I like to think when it came to some areas of entertainment regarding popular culture, I inherited some of my tastes from my parents. While my Mom turned me on to the wonders of Walt Disney and his animation studio, my Dad I feel, opened my eyes to adventure, and science fiction.
One series that we often watched over the years when it’d show up on television, is Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. Serling’s anthology series enthralled my Dad as a young man, and during my early years, they came to entrance my own imagination as well.
As I got older, I found myself drawn to Serling’s tales that explored humanity, and oftentimes, how simple it could be for things to break down, or even how dangerous some people could become, for want of attention or respect.
Serling’s hand was often behind many of those introspective tales. In The Twilight Zone’s 4th season, he explored the possibility that an enemy that was once thought to have been extinguished after the second World War, could very well be lying in wait, ready to instigate those seeking power, or manipulate those who are easily led astray…
As the episode starts, we see that it’s a hot night on a city street corner, and a small group of neo-Nazis are giving a speech to a small crowd.
Presiding over the gathering, is a young man named Peter Vollmer (Dennis Hopper). Peter preaches about ‘foreign control,’ and that a conspiracy is under way by minorities, to take over the country.
Several people throw vegetables at Peter and laugh at him, causing him and his men to rush out into the crowd, where a fist-fight breaks out.
The ruckus causes the Police to show up, and the citizens scatter. When they inquire to Peter who started the fight, he nonchalantly claims they were ‘all Communists,’ and walks away.
Peter and his men reconvene in a side alley. One of them claims that the heat brings out ‘the stiffs in the crowd,’ but Peter blames himself, claiming he couldn’t verbally get through to the people he saw.
As Peter sulks, Rod Serling appears, delivering our opening monologue:
“Portrait of a bush-league Fuhrer named Peter Vollmer, a sparse little man who feeds off his self-delusions and finds himself perpetually hungry for want of greatness in his diet. And like some goose-stepping predecessors he searches for something to explain his hunger, and to rationalize why a world passes him by without saluting. That something he looks for and finds is in a sewer. In his own twisted and distorted lexicon he calls it faith, strength, truth. But in just a moment Peter Vollmer will ply his trade on another kind of corner, a strange intersection in a shadowland called, The Twilight Zone.”
Peter then heads to the apartment of a man named Ernst Ganz (Ludwig Donath).
Upon seeing Peter, Ernst demands that he wash his face, and provides him with some medication for his wounds.
The older man begins to lecture Peter on getting into trouble, but the young man doesn’t want to hear it. However, he requests if he can stay the night at the old man’s place.
Peter claims that he and the old man are ‘good friends,’ but one can see Ernst is questioning that statement. Ernst recalls how as a young boy, he’d take Peter in: a rock in the storm of an abusive father, and a mentally-deficient mother. He recalls how Peter was a scared, lost little boy.
“Now, you peddle hate on street corners, as if it were popcorn,” he sighs.
It’s not hate,” defends Peter. “It’s, ‘a point of view.’ It’s a, ‘philosophy.'”
Ernst claims there were men who said the same thing…and because of it, he ended up in the Dachau Concentration Camp for nine years.
After Ernst leaves Peter to go to bed, Peter gets a strange feeling, like he’s being watched. Going to the nearby window, he sees a man in shadows, standing on the sidewalk.
When Peter asks who he is, the figure claims he’s ‘a friend,’ and wants to talk. Going downstairs, the figure tells Peter that he believes in much of what he was talking about earlier, and wants to help his cause.
The shadowy figure then gives Peter speaking tips, claiming he should speak to the people, like he was one of them.
“Speak to them in their language, on their level,” says the dark figure. “Make their hate, your hate. If they are poor, talk to them about poverty. If they are afraid, talk to them of their fears. And if they are angry, Mr Vollmer…if they are angry, give them objects for their anger.”
Peter takes the figure’s advice, and at the next meeting in a local hall, he claims that many say his group is biased towards minorities. Peter takes these words and turns them around, telling those in attendance, that ‘they’ are the minorities! He tells them that ‘patriotism’ and ‘love of country’ is not a majority notion anymore, and that his group, will make it so again.
This draws applause, and Peter’s associates are also energized by his fiery rhetoric.
The shadowy figure returns a little while later to help Peter, quietly giving him the money he needs to keep speaking at the hall, and praising how he speaks to the people.
It is then that the figure claims their ‘party’ needs something more, in order to ‘cement the organization’: they need a martyr.
“How do you find a martyr?” asks Peter.
