When it comes to Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, there are some who say that his being drafted into service during World War II, had a profound impact on his life.
Returning from the war, his mind seemed to be filled with a number of topics that he wanted to get out. From injustice to racism, Serling saw these topics being kept from the public’s eye, and sought to bring them to light via his writings and projects.
The Twilight Zone was where many of these ideas could be brought to life, usually with some form of the supernatural, or science fiction thrown into the mix. In November of 1961, the show would address a real-world atrocity, intermingled within the show’s fifth dimension.
As the show opens, we see a man walk into a hotel and ask for a room. As he signs his name to the guestbook, the woman assisting him grows nervous. When she makes note of the name he’s signed (“Mr Schmidt”), she timidly mentions that the man reminds her of someone during the war.
Mr Schmidt seems amused by the woman’s nervousness, but claims he was actually stationed at the Russian front during the war. When he asks about a prison camp in the village, she claims he is talking about the Dachau Concentration Camp.
“Most of us, would like it burned to the ground,” she claims.
These words cause the man to narrow his eyes at her, before he heads out the front door. It is then that Rod Serling’s opening narration begins:
“Mr Schmidt, recently arrived in a small Bavarian village, which lies eight miles northwest of Munich. A picturesque, delightful little spot one time known for it’s scenery, but more recently related to other events, having to do with the less positive pursuits of man: human slaughter, torture, misery and anguish. Mr Schmidt as we shall 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 a 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 Nazi’s: 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 it’s nature, by it’s very nature, it must be one of the populated areas…of The Twilight Zone.”
Taking a cab to the abandoned camp, Lutze enters through it’s gates. Exploring the ruins, a smile graces his face, as he imagines the bodies of the dead hanging from now-empty gallows, or recalling how he joyfully denied water to a pleading prisoner.
Suddenly, the sound of a door catches Lutze’s attention, and he finds himself staring at the face of a man in a striped uniform.
Lutze recognizes the man as Alfred Becker, but is surprised how it seems he hasn’t changed since he last saw him, 17 years ago. Lutze assumes Becker is the caretaker of the camp, when a howling sound catches the former officer’s attention, causing him to look uneasy.
When Becker keeps calling him captain, Lutze demands he stop, but Becker claims that it is who the man was.
“I was a soldier, Becker!” bellows Lutze in defense.
“No captain,” replies Becker, “You were a sadist. You were a monster who derived pleasure from giving pain.”
Lutze responds to this by claiming that Becker should not dwell on the past, when the howling sound is heard again.
Becker claims that it is the sound of the victims, moaning their disdain to the man’s denials that he was at all involved in the atrocities that he committed in this place.
Lutze attempts to escape through the front gates, but they are suddenly locked. It is then that Becker reveals some rather unconventional information: Lutze had escaped to South America after the war, but he left that safe haven to return to Dachau..but why?
Lutze confronts this question, claiming he felt enough time had passed, that people would forgive “the little mistakes of the past.”
Becker looks insulted that the deaths of many is considered a “little mistake,” but he explains that since Lutze is now here, he is to be put on trial for his crimes.
These words cause Lutze to attempt to flee once more, but he suddenly finds himself in Compound Six of the camp, with a group of people staring at him, as Becker reads the charges.
Lutze struggles with a nearby door, his voice growing louder as he tries to drown out the indictments being read, before the howling sound of the prisoners overwhelms his own voice, and he passes out.
When he comes to, he finds Becker next to him…telling the man that he has been found guilty. When Becker also claims it is time to pronounce sentence, Lutze merely laughs, claiming that there is noone there to do such a thing, and the caretaker is making something out of nothing.
“They’re in your mind,” sneers Lutze, “You’ve planned your vengeance out of a crazy quilt of your imagination, sewn together with thin level-threats of wishful thinking…why didn’t I kill you when I had the chance!?”
It is then that the man remembers…he did kill Becker, the night the Americans came to liberate the camp. Becker’s death was one of many, in the captain’s desperate attempts to destroy ‘the evidence’ of what had happened there.
Lutze charges at the man, but suddenly finds himself outside in the main area of the compound…where Becker’s voice is heard. The jury’s sentence is that the former captain be rendered “insane.” Soon, Lutze feels the pain of the tortures he inflicted on others: the bullets piercing flesh, the rope of a noose around his neck, and the unspeakable tortures put upon those, behind closed doors.
As Lutze cries out and lays in agony on the ground, Becker walks up behind him.
“Captain Lutze,” he says, “if you can still reason, if there is still any portion of your mind that can still function, take this thought with you: this is not hatred, this is retribution. This is not revenge, this is justice. But this is only the beginning, captain, only the beginning. Your final judgment…will come from God.”
A few hours later, the cab driver returns, and upon finding Lutze unresponsive on the ground, alerts the authorities.
A doctor has Lutze taken to a hospital, but is perplexed: he seems to be insane, but is unsure what could have caused such a thing. As he packs his medical bag, the doctor looks at the dilapidated structures around him.
“Dachau,” he says, with a tinge of distaste. “Why does it still stand? Why do we keep it standing?”
Serling’s voice returns, closing out the episode:
“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 gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone, but wherever men walk God’s Earth.”
Revisiting the episode for this posting, I did notice a few more things than I did during my previous viewings.
While he could bring about intriguing subject matter, Rod Serling could get a bit “wordy” in his scripts, and that does happen quite a few time during Death’s Head. Then again, maybe he feels that Becker explaining things to Lutze, is similar to schooling the naive members of his television audience about what happened in places like this (including Becker showing Lutze a number tattooed on his arm). There may have been some even after all those years, who still weren’t fully aware of what went on in the camps.
Reliving the past or going back to a place (or time) that held special meaning, has been viewed in a number of episodes of The Twilight Zone. However, Serling has shown that in many cases (such as in this episode and The Incredible World of Horace Ford), not all trips down memory lane are like we remembered them.
Watching the episode now, one thing that stood out was how the concentration camp looked more like a re-purposed film set…which it was. Apparently, the studio had built a fort for a western television series, and after a few changes, it became Dachau.
Oscar Beregi Jr plays Lutze in the episode with an aire of pomposity at times (he could almost be seen like a bullying high school jock, coming back to his old stomping grounds). An uncomfortable smile plays across his face, like that on a man who feels he has gotten away with his crimes…though when the tables start turning, one can see that Lutze is very much a coward trying to keep control as the rug is pulled out from under him. Beregi’s bellowing voice also shows him trying to regain some form of authority, as he finds his reality crashing down around him.
What is rather notable about the character, is how he doesn’t seem to question some information that Becker knows (such as how he escaped to South America after the war). This is where the character gets a tad questionable in my eyes regarding how Serling writes him.
Alfred Becker is played by Joseph Schildkraut. An Austrian-born actor, Schildkraut would be better-known for his portrayal of Anne Frank’s father Otto, in the Broadway and film productions of The Diary of Anne Frank. Schildkraut’s role plays Becker as a man who is almost like the voice of a conscience over Lutze’s shoulder. His voice never rises to the volume of the captain’s, but the way he conducts himself with “quieter” movements, seems to show he is in total control of the situation.
In many of Serling’s films, he often had little love for those that were the bullies, or looked down upon others. The Twilight Zone episode here shows Lutze being a man who got an extra degree of punishment for his crimes against humanity, though there is the thought that if punishment escapes men like this on Earth, it will eventually catch up to them after their life has expired.
In the end, Death’s-Head Revisited offers a brief history lesson in an okay episode. One has to wonder, as we seem to be headed into another dark area of human history…can human beings truly learn from the past, or are we forever doomed to be trapped in a neverending cycle?