The Twilight Zone: Deaths-Head Revisited

The Twilight Zone Original Logo 1959I have always felt bad for cowards.  I mean, maybe it’s because I can relate to what it’s like to be frightened of something that later proves to be so carefree, but cowardice is natural.  What isn’t natural is for it to have control over you.  Those are the people I feel bad for because, it’s easy to get stuck in that rut.  However, cowardice can sometimes change; like when you add an ingredient to the meal, it changes.  In Death’s Head Revisited we get to see what happens when you add sadism to cowardice.  It’s an unappetizing image.

Captain Lutze comes to a quint Bavarian town where he once served as a member of the SS.  Upon arriving, he’s recognized and seems to relish in the power he has over the innkeeper.  She talks about the old Dachau concentration camp; she knows he worked there.  Perhaps out of guilt, although I’d be more inclined to think it’s a sense of gloating, Lutze goes to visit his old stomping grounds.  And for the bulk of the episode, we see him tortured for his acts of cruelty against his fellow man.  It’s 25 minutes of dazzling performance that you can’t take your eyes off.

Even as the opening credits roll, there’s a cinematic scope to this episode.  The episode title lingers a little longer, the fade-ins and fade-outs are bit more haunting, the overlays are a bit more ghostly and the eerie cries of the wind are just a bit more resonant than the average episode.  But make no mistake: this is not an easy episode to watch.  It’s based on some of the real life atrocities that went on in concentration camps.  This is not for the timid.  There are vivid descriptions of the tortures committed; I won’t recount them here.

Becker is the victim who comes back to walk Lutze through his torment.  He says it’s not revenge; it’s justice but unfortunately that lead me down a rabbit hole of my own.  Do I feel Lutze gets what he deserves?  Without a doubt.  But should I?  I wanted to see this sadistic coward who hides behind the claim “we did what we were told” get his just comeuppance.  I wanted him to suffer for all the evil he committed.  I can’t conceive of hitting someone; in grade school I was in one very mild scuffle and it probably lasted less than a minute and that was it for me for the rest of my life.  Cowardice?  No.  I was happier finding resolution to problems with words and a handshake.  In getting to see Lutze suffer, I felt complicit; I felt I had wrought more suffering by being happy with watching this man suffer.  His “little mistakes” are of course far from little, but they are his burden to bear; he will have to live with it.  It’s not my place to see what he goes through.  I should not have to watch his suffering, no matter how much I wanted to.  I found myself literally angry with myself at the end of this story.

Sure, there are lessons to be learned in this.  Some people wear a uniform like a tattoo – what Lutze does isn’t because of a job; he enjoys it.  He’s a rotund coward who enjoys hurting people; the schoolyard bully. He’s in power and can make people strip and exercise in zero degree temperatures because to say no means death is a certainty.  At least trying might keep these people alive an extra day.  He can give men salt water to drink or prevent others from drinking for days on end, because he didn’t care that these people were human beings.  I genuinely cannot conceive of doing that sort of harm to another.

Serling ends with another message: why do places like Dachau stand?  Why do we leave them intact?  As reminders, he says.  He’s probably right: here be dragons, here is darkness, from here, there is no return.  Do not go here again.  I think it’s an important message, but I think we have an even bigger battle to face before we even confront those testaments to sorrow: we have to overcome the desire to do harm to begin with.  We have to overcome the desire to inflict revenge or suffering on people, even those who have wronged us.  Maybe if we can do that, we can see past what those monuments were and see the potential for what could be for a brighter future.    ML

The view from across the pond:

This must have felt so raw, not much more than 15 years after the horrors referred to in Deaths-Head Revisited. The episode still has the power to shock today, let alone for contemporary viewers for whom the war was so recent. It doesn’t pull its punches, even showing executed victims hanging with nooses around their necks, surely pushing things right to the limit of what could be shown on television in 1961. If there were ever a time to push those boundaries, it’s a lesson in how “just following orders” can never be an excuse for anything.

The performance of Oscar Berengi in the lead role of Captain Lutze is remarkable. The aforementioned image of dead prisoners is made all the more powerful because it is followed by a shot of Lutze looking proud of himself, and it is his pride in what he did that makes him such a hateful character. He is a sadist. Post-war, he can only get his kicks by intimidating people, such as the hotel receptionist, and Berengi achieves a lot with an unblinking stare and a menacing look. He still inspires fear, despite no longer wielding any power as such.