“You do not ‘find’ one, Mr Vollmer,” the figure replies. “You ‘choose’ one. You take one of no value, and you make him into a symbol. You wrap him in a flag, and you make his death work for you. Find a man who is of no value while he’s alive, but who can serve you when he is dead.”
Of the men in his employ, Peter decides that one named Nick, will be their martyr. Peter then lies to a cohort named Frank, telling him that Nick has been telling the Police about their meetings, and must be taken care of.
Frank does as he’s told, and some time later, the Police find Nick’s body in an alley, with a note pinned to his jacket, making it look like someone is trying to send ‘a message’ to Peter’s group.
Though Frank and Pete are able to put Nick out of their minds, their associate Stanley misses his friend. Trying to act stoic, Peter claims that Nick was a traitor, and not worthy of being mourned.
However, moments later, Peter is using Nick’s death to electrify the crowd, claiming that those in the room, will carry on in his honor. His words do their trick, and the audience applauds loudly!
We then cut to some time later, to a candy shop across the street from the hall. Ernst is sitting at the counter talking to the store’s proprietor, while across the street, Peter’s voice bellows out from the open door, over which hangs a large portrait of the young man in uniform. As Peter’s voice continues to spill out into the night, Ernst and the proprietor have a conversation.
“Used to be, people would laugh at him,” says the man behind the counter. “But lately, he gets the crowd…and not many people laugh, either.”
“I’ve seen it before,” says Ernst, thoughtfully. “I’ve seen it all before.”
“That was another time, Mr Ganz,” says the proprietor. “Another place. Another kind of people! That doesn’t go here.”
“That’s what we said, too,” says Ernst, bowing his head. “We called them ‘brown scum.’ ‘Temporary insanity,’ part of the passing scene, too monstrous to be real. So, we ignored them, or laughed at them….because we couldn’t believe there were enough insane people to walk alongside of them! And then one morning, the country woke up from an uneasy sleep…and there was no more laughter. The ‘Peter Vollmers’ had taken over. The wild animals had changed places with us in the cage!”
As he thinks, Ernst rises from his seat, and goes to the window.
“But not again,” he says, a tone of defiance rising in his voice. “It mustn’t happen again. We can’t let it. We simply can’t let it happen again!”
Determined to do something, Ernst enters the crowded hall through the stage entrance, and catches Peter off-guard.
Ernst tells Peter that he’s heard these kinds of rantings before. Peter quietly pleads with Ernst to stop talking, but the old man addresses the audience, with Peter watching, unsure just what to do.
“Let me tell you about ‘this one,” preaches Ernst, pointing at the scared young man. “About the breed, the species. They’re all alike…they’re all alike! Problem children. Sick, sad neurotics, who take applause like a needle!”
Peter once again pleads for Ernst to be quiet, but the old man threatens to tell about Peter’s ‘weaker’ side, claiming the young man can only find strength in the ‘show’ he puts on…leading Peter to strike the man (whom he called ‘a friend’) across the cheek!
“The only sort of answer ‘your kind’ know how to give,” says Ernst, before walking out through the front door, followed by the audience.
Afterwards, Peter is alone in the hall, when he hears the shadowy figure call to him. Peter is still upset at what has transpired between him and Ernst, but the figure shows no sympathy, sharply criticizing Peter for his timidity at what took place.
“And you…what are you!?” cries out Peter. “You direct traffic from the darkness! You plan the battles and you’re never there when they’re fought! Why don’t you come out in the light? Why don’t you come up here alongside of me!? Why don’t you give me a name, and a face, and a reason WHY!?”
“Mr Vollmer!” responds the figure, sharply. “I was making speeches before you could read them. I was fighting battles, when your only struggle, was to climb out of a womb! I was taking over the world, when your universe was a crib! And as for being in darkness, Mr Vollmer…I, INVENTED DARKNESS!!”
It is then that the figure steps into the light, and Peter’ eyes go wide with fear, when he sees that his mysterious benefactor…is Adolf Hitler!
When Peter claims that Hitler picked him, the dictator claims it to be the other way around.
“You chose my ideas,” he says. “You invoked my name, you stole my slogans! So now, you must take whatever else comes with it.”
The old dictator then gives Peter a gun, and orders him to kill Ernst, promising that if he does not, the old Jew will keep returning to ruin their meetings.
Peter then goes to Ernst’s apartment, where the old man claims he showed the crowds how weak Peter really is. When Peter pulls his weapon on Ernst, the old man falters slightly, claiming that the young man won’t kill him.
“Just goes to show you don’t know me very well, Ernst,” claims Peter.
