget!

  2. I have never visited Dachau but have read accounts of the incredible power of the camp to affect the psyche of visitors, with some people even being driven to self harm due to the depressive effects of the memorial. Rod Serling was always very aware of currents in the social and political structure of the nation and was therefore the most moralistic and political of the Zone writers. He was capable of writing some very effective episodes pertaining specifically to contemporary events and this one stands as one of his most memorable.

  3. While I agree with your estimation of the episodes flaws,I would still have to give DEATHS -HEAD REVISITED an A rating and place it in the front rank of TZ episodes for sheer power. Nothing I have ever seen-no film, no lecture, has ever driven the point,the horror of the Nazi Holocaust home like this single,half hour program. As Serling put it,I have NEVER ceased to be haunted by it's remembrance.

  4. I agree with you, Dale. It's definitely a powerful story and I was on the fence about the grade. This one had a huge effect on me the first time I watched it. But I've seen it three or four times and when I watch it now I find that the weak spots in the plot are a bit more noticeable. I think I may just prefer "The Escape Route" to this one. Sam Jaffe has really powerful lines in that one. But they are both really good. I also enjoy Serling's script, "In the Presence of Mine Enemies," that he wrote for PLAYHOUSE 90 in 1960. Very powerful story.

  5. Excellent review, and very enlightening. Although I'm fairly familiar with the Eichmann trial, I had never looked at the dates and made the connection that the trial would have been a contemporary event, although it obviously was. Thanks for making that link!

  6. Excellent review, and very enlightening. Although I'm fairly familiar with the Eichmann trial, I had never looked at the dates and made the connection that the trial would have been a contemporary event, although it obviously was. Thanks for making that link!

    1. Thanks, Mitchell! I was also unaware of the connection before researching for this article but I definitely find it interesting. Serling was always at the forefront of contemporary political and social events. I"m surprised he never tried his hand at journalism. He would have been great at it.

  7. This one works very well as a radio play, by the way. If you enjoy the episode, give the Twilight Zone Radio Drama a try.

  8. Seems as if everything Mr. Sterling pens, becomes an "Ah ha" moment, that keeps us thinking way beyond the closing credits.

  9. Seems as if everything Mr. Sterling pens, becomes an "Ah ha" moment, that keeps us thinking way beyond the closing credits.

  10. Very true, Kevin, and that is a quality not only of Rod Serling but of all of the writers for the show, particularly Serling's three primary co-writers, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and George Clayton Johnson. One of the greatest strengths of the series I think is that it works so well on a deeper and more complex level while still remaining easily accessible. When speaking with other fans it is interesting to gauge how deeply an episode has remained ingrained in their memory. Thanks for reading!

  11. Sadly enough, Serling was even more dead-on accurate in "Death's Head Revisited" than he could have known at the time. At one point, Lutze refers to the Holocaust as an "unfortunate incident" of history. This was precisely the language used to describe it, many years later, by Jean-Marie LePen, the French neo-fascist leader. (Let's not even dwell on the fact that, in this year of grace 2018, an out-and-out Holocaust denier is running for public office in Illinois). Not only is "Death's Head Revisited" graced by two magnificent performances from Oscar Beregi and Joseph Schildkraut, but the staging and editing are extraordinary. One of the many gems of this remarkable series.

    1. I agree. Serling's personal experiences in WWII seem to really resonate in episodes like this. His dialogue is touching and brilliant and the performances of the two leading actors are remarkable

    2. Death's Head Revisited is a moral tale about the juxtaposition of a Nazi war criminal (Lutze) and the prisoners whom suffered horrible atrocities at the concentration camp and for one night get their just retribution in trying Lutz for his war crimes and in the end scaring him to death which is is only partial retribution. The other point made in the episode at least unsaid was the Lutze would now have to face the final judgement from God as well! This episode reminds me of Judgement Night in a sense featuring Nehimiah Persoff as Cpt. Lanzer who is sentenced to spend the same night of horror experienced by the doomed HMS Glasgow by being sunk by his own self for eternity. Both characters play Nazi commanders. Rod Serling's experience with the Holocaust and being a paratrooper in WWII gave him first-hand expereince in the horrors of war and the staging and story lines for his war episodes were always on the mark (Quality of Mercy, The Purple Testament, and also He's Alive) which have that WWII movie feel which was less than 15 years before TZ went on air, so very fresh in the TV audience's minds. I would give this episode an "A" as well for the powerful message it conveyed and the scene structure and acting between Oscar Berregi, and Shildchrist). Yes, TZ had some duds but they were the exception, and this one ranks high on the top list of quality episodes.

  12. I have cited "Death's Head Revisited" in several lecture courses I have taught on the Holocaust and the Nuremberg trials. I've pointed out that Rod Serling provided a fantasy image of the perfect, but utterly unattainable justice that the Nazi murderers (and the Soviets, and the Khmer Rouge, and....) should have had, and never could: judgment by a tribunal of their victims, followed by the infliction upon themselves of all the tortures and torments they had visited upon their captives. I might add that I have always opposed the death penalty, and would have done so for the Nuremberg defendants. Since Serling's "Lutze punishment" was impossible, the only way that these monsters could have been made to serve the cause of civilization was to keep them alive in Spandau, as living reminders of what they had done. (Every time over the years that their respective families applied for their release -- as they surely would have -- the German people would have been forced, through newspaper articles and news programs, to revisit that era and consult their consciences.)