World War II lives on in the hearts and minds of The Boys From Brazil.
The Boys From Brazil presents a history lesson in the greatest atrocity of the 20th Century, and then questions the morality and ethics of those that may choose to repeat it. It’s a science-fiction premise wrapped in a real-world conundrum.
If you’re not familiar with the premise of The Boys from Brazil, the trailer doesn’t help much. It explicitly states that it’s not science-fiction (it is), while showing some of the biggest actors of the time. Gregory Peck as a Nazi, Laurence Olivier, James Mason, and in one of his earliest roles, Steve Guttenberg. There’s action, suspense, murder, and dobermans! Just what are the boys from Brazil? Read on and find out!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
In Paraguay, in 1978, self-appointed Nazi hunter Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg) observes a secret meeting of a number of ex-high ranking officials in the Third Reich, including the arrival of the Angel of Death himself, Dr. Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck). He contacts his idol, Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier) in Austria, but the aging Nazi hunter wants nothing to do with him. Kohler informs him that Mengele is planning to kill 94 middle-aged men around the globe over the next two-and-a-half years before he himself is killed.
Lieberman meets with Sidney Beynon (Denholm Elliott), a bureau chief at Reuters News Agency, asking him to send any clippings about deaths of men in their mid-60s. After the first man is killed in West Germany, Eduard Seibert (James Mason) comes to Paraguay to meet with Mengele. As head of security on this project he is concerned that he was not told about Liberman’s involvement. Mengele shrugs off the risk that the frail old man can harm his program.
Lieberman heads to Germany to investigate the death of one of the men on the list. There he meets with the wife (Rosemary Harris), and the son, Erich Doring (Jeremy Black). Upon returning to Vienna, Lieberman is met by a colleague of Kohler’s named David Bennett (John Rubinstein) who blames Barry’s death on Lieberman not helping him. Lieberman puts David to work investigating the death of Mr. Harrington (Michael Gough) in England. Lieberman meanwhile is on a speaking tour in New England and visits Mrs. Curry (Anne Meara) in Massachusetts, another name on the list. He is struck by her son looking identical to the Doring boy, and also to the Harrington boy as reported by David.
Realizing that all the children of the men being killed were adopted, Lieberman visits former concentration camp guard Frieda Maloney (Uta Hagen) in prison who provides information on her time with an adoption agency, and yields a lead towards the next victim, Henry Wheelock (John Dehner), a breeder of Doberman’s in rural Pennsylvania. Prior to visiting Mr. Wheelock, Lieberman has some questions for Professor Bruckner (Bruno Ganz) about these supposed twins. It’s at this point that they realize that the boys are probably all clones of a single individual.
With Lieberman making so many connections, Seibert shuts down the program and destroys the Mengele estate. But the evil scientist is driven to complete his project at all costs and has travelled to Pennsylvania to see this final assassination through himself. Mengele kills Wheelock moments before Lieberman arrives. When the Nazi-hunter shows up he is shot and attacked by the geneticist before releasing some Doberman Pinschers that attack Mengele. Mengele reveals that he cloned over 90 identical versions of Adolf Hitler, having put them under the same environmental stresses as Hitler’s own upbringing attempting to produce one or more heirs to Aryan cause.
As the two men lay bleeding in the living room, Bobby Wheelock (also Jeremy Black) enters. Mengele tries to convince the boy that Lieberman murdered his father, but Bobby is too smart for that. He knows the dogs will attack people that harm his family. Mengele wants to explain to Bobby who he is using all the rhetoric of the Reich, but Bobby choses to listen to Lieberman and calls the police. When Bobby finds his father’s body he sics the dogs on Mengele, killing him. Later, Lieberman is convalescing at the hospital when David shows up looking for his list of names. David’s organization wants to kill the boys, but Lieberman refuses and burns the list claiming they’re only children. The film ends with Bobby developing photos he took of the bloody and torn body of Dr. Mengele, looking at them with a perverse satisfaction.
