Saturday, October 05, 2013

DNA and the Boys From Brazil

On this day in 1978, DNA and cloning were still futuristic concepts, little more than theories, really. I remember hearing my teachers speak of such things when I was in school and dismissing them as some sort of Jetsons things — totally unlikely to happen in my lifetime.

I was wrong, of course.

But director Franklin J. Schaffner had the vision and the courage to accept the challenge of explaining the theories in ways that were entertaining — and, consequently, unsettling when their relevance to the story was revealed.

The theme of Schaffner's "The Boys From Brazil," which premiered on this day in 1978, was that Josef Mengele (played by Gregory Peck) had taken some of Adolf Hitler's DNA with him when he fled Germany after World War II and had produced dozens of Hitler clones who had been distributed around the world. These baby Hitlers were adopted by couples who closely resembled Hitler's own parents in an attempt to duplicate as closely as possible the conditions that shaped the original Hitler.

At some point, it was necessary for Mengele to arrange for an adoptive father to be killed because Hitler's own father, who was more than 20 years older than Hitler's mother, died suddenly when Hitler was 13. Mengele left no stone unturned in his quest to re–create the circumstances of Hitler's life. No detail was too small.

I don't mean to suggest, of course, that the loss of a parent is a small detail. Far from it. That is a huge event in the lives of most people whatever their ages — but especially so for one so young. And I think Schaffner (and, for that matter, Ira Levin, who wrote the novel upon which the movie was based) was correct to believe that his father's death had a powerful influence on Hitler.

The movie took viewers around the globe as Laurence Olivier, a Nazi hunter, followed up on a tip from Steven Guttenberg, who stumbled on to the plot to resurrect the Third Reich and paid for it with his life.

In the movie, Mengele clearly wasn't wedded to the idea of a German fuehrer and placed Hitler clones all around the world. Olivier met four of the clones, each played unsettlingly by Jeremy Black, a teenager who, as nearly as I can tell, never appeared in a movie again.

His performance was spooky, though, to say the least. I was convinced that any of the clones he played could have grown up to be a modern–day Hitler, fulfilling an almost Nostradamus–like prophecy.

But it was ambiguous. Each had personality traits that, if seen only on the surface by those unfamiliar with the futuristic plot, would appear to be typical teenage narcissism — not necessarily a clue of what to expect.

On closer inspection, they revealed truths that went to the core of the Hitler personality, but that brings us back to the old debate over nature vs. nurture. Because these clones possessed Hitler's DNA — and, remember, much of what was known about DNA in 1978 was theoretical — did that mean they would duplicate his life experiences?

In the movie, Mengele tried to manipulate events to guarantee that the Hitler clones would have the same experiences the original Hitler had, including losing his father at a young age. But other things were not so easily manipulated, like Hitler's rejection in art school or his experiences as a soldier in World War I.

At the end of the movie, Olivier's character destroyed the list of children around the world who had been part of Mengele's experiment rather than surrender it to American Nazi hunters who were determined to eliminate the clones.

They were only children, Olivier said. They weren't responsible for the experiment that had conceived them. It wouldn't be fair for them to pay with their lives for things others had done.

It was an uplifting, Hollywoodesque feel–good wrapup. Frankly, though, I thought the movie would have been more powerful if it had concluded the way the book did — by revealing that one of the surviving Hitler clones was developing delusions of grandeur.

Movie veterans Peck and Olivier gave brilliant performances as the story's nemeses — as did James Mason as Peck's benefactor.

To misquote Shakespeare, though, the story's the thing in "The Boys From Brazil." The acting was superb, but the story, like Black's performance, was spooky. I felt that way even at the time, when, as I say, DNA was known to exist but the applications of that knowledge were mostly theoretical.

I think it holds up just as well today although I am sure that, as commonplace as DNA application has become in modern society, the story may not have quite the impact with some viewers as it does with others.

Perhaps it was that considerable element of the unknown that made it so frightening.