Written by Bertolt Brecht and director Fritz Lang, a surgeon assassinates the Nazi’s oppressive governor of Czechoslovakia and manages to escape. The German authorities threaten to kill many people if the assassin is not captured.
In a palace in Prague the Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) governs Czechoslovakia and is called “the hangman.” He complains that the Czechs refuse to work, and he threatens to kill five hundred. The armament industry is put under the Gestapo to make sure they work.
Miss Nasha Novotny (Anna Lee) asks the grocer for two pounds of potatoes, but she has none. Two German soldiers order a cab driver to move his car. They get in and make him start the car and drive off. An underground man tells a driver of a horse-drawn cab that Banya (Lionel Stander) was arrested and to move quickly. He drives off. Dr. Franticek Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) runs in the street and hides in an alcove, changing hats. He walks calmly and asks Nasha if she saw a taxicab. She says the police drove off with it. He hides again as German soldiers search. The officer asks Nasha which way the man went, and she points the other way. The grocer Mrs. Dvorak (Sarah Padden) advises Nasha to go home. Svoboda sees her go into a building and more soldiers searching people. He quickly pays and goes into a cinema. Whispers pass the news that Heydrich was shot. The audience applauds, and a Nazi orders the movie stopped. He asks who started the rumor and says no one will be permitted to leave. A man knocks him out, and people leave the theater.
A tank drives in the street. Svoboda knocks on a door where a room is for rent, but the woman will not let him in.
Professor Stephen Novotny (Walter Brennan) comes home and tells three women that someone shot Heydrich. They ask where, and Nasha says she must have seen the man who did it. He stops her from talking and takes her into his office, saying she has not seen anyone. He warns her how word spreads and gets to the Gestapo.
Banya is explaining to the Gestapo about his taxi. He asks to see the late newspaper that announces martial law. A man slaps him and says he had the get-away car. He gives him to soldiers to be made to talk, but Banya jumps through a window.
In a restaurant where Svoboda is sitting, a soldier announces that public places are closed, and anyone may be shot on sight. Svoboda has to leave.
Jan Horak (Dennis O’Keefe) tells his fiancée Nasha that there are better ways than assassination. She replies that it shows they are all Czechs. He leaves and sees Svoboda with flowers coming up the stairs. Nasha answers the door, and Svoboda says he has nowhere else to go. She is afraid but lets him come in. Her mother Hellie Novotny (Nana Bryant) sees him and says hello and says the roses are beautiful. He says his name is Karel Vanek, and Nasha introduces him to her father Stephen. They say they met at the symphony, and he says he is an architect. Stephen says it is after seven and past the curfew. The boy Boda Novotny (William Roy) says they shoot people on the street after seven. Hellie invites Vanek to join them for dinner.
At the dinner table they eat turnips and cabbage. Ludmilla Novotny (Margaret Wycherly) asks Vanek what he thinks of the assassination, and they agree it was unexpected. Nasha says they are glad he escaped. Ludmilla answers the door and says it was their janitress who said that all males over thirteen must register with the police by tomorrow night. Boda is only a eleven, and Stephen has him turn on the radio. Boda cuts himself while cutting bread, and his father encourages him to fight on. Vanek asks to see it and asks for a bandage and iodine. The radio reports that any person aiding the assassin and that person’s relatives will be killed.
At Gestapo headquarters Inspector Alois Gruber (Alexander Granach) drinks beer and says the Czechs will need something stronger to make them surrender the assassin. He asks Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart) what he is doing by the file cabinet, and he says nothing. Gruber says his file shows that his beer is good but that he stinks. A woman hands Gruber a report. Czaka suggests that he start with a famous poet to influence the children to become more German.
Svoboda is sleeping in a chair, wakes up, and asks Stephen if he could stay there for the night. Stephen says they are making up a bed in his office. Hellie and Ludmilla are making the bed, and Ludmilla says the janitress knows about the man. Stephen says goodnight to Vanek because he has students coming early in the morning. He leaves the room, and Nasha tells Vanek that her father knows before she could tell him. In his room Stephen listens to the BBC on the radio.
Gestapo Inspector Ritter (Reinhold Schünzel) is interrogating the grocer and is prepared to go all night. She realizes where she is. He asks her about the woman who bought vegetables from her.
Nasha and Vanek look at the newspaper which reports the Gestapo have a clue. On the radio they hear that instant retaliation is threatened. Vanek says they know nothing, or they would not threaten. They hear shouting and banging on the door. Several soldiers enter, and an officer questions them. He came for Stephen who is with his students. Stephen describes the terrible situation, but he says arresting him and hundreds will not enable them to find traitors. Stephen speaks to his students and treats Vanek as one of them. He tells them to go, and they leave. He tells his son to remember this well.