Lutze is a Nazi who has returned to the scene of his crimes so he can engage in a bit of nostalgia for the good old days when he was torturing and killing people. He gets more than he bargained for. A modern day viewer might question how realistic a character he might be. Surely those men would have been haunted by what they did, and would have felt remorse? We would like to think so, but that’s probably wishful thinking. After all, Rod Serling was inspired to write this episode by the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who had said the following in 1945: “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” That’s very far from “just following orders”, which is an excuse that Serling thoroughly dismantles here anyway.

“They just heard you offer the apology for all the monsters of our times: we did as we were told.”

It’s a very simple equation. If you are willing to torture and kill innocent people, before you will first lay down your own life, you have no right to call yourself a human being. If you invade another country and murder and rape your way through their towns and villages, before you will lay down your arms and accept your own execution if necessary, you also have no right to call yourself a human being. You are a monster who walks this earth. And yes, this episode does feel raw again, and that’s something that seemed impossible in our lifetimes not so long ago. When Lutze says, “I functioned as I was told”, he is avoiding the truth that he functioned as he wanted to. Serling muddles his message a little bit, simply because he writes Lutze as such an evil man, who takes a joy in what he did. It doesn’t then seem particularly logical for him to be offering up excuses for his actions, before he even realises that he is in any realistic danger himself. This is a great episode, but it might have worked even better if the ex-Nazi was shown to have mixed emotions at the very least, when remembering what he did. That would have really driven home the message about personal responsibility for his actions, rather than what we get here, which is akin to a vicious animal being put down.

This is the second ghost story in three episodes, an entirely new departure for The Twilight Zone. But it feels very different to the first one. The ghosts are not frightening to anyone other than Lutze, because they are the innocent victims. It’s not really scary or creepy, because you need to have at least a modicum of empathy for the character who is being menaced by ghosts in order to find the ghosts scary. Instead, we simply witness justice being done.

I won’t be holding my breath for the monsters of our own times to face similar justice, but if they ever do then they will have to face up to a simple truth, which was still being learnt and understood when this TZ episode was broadcast: there is no such thing as “just following orders”.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Midnight Sun

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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3 Responses to The Twilight Zone: Deaths-Head Revisited

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Cowardice, depending on how we accurately define the word, can indeed be natural in the sense of fear itself being humanly natural. But quite agreeably it should never be allowed to control us. It’s easy enough to draw a line between the torture or rape victim and the perpetrator or anybody who knows that it’s happening and does nothing to stop it. In a Twilight Zone episode like this when the guilty party returns to the scene of his crimes, and where the ghosts of his heinous history could be most powerful, it might be a subconscious sign that he’s looking for absolution and therefore it can indeed serve the episode better if he has mixed emotions. Karl Lancer and Joe Caswell proved that giving such criminals in anthology episodes a potentially humanizing quality certainly makes them more watchable than the vicious animals being put down. But your point, RP, about there being no such thing as ‘just following orders’ is quite spot on. Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. epaddon says:

    Compared to “Judgment Night”, “Deathshead Revisited” is a little too over the top for my taste. The set-up of Lutze returning to Germany to indulge in nostalgia is a far-fetched premise to begin with since all die-hard Nazis would have preferred to stay safe in South America. It’s a plot contrivance necessary to give us what Serling finds more important in terms of giving us a scenario of the ghosts of Dachau passing their judgment. I much prefer “Judgment Night” for making its point with subtlety. Indeed, the fact that Serling feels compelled to give us necessary plot revelations in his intro for this episode of who Lutze really is is a further testament to how he lays it on too thick here.

    To me “Deathshead Revisited” would have worked as a story if they’d gone for something more complex and nuanced. What if we’d had a former guard who engaged in torture exercises who did it not because he enjoyed it but because he was boxed in a position where if he didn’t carry out his order, his SS superiors might have killed him and his family? And then we’d have a more interesting moral dilemma of how much is one responsible for a crime if he’s forced to commit them under duress. Then you’d have a sequence where the supernatural element of the ghosts performing a trial would give us a trial with more complex questions to ponder and more difficulty in arriving at a verdict.

    Liked by 2 people

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