“I know you,” says Ernst, quietly. “From a ravaged little boy wanting love, to a torn man, craving respect, identity, pride. Peter…I don’t fear you. So you may do what you have in mind, anytime you wish, but this last reminder to you: you can never kill an idea with a bullet, Peter…never.”
“I’m all steel now,” Peter stoically counters. “Ernst, I’m made of steel. No sentiment, no softness…just purpose, and will.”
With that, Peter fires, and Ernst collapses to the floor.
As he dies, the old man utters his last words: “All steel. All Strength…but at the expense of the thing most other men have. Some…fragments of decency, to tell them right from wrong. To make them feel guilt at dishonor…to make them…that make them love. Yes, Peter, you have steel…but you have no heart.”
Peter then returns to the hall, where he tells his Fuhrer, that killing Ernst made him feel “immortal.”
“Mr Vollmer,” screeches Hitler’s voice. “WE! ARE! IMMORTAL!!”
Suddenly, the hall’s lights come on (and Hitler disappears). Peter turns towards the doorway, to see several Policemen, who have come to arrest him in regards to the murder of his comrade, Nick.
However, when face-to-face with the Police, Peter does not act as an “immortal,” but as a coward, fleeing through the nearest door! The Police chase Peter into the nearby alleyway, where he is shot, and falls into a pile of trash.
As the officers come over to him, Peter looks at his hands, covered in blood.
“There’s something, very wrong here,” he gasps. “You’ve made a terrible mistake. I’m made out of steel. Don’t you understand…that I’m made out of steel?”
The officers walk away to radio in what happened, but as they do, Hitler’s shadow falls over Peter’s dying body, and slowly, walks away. As he does so, Serling’s closing monologue is heard:
“Where will he go next, this phantom from another time, this resurrected ghost of a previous nightmare. Chicago? Los Angeles? Miami, Florida? Vincennes, Indiana? Syracuse, New York? Anyplace, everyplace, where there’s hate, where there’s prejudice, where there’s bigotry. He’s alive. He’s alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He’s alive because through these things…we keep him alive.”
It is notable that in his closing narration, Serling strays from his regular path. The closing narration would normally make mention of The Twilight Zone, but here, Serling chooses not to tell us that what we’ve witnessed has safely been contained in another dimension. His narration confirms, the ‘monster’ of this episode is alive…and he is walking amongst us!
When I saw the episode many years ago, it was not one that stuck out in my mind, but after recent events, I revisited it, and found it to be surprisingly eerie, regarding the story that Mr Serling had written (and broadcast over 50 years ago).
Sometimes people say Serling’s writing can become a little heavy-handed, and it feels that way with the character of Ernst. Then again, Serling portrays Ernst as Peter’s ‘last friend,’ the one who may still see some small shred of humanity in him…and when he dies, so too it seems, does any hope of redemption for Peter. While Peter did order Nick to be killed as a martyr, it is Ernst who dies by his hand.
I’ve never been a big fan of Dennis Hopper. For much of his career, he seemed to usually end up being cast as “the crazy guy,” in everything from Easy Rider, to Apocalypse Now. With his role as Peter Vollmer, this may be the most ‘toned down’ I’ve ever seen Hopper (in his quieter moments anyways).
Hopper manages to sell the desperation, and the longing to be somebody. He channels Vollmer’s ‘strength-through-repression,’ with the character dismissing these faults as if they were just overreactions.
It is notable that we encounter Vollmer a ways into the movement he’s taken a part in. Serling keeps it ambiguous if Peter originated this movement, or maybe, it was ‘inherited’ from another neo-Nazi on the streets. I could see that possibly being the case, and maybe Peter was enthralled by those same ‘poisonous promises.’
Of course when it comes to the figure of Hitler, Serling keeps it ambiguous if his spirit is still alive, or if he is just a figment of Peter’s imagination, almost like a ‘devil’ on his shoulder, in the guise of an ‘angel,’ claiming to show him ‘the right path’ to go down.
Over the years, television show and film viewers have often found pieces of popular-culture, and elevated them to a new status, given ‘current events.’
While many are quick to point out more popular Twilight Zone episodes like The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, or To Serve Man, I feel He’s Alive may gain more traction these days, given it’s cautionary tale (of course, the big question is: is it too late?).
Even though he brought the story to his anthology series, Rod Serling was also considering giving Hes Alive a second life, as a longer, feature-length film.
Th film would have added an FBI agent, investigating Vollmer’s ‘movement.’ However, the film proposal was turned down.
Even so, one has to wonder what Serling would make of current world events, and maybe even wonder if we truly have all been spirited away into…The Twilight Zone.