On a rainy day a soldier calls names, and men enter a large but primitive room. He asks for Stephen’s name and puts him in charge of that barrack.
Ludmilla says she would turn in the assassin, but Jan says anyone who helped him would be signing his own death warrant and for his family. Nasha tells Jan that the only hope is that he give himself up. He sees the roses and says he saw the man coming up the stairs. She says he is one of her mother’s old customers. Boda comes in, and Jan leaves. Nasha changes Boda’s bandage.
At a hospital Dedic (Jonathan Hale) visits the office of Dr. Svoboda who dismisses the nurse. Svoboda shows his shaking hand and says he took two sedatives. He says they will have a bloodbath and have already taken 400 hostages. Svoboda says he stayed with the historian’s family. He will give himself up to save the lives of others. Dedic says he will be needed, and it would not be right. Svoboda says he will kill himself and leave a message with the gun proving he was the killer. Dedic advises him to wait before he decides that. He says it is a battle of millions in a big war. If he surrenders, they would lose that battle. He says he told the Novatny family his name is Vanek. He asks about the taxi-driver, and Dedic says he killed himself. Dedic asks for the gun, and Svoboda hands it to him. Dedic says they are all grateful. As Dedic is leaving, Svoboda sees Nasha waiting. He calls him back for a prescription, and then Dedic leaves. The nurse calls Nasha in, and she asks to talk to Svoboda alone. He asks how she found him, and she explains. She asks what he is going to do. She says only he can save her father. He says he cannot surrender. She won’t let him kill her father. He says if she denounces him, it would implicate her entire family. She gets angrier and calls him a coward, and she stalks out.
Outside Nasha asks the horse taxi to take her to Gestapo headquarters. She tells the driver he is going the wrong way. They stop, and Dedic gets in the cab. He tells her it is war and tries to explain to her. She shouts for help. The cab stops, and she gets out and tells a policeman that she wants to go to the Gestapo. Bystanders are surprised and are suspicious of her. They laugh at her and abuse her. More police arrive, and the crowd disperses. One man throws his bicycle at a policeman and is beaten. Nasha objects. A policeman asks if she was summoned and says she will be taken to the Gestapo.
Inside Nasha is given a pass and asks to go to a washroom because her cheek is bleeding. An officer asks to see her pass and asks if she made her statement. She says she did, and he says her pass should have been stamped. She is interrogated and says her father had nothing to do with the shooting. Inspector Ritter says she wanted to leave without making her statement. He leaves the room and consults with Gruber and chief Kurt Haas (Tonio Selwart). Gruber matches the description of her. Mrs. Dvorak tells Ritter that Miss Novotny did not come to her grocery yesterday. Ritter threatens her if she lies and has a guard take her out. He calls Gruber who tells him not to question Nasha anymore but let her go so that they can watch her.
Police search the Novotny home by tearing things apart.
At the barracks a German officer counts off the men and writes down the name of every tenth man.
Ritter asks Nasha to sign her statement and tells her that the first forty hostages will be executed in thirty minutes. Her father is not one of the forty this time. He gives her a pass and lets her leave.
Nasha and Ludmilla are cleaning up. Ludmilla says she said her fiancé Jan stayed over that night.
Nasha calls on Jan who says he was at the Gestapo office all day. He asks her about the man who stayed the night. She denies it was political. He came to see her after they met at the symphony, and he had to stay over because of the curfew. He says it is the man who brought the roses and accuses her of lying. She asks him to believe in her, and he does. She kisses him.
Two Gestapo in plain clothes arrest Nasha as she comes out of the building.
Gruber interrogates Nasha about Vanek. Gestapo officers interrogate Stephen and others in the family. Ludmilla explains why she lied about Jan. Nasha is put in a cell with Mrs. Dvorak who has been beaten.
Ritter comes in and tells the chief and Gruber that Vanek, who brought the roses, sent a card that he wants to call on Nasha. They realize there is no Vanek. The chief says it is a silly love affair. Gruber says they must go.
Nasha finds a bouquet on the door and comes in. She hears a knock, and Vanek comes in and puts his hand over her mouth. She complains and says he is the one the Gestapo wants. In their office the top Gestapo officers are listening to the conversation through a speaker. Her voice changes, and she speaks more calmly. Vanek shows her a paper on which he has warned her of a microphone and written what she is to say. He confesses that he loves her, frustrating the Gestapo. He writes her a note asking for her help. She blames herself.
The chief tells Gruber he has wasted their time on a cheap romance.
Gruber questions two doctors at the hospital whether Dr. Svoboda was operating on that day, and they say he was.