“When he heard what was theoretically possible, that I could create one day not his son, not even a carbon-copy but another original, he was thrilled by the idea! The right Hitler for the right future! A Hitler tailor-made for the 1980s, the 1990s, 2000!” – Dr. Josef Mengele
History in the Making
The Boys from Brazil is a chilling “what if” scenario positing recreating one of the worst people of modern history. It was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, who was responsible for the films Patton, Papillon, and Planet of the Apes (an alliterative list!). It was based on a novel from 1976 by Ira Levin (who was also responsible for Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, two other contemporary horrific stories), and followed a similar story to the one in the film. Unlike many of the other films Sci-Fi Saturdays has looked at that are based off of books, The Boys From Brazil has the shortest lead time, coming out only two years after the novel. Other films would take 5, 8, 10 years (or longer) to get made, but by the late 1970s the optioning of stories prior to them being published was becoming commonplace, allowing movies to be already in the works at the time of publication.
The film concerns itself with relatively recent historical elements, the end of World War II and the fall of the Third Reich being just over 30 years previous. No other science fiction film to date had taken so many factual, historical elements to its story. Other films had, of course, been contemporary. But they usually concerned themselves with fictional characters and their fictional lives. Here, the main villain was an actual war criminal who was still alive at the time of the film’s release. Josef Mengele would die from a stroke the following year in real life, but imagine how unnerving it must be for people who survived the war to see a film like this upon release.
There may be many people that don’t consider this film to be a work of science-fiction. The trailer would have audiences believe that it’s not, which of course would amplify the tensions of the plot enormously. And while it’s not a film that takes place in an alternate future where Nazis won the war (like The Man in the High Castle), or future world where space Nazis return from their self-imposed exile on the moon to conquer Earth (as in Iron Sky), The Boys from Brazil’s main conceit is a that of a science-fiction plot point. What if they were able to clone Adolf Hitler?
Ignoring that aspect however, the film is really more of a political thriller or conspiracy film on par with any number of other conspiracy films from the mid to late 70s. The lone man who has uncovered the plot to kill 94 middle-aged men must attempt to single handedly stop the villains from their mission. And of course no one believes him. They think he’s just some old fool on an idealistic crusade. It doesn’t advance the common perception of the genre like Star Wars or Buck Rogers, but it’s a film that does what any good sci-fi film should, and that is advance the discussion of humanity. And like the themes that surround time travel films, The Boys from Brazil asks the question if life is about fate or free will.
Is the makeup of a person based on nature or nurture? That is, are we who we are based on the genetic makeup of our genes, or because of the manner in which we were raised? These questions are the central tenet of this film. What if it were possible to recreate some historical figure in the modern day? While the Professor Bruckner’s of the world would like Mozarts and Picassos, it’s more likely that the outcome would be something closer to the events of this film.
Moral and ethical implications would most likely prevent individuals from bringing back a famous musician or genius painter. But with a fervent group of followers, and the proper tools, it could be possible for a monster to be unleashed. But would the world truly get a monster (or a musician or a painter), or just someone made from their genetic material? For all the discussion about whether genetics versus environment making the difference in the people we become, it’s probably more a merging of the two. The Boys From Brazil makes a good case that Mengele didn’t just want to recreate a duplicate of Hitler, but that he had plans set up (big plans, huge plans) to recreate the formative years of the man he worshipped. It seems like just the sort of thing that could possibly work, and that’s where the horrific aspects of this film come into play.
But even if you could recreate the genetic template for the man, and create an environment similar to the one he received as a child, there are hundreds of other factors and variables that would make the success of the project difficult. Mengele thought that he had a one in 18 or 19 chance of creating a modern version of Adolf Hitler. That means he expected to get at least four near-perfect clones from the experiment; to lead the Reich to a Fourth Age. This is terrifying, but also seemingly impossible. There are so many other factors to the environments these children were growing up in besides their socio-economic class, and their overbearing parents. The influences of classmates, media (especially television), and other modern factors must play a part in the holistic growth of a child, that it doesn’t seem as scary to think about.
