I often wonder how I would react if I found myself in a place like Carl Lanser does. He seems to wake from a dream on a deck of the SS Queen of Glasgow with no memory of how he got there. When he’s asked questions, he stumbles terribly.
I’ve got to be honest: I do not like to lie. I’m not interested in keeping track of lies, who I told what, how long before people forget… it’s way easier to just tell the truth. Maybe I’m lazy, but I’d rather just operate above board. But Carl is a German Submarine captain who finds himself on an English ship and he arouses suspicion right away of being an enemy agent. I immediately thought this was a time to lie! He should say he’s a professor of German military tactics. Put people’s minds at ease, get them off his back… Bob’s your uncle, Carl! Carl is basically handed the idea by Potter, the man who plays games with people’s names to try to imagine what they look like. (For the record, I can understand that when you speak to a person on the phone; you sort of envision what they look like. To do it with a name on a piece of paper? I don’t know, seems like an odd idea!) But, back to lying, this is an extenuating circumstance that Carl finds himself in. Even I, a man who tries never to have to tell a lie bigger than “no, the Christmas gift you wanted was out of stock…”, recognize that in instances of survival, maybe a falsehood isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The entire episode is a bit of a slog. We watch Nehemiah Persoff play Carl Lanser as a man who is in a fog, both literally and figuratively. He remembers who he is, but that’s about the extent of it. By this point, the audience of 1959 must have started to clue into the fact that there was going to be some sort of other-worldly zing coming, even though this was just the tenth episode of the series. For us, far into the future, we viewers also understand that there’s going to be a “punch line” to the whole thing but it all comes in the last few minutes when Carl is on the submarine that attacks and destroys the Queen of Glasgow. Lt. Mueller comes to him and shares some thoughts that to kill like that, without mercy and without warning, has a price and he ponders what that means for their souls. Have they just condemned themselves to relive the experience for all time, a ship of the damned, just from the point of view of the attacked? And that’s it in a nutshell. We get it: Carl is reliving the night of the attack forever. (Does this mean Carl only ever sank one ship? What would have happened to the man had he destroyed multiple ships!?
This is one of those weird episodes where The Twilight Zone itself seems to be an agent of karma. Carl and his people committed an act of aggression and now relive that for all time. It’s important to remember when this episode was made: 1959. WWII ended in September of 1945. Memories of WWII would not have been far gone. Think about where we are now with 9/11, having just recently passed the 20th anniversary (at the time of writing). We’ve not forgotten about that day and by the time this episode aired, fewer than 20 years had passed since the end of WWII. Typically, I don’t step too far outside the realm of the story, but I suspect this one had an impact back when it hit the airwaves. People who lost family members during WWII would probably appreciate this story because it basically said that “the bad guys would suffer in hell”. But the thing is, what really constitutes a bad guy when you’re at war? Of course, to both sides, the other is the bad guy. You have to be careful when thinking the others are the enemy because you can easily lose sight of the fact that to them, you’re the enemy. And I only dive into this because it’s clear from Mueller’s reaction that he’s upset about the murders. He’s deeply conflicted. Was he following orders? What if he was just a janitor, or a steward? It’s clear from the English ship that they have a bartender. Had he been serving drinks on the u-boat, would he be condemned as well? Does he have to repeat the same day for all eternity because he was on board the ship? Or was Mueller’s condemnation enough to send Carl Lanser, alone, into the perpetual torment while the rest of the crew escapes it? The captain bears the responsibility solely? Perhaps we will never know, but it did get me thinking. There’s a nicely eerie concept to “ride the ghost of that ship, every night, for all eternity”, but I can’t help but wonder how many people would be paying for actions of others; actions that they did not want to take to begin with.
This was the first episode of The Twilight Zone that I felt dragged terribly. If it did one thing, it made me long for another episode of The Avengers, when John Steed himself, Patrick Macnee, showed up. That was a surprise since I’m flipping back and forth between those two shows right now. Barring that, all I can say is that this episode was not actually bad but I just felt the foggy actions of Carl Lanser didn’t hold the mystery that I love nor did he really create much of an eerie atmosphere that would have made up for a weaker mystery. I felt like I was just watching a very confused man go through the motions of delaying the inevitable for 25 minutes before his, perhaps justified, end. Judgement Night was hit by a Torpedo of Boredom and sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic, right off the Reef of Tedium in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Rod Serling was an expert at the 25 minute episode format, and this is another straightforward story, effectively communicated to the viewer. The only slight downside to this format is that it works best with a very small cast, and when there is any attempt to make more of an ensemble it’s hard to bring the characters to life. That was especially disappointing when I realised the first officer was being played by the magnificent Patrick Macnee, only to find that he had virtually nothing to say or to contribute to the story. As much as I don’t especially want to see stories padded out, it did feel like a longer format for this one would have been helpful, to allow us to become more attached to the characters on board the ship. That would have made their loss all the more poignant, without having to resort to obvious tactics to pull on the heartstrings, like the sickening sight of a teddy bear floating in the sea.
For the first ten minutes, this episode functions very well as a mystery story. You might guess what’s going on more quickly than that, but ten minutes was roughly the point at which I had figured it all out. Before that, we have a man named Carl Lanser who finds himself on board a passenger vessel during the Second World War, with no memory of how he got there. Nehemiah Persoff plays it well, making it look like a struggle to answer any question that is asked of him. Crucially, he retains his memory of where he came from originally: Frankfurt. At this point there are still various different possibilities, and anyone who claims that the big reveal mid-episode is obvious right from the start has simply made a good, educated guess. Lanser could simply be a man who was born in Germany and now finds himself hunted by his former countrymen, or even perhaps his former friends. His knowledge of U-boats is the point where most viewers will probably have an inkling about the truth, and when the steward finds his naval officer’s cap the twist in the tale is beyond a doubt. Lanser is experiencing what it feels like to be a victim of his own crimes.
At that point we are marking out time a little bit before the inevitable moment where Lanser looks through binoculars to see himself as the enemy, but it’s not long before the attack hits. There are some interesting choices at that point. At first Lanser finds himself isolated, unable to find or warn the crew or the passengers. It’s like a nightmare where the rules suddenly change and you find yourself helpless. It’s very creepy, helped by the ever-present fog, and note how there is no incidental music during these moments, making it all even more troubling, until Lanser looks through the binoculars to see himself and the music kicks back in again. At that point the people are back, because Lanser has to experience what exactly he has done, and watch innocent passengers die at the hands of his alter ego. It’s a startling, powerful sequence, probably the most moving few minutes The Twilight Zone has shown us so far.
With the horrible deed done, the scene shifts to the U-boat, which is necessary to make us understand exactly what kind of a person Lanser is, and why he is being punished by God in this way. His subordinate expresses concerns about killing innocent people, including women, but Lanser just laughs it off, completely unmoved by any feelings of guilt or regret. Note that his subordinate is not sharing his purgatory. He is sorry for what he has done, so the key factor missing from Serling’s speech at the end about the “ledger of his life” being opened and a tally made is how repentance tips the scales. Lanser has no faith and no remorse. His reward is eternal purgatory, learning the hard way about the horrors he perpetrated, only to start again and learn that lesson once more… again and again and again. It’s a chilling idea.
At the time this was made, the events of the war were still quite raw, and contemporary viewers probably felt a grim satisfaction at Serling’s suggestion of what awaits unrepentant Nazis in the next life. We are perhaps too far removed from those events to feel the full emotional kick of those closing moments of the episode, but this still stands as one of the most powerful 25 minutes of television ever made. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: And When the Sky Was Opened