At the barracks Stephen talks with the poet Nekval. A man wrote some words for a song and asks for Nekval to recommend improvements. The man reads the patriotic poem to fight on for the cause even if they die; do not surrender. Nekval says he cannot make it better.
At a meeting in a warehouse Bartos (Byron Foulger) says they must slow down the German war machine by slowing down manufacturing of weapons. A woman tells how she destroyed a new order for a changed part. Emil Czaka says he has made sacrifices and says 850 hostages have been arrested, and 250 are dead. Dedic listens from another room. Czaka says the man is a great hero; but if he surrendered, it would be better for their country. He asks them to submit his proposal to the central committee. Others have not heard such sentiments. All the others vote against the proposal. Bartos tells them to leave at intervals.
Dr. Pillar (Edmund MacDonald) comes in, and Dedic asks him if anyone in their group knows anything about him. He says only Bartos knows him; but Dedic says he must leave the group because he was involved in the assassination and should have left before. Bartos comes in, and Dedic says Pillar will not be attending his meetings. Pillar leaves, and Dedic tells Bartos to dissolve his group. Dedic asks about Czaka, and they realize that twelve people were killed in a raid. Bartos says the man spoke German but that Czaka does not.
Gruber talks with Czaka at a dinner table and implies he made a mistake. Czaka wants to leave town, and Gruber says he can’t quit. Czaka asks for a bodyguard. Gruber says Czaka helped them for business favors. Czaka offers his gold lighter and offers to pay him for police protection. Gruber asks for 2,000 marks per day for insurance. Czaka writes a check from a German bank, and Gruber has it made out to the treasurer of the police fund. He is the treasurer.
Gruber calls Nasha and says her father will be executed at six in the morning. She is allowed to visit him.
Stephen is brought into an empty room where Nasha has been waiting. They are given ten minutes, and the door is closed. They embrace, and he says he was questioned about the gentleman. She says he apologized to her. He tells her his message to his son Boda with his hopes for the future in a free land where everyone has enough good food and time to think and talk. Freedom is not a possession. Fighting for freedom is important, and he also died in this fight. They hear a truck, and she kisses his hand. A guard takes him out. She looks out the window as the truck drives off. Gruber has come in and asks who was the man who escaped when she sent their men the wrong way. She walks out of the room.
Dedic and Bartos discuss Czaka and ask a man if he speaks German. Bartos says they can use the waiter Rudy.
Jan comes in, and Boda says his father was shot. Jan shows her the list in the newspaper that does not have his name. She calls, and Gruber says he was not shot. Gruber is looking at Svoboda’s file and finds that he has no record of chasing women. Gruber talks on the phone to Czaka and approves his police protection.
At a restaurant Dedic, Bartos, and others dine with Czaka. The waiter Rudy (Lester Sharpe) tells a funny story in German. Bartos watches Czaka who is amused and laughs. The others look at him, and he stops laughing. He is terrified and tries to explain. They accuse him, and he tries to leave. They try to hold him, but he shouts. A man with a gun comes in and wounds Dedic as he is leaving. In the struggle another man is killed, and others are captured.
Stephen and other hostages hear a speech by a hostage that some of them must speak on the radio for the Germans. Some argue that the 300 of them should be saved. Stephen disagrees.
Bartos and seven others are brought before Gruber. Czaka explains that Gruber is being pleasant. They criticize Czaka, and he slaps one of them. Gruber says he need not prove which side he is on. The women refuse to submit, and one is slapped. Gruber orders them taken away.
The Gestapo chief has the speeches for the volunteers. People hear them speak on radio. In a cinema a woman shouts back.
Svoboda tells three men that Dedic made sure he was not followed, and he is badly wounded. Svoboda says Dedic has a way they could save the lives of the hostages and himself.
The horse taxi driver admits there was blood in his cab, but he does not remember where he took the man. Gruber asks questions and sends his men away. They go out, and a woman comes in and embraces Gruber. He jumps up and asks the address. He looks among his papers for that address and finds that is where Svoboda lives.
Gestapo men call on Svoboda and ask if he treated a man with a bullet wound. He says no and tries to stop them from entering the bedroom. Gruber has them go in, and Nasha screams and covers herself. Gruber says there would not be a third person there. He searches and orders every room searched. Gruber talks with Svoboda and Nasha. Svoboda sees blood dripping on a newspaper, and he offers Gruber a glass of wine. He gets the wine, trips, and spills it on the newspaper. Jan comes in and sees Nasha on the bed. Svoboda has lipstick on his face. Jan asks Gruber why he was brought there. Gruber says it has become a personal matter and goes out. He waits outside the door, and Nasha sees his shadow. She speaks to Jan, and he leaves. Gruber orders the house watched. Nasha helps Dedic, and Svoboda prepares to treat him.