But that means the world was still left with 94 genetic copies of Hitler, a potential megalomaniac, on its hands. David tells Lieberman that his organization will hunt down and kill the boys. And like the time travel conundrum of going back in time and killing baby Hitler, the moral implications of that task are put in a new light. Lieberman says that he will not “slaughter the innocent.” Unlike the potential time travel problem where killing baby Hitler would leave a Third Reich potentially impotent, killing 14 year old boys with no foreknowledge of their outcomes would be murder. It’s an interesting conundrum as Lieberman doesn’t want to kill any of the Nazis he hunts. “It’s much better to put them on trial so people can Iearn,” he tells the young Doring boy. The ethical implications of mass murder based on the genetics of the boys lineage would make him no better than the Nazis he hunts.
The Science in The Fiction
The film creates a great scene when Erich Doring is first introduced. He is seen reflected endlessly in a pair of mirrors, foreshadowing the discovery that he is one of many clones. There was a time when cloning in science-fiction meant that there was an exact double of the character, from their looks to their knowledge. Nowadays it’s more common for the film or television show to indicate the potential for the duplicate, but make sure they are not exactly alike. It’s not a magical technology that creates a biological duplicate. At its most basic, cloning is a scientific process of manipulating the way cells procreate.
First discovered by a German scientist in 1885, cloning works very much like it’s described in the film. A healthy egg is stripped of its genetic material, implanted with the genetic material (DNA) of a donor (or host), and then grown to maturity, usually in a viable womb just as any other fertilized egg would be. Once born, the baby would be a genetic duplicate of the host, but still just a baby–without any memories or experiences. In the real world, scientists have been able to clone plants, amphibians, and sheep. There are even some places that will clone cats or dogs for pet owners who have lost their beloved companion. These might be concerning for some, as a potential slippery slope. If science-fiction has taught anything, it’s that the creation of technology will inevitably reach its most destructive conclusion. Using nuclear energy for power? At some point it will be used to destroy people. Cloning pets for people? What’s to stop human experimentation?
At this time human reproductive cloning is overtly banned in over 70 countries. Many recognize the bioethics involved with creation of a clone. There are ongoing debates about the use of stem cells in research of diseases, being cloned for those research purposes. Fine lines are drawn between ethical and unethical research, which is not within the purpose of this article to discuss. Science-fiction shows all the potential grey areas of the current laws and what their implications may be. Michael Bay’s The Island, is an example of a perverted use of cloning by creating mature versions of donors, holding these individuals against their wills, and using them for organ harvesting when the donor becomes ill. The philosophical thought problems can be maddening in dealing with this subject.
The Final Frontier
In several ways, The Boys From Brazil is similar to Peck’s previous horror film, The Omen (1976). In that film Peck was the adoptive father of a young boy (except that he was unaware that his child had been replaced) who was created and groomed by cultists looking to bring the son of Satan into the world. That young boy was clever, dark haired and controlled a pack of Doberman’s much like Bobby did in this film. However The Omen depicted the child having evil powers that affected those around him, and not just being presumed evil, as the genetic duplicates of this film.
Cloning in science-fiction has shown up in a number of types of films spanning various sub-genres. Films about future worlds where clones are more commonplace (Moon), comedy films about the fantasy of having a duplicate to do all your work (Multiplicity), adventure films about conscripted armies of clone (Star Wars: Attack of the Clones), and even period films about magicians and their illusions (The Prestige).
The Boys From Brazil offers a great discussion topic in the moral and ethical implications of biogenetics. What is humanity’s role in ensuring that science will not be used as a tool by those with the ability to pick and choose what the future of the human race should look like? It offers a potentially heavy handed metaphor about the miracles and dangers of science, and reminds the audience that we should never forget the past.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.