In a restaurant Gruber and Jan are with two women.
Dedic is critically wounded, but he instructs Nasha what to do.
A newspaper reports that the rooming-house lady and a cab driver gave useful testimony.
Gruber is asleep on a couch, and the two women talk about what Gruber is trying to get out of Jan. The women say goodbye to Jan and leave.
Nasha asks Svoboda the real name of Dedic who has died, and he says he will be remembered.
An officer announces that today hostages will be killed every two hours unless the assassin is surrendered.
Svoboda and Nasha are eating at a restaurant while being watched. She gives the waiter a message that he takes to Czaka. The waiter comes back, and she goes over to Czaka and says she is sure he is the man. A man questions what she wants, and another plainclothesman takes her and orders Czaka taken to headquarters. Svoboda picks up Czaka’s gold lighter.
Ritter interrogates Nasha about Czaka, who says she recognized him. He laughs at her accusation that he killed Heydrich.
In the barrack a man refuses to go and is shot outside. An officer calls Nekval and two others.
The chief urges Nasha to tell the truth now. He says by tomorrow all the hostages will have been shot. She says she saw the assassin run away and that it was Czaka. The cab driver is brought in and says Czaka is the man he took in the cab. Czaka says it is ridiculous and that he was having lunch in the Golden Quail restaurant. They question those who work there, and they all say that he was not there that day. Czaka questions them and says he was there. Czaka demands an explanation, and he is questioned. Czaka says he was in the Gestapo office from 5:30 until late at night.
More men are called out of the barracks, and the others sing. The men are put on the back of trucks and are driven away.
A woman testifies that Czaka was the man brought to her rooming-house on that day. Czaka calls them lies. She says he wanted to see the newspaper about the shooting of the hangman. She shows them the gold lighter and says he left it there. He says he had it that morning. The chief says these people do not know each other. Czaka says he can prove she is lying because she said she has no telephone and that he called Gruber that day at 2:30. They try to locate Gruber.
Gruber is drinking beer, but Jan does not want any more beer. He notices lipstick on Gruber’s face. Gruber realizes that the lipstick on Svoboda’s face was too perfect. He suspects they staged the bedroom act. Gruber says that Svoboda or Dedic must be the assassin. Jan jumps on Gruber, and they fight. Gruber wins and knocks him out.
Czaka believes he has a perfect alibi, and the chief will check it with Gruber.
Gruber leaves Jan tied to a bed and goes out.
Gruber goes to the hospital and asks for Dr. Svoboda.
Boda calls on Jan who manages to make noise. Boda empties his pockets and tries to pick the lock.
Gruber is waiting to see Svoboda.
Boda frees Jan, and they go outside. Jan hears a call for Gruber to report to headquarters. Jan takes a taxi to the hospital.
Svoboda comes out of surgery, and Gruber questions him in the locker-room. He asks if they always wear masks in surgery, and he says yes. Dr. Pillar is there too, and Svoboda admits that Pillar took his place that day. Gruber pulls out a gun, and the two doctors walk toward him. Gruber dials a phone, and Pillar throws a scalpel. Jan comes in and slugs Gruber. Svoboda and he smother Gruber with towels.
Jan explains to the Gestapo chief that Gruber had an appointment at Czaka’s house. The chief has Ritter bring in Czaka, and the chief questions him. Czaka denies seeing Gruber today. The chief gets a message and says that his butler said that Gruber was at Czaka’s home.
At Czaka’s house the butler says they were there. Soldiers shoot open a door, and they find Gruber’s calling card and a time-table for Switzerland. They find a check receipt for 10,000 marks and ask to whom he gave it. Czaka says he gave it to Gruber. In his desk they find the gun that shot Heydrich. They find anti-German propaganda. They go down to the basement, and under coal is the body of Gruber.
Ritter tells Nasha that she is free to go.
Gestapo officers have Czaka in handcuffs in a car. They stop and tell Czaka to get out. He is freed and thanks them. He is told to run, and they shoot him in the street. He staggers up the steps of a church and is shot dead.
The Gestapo chief hands a coded report to the Nazi officer which found that Czaka could not have been the assassin; but the concluding paragraph states that because the terror failed to force people to turn in the real assassin, to save face the Germans decided to accept Czaka as the assassin and close the case. The officer signs the report.
This fictionalized version of what happened after the assassination of Heydrich dramatizes how the Czech underground resisted Nazi oppression in Prague during the German occupation. Heroic individuals work together as a team to thwart the German war effort and prepare for the inevitable liberation of their country. Another version of these events was depicted in the film Hitler’s Madman the same year.