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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin (1976)
The Boys from Brazil directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (1978)
This book isn’t one I think is known as well as some of Levin’s other books; I hadn’t even heard of it till a month ago! My sister (who reads even more books than me) suggested it, hence how I came about it. After reading it, I saw there was a movie starring Gregory Peck and Lawrence Olivier and decided to check it out.
For those who aren’t familiar with the story, here is a synopsis.
We start with meeting Joseph Mengele, a Nazi who worked at Auschwitz. It is set 30 years after World War II, so he and the other Nazi’s are hiding out in the jungles of South America to prevent being captured. He and his superiors have come up with a plan to bring the Third Reich back into power, and Mengele has gathered other Nazi’s to give them their assignment.
We learn they have a list of 94 men who need to be killed on certain dates over the course of two and a half years. We, and the other men aside from Mengele and higher ups, don’t know why. We just know that the men will all be 65 when they die, they are all civil servants and that their deaths need to look like an accident or just natural causes.
We then learn that the Nazi’s have been recorded by a man named Barry. He is able to run back to his hotel where he phones up our protagonist, Yakov Liebermann (Ezra Liebermann in the movie). He tells him what he heard, but while talking to him the Nazi’s enter and kill Barry. Mengele picks up the phone and hears Liebermann on the other line and hangs up the phone. Even though he knows Barry had given Liebermann some information, he doesn’t tell the higher up’s and tells the men to continue with the mission.
Liebermann doesn’t know if there is any truth to what Barry told him, but over the next month or so he goes ahead and checks out any deaths that fit the description.
When he sees a death that fits, he goes to the house of the widows to see if he can find any connection, and a reason why Mengele would want them dead.
He meets a woman and while talking to her meets her son. A 13 year old boy with dark hair and blue eyes who plays the clarinet.
He then meets another widow in America, and he sees that she too has a 13 year old son with dark hair and blue eyes and is shocked that the two look like twins.
He calls up the guy helping him and asks if any of the women he’s talked to have sons that fit the description, and some do. Each boy is also creative in some way-music, drawing, photography, etc.
He eventually discovers that all these boys have been adopted, and long story short, they are all Hitler clones. Mengele, who was known for having a fascination with twins and genetics, had created 94 Hitler clones and is trying to give them a childhood similar to that of the real Hitler in hopes that one or more will rise up and lead the Third Reich once more. The reason the men need to die at 65 is because that is when Hitler’s actual dad had died.
Meanwhile, Mengele’s superiors discover that Liebermann is finding out too much information and call their men back. At which point they only had the chance to kill 18 of the ‘fathers’. Mengele is furious when he finds out and sets off on his own to not only continue killing as many of the 65 year olds as he can, but also to kill Liebermann.
Both Mengele and Liebermann decide to go to the house of the next guy in line to be killed. Liebermann goes there to warn him (not knowing the Nazi’s have called their men back home) and Mengele goes so he can kill the man himself.
Long story short, the guy has 3 highly trained Dobermans and when Mengele arrives first, he convinces the man (Wheelock) to lock in a room for now. He then shoots the guy and puts on a disguise so that when Liebermann shows up he won’t realize who he is.
Liebermann shows up and doesn’t realize at first that it’s Mengele. Eventually he figures it out and Mengele ends up shooting Liebermann but doesn’t kill him. Liebermann opens the door to the Dobermans and they corner Mengele. So we have Liebermann who is injured and can’t do much, then we have Mengele who is corned by three snarling Dobermans. While they are in this stalemate, the Hitler clone comes home.
Once again, long story short, the boy instructs the dogs to attack Mengele, he threatens Liebermann to not tell anyone that he told the dogs to kill Mengele and Liebermann agrees.
Liebermann is taken to a hospital and recovers. Then the people who were helping him with this whole thing say they need to find all 94 clones and kill them. Liebermann says that if they resort to killing children, they are no better than the Nazis.
Then the last scene is showing one of the Hitler clones and implies that he is going to grow up being like Hitler
Backstory on Mengele
With Josef Mengele, he was actually a real person. Liebermann is based on Simon Wiesenthal, who had been in a concentration camp and then after the war became a “Nazi hunter” so to speak. But Josef Mengele is a real guy who worked at Auschwitz. Everything they say about his background in the book is true. He was called ‘the Angle of Death’ and would perform experiments on those in the concentration camp. He was especially interested in twins, people with two different color eyes, and those with other such interesting genetics.
In the book it shows him as being capable of being almost charismatic in the beginning when he finds out they have been recorded and he’s asking the waitress’s which one of them planted the recorder. In real life he could manipulate others by acting nice and could be liked by children and others. Then he would do these sadistic experiments. So clearly some kind of psychopath who didn’t feel normal feelings like the rest of us. He actually did escape to South America, then in 1979 (the same year the movie was released) he had a stoke while swimming and drowned.
Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal continued to look for Mengele for year after because he of course had no way of knowing he had died. In 1985 they found some of Mengele friends in Brazil and they showed them Mengele’s grave. The body was dug up to confirm the identity. Though it wasn’t till DNA testing was done in 1992 that it could be confirmed without a doubt it was Mengele.
Lawrence Olivier as Liebermann, he does a good job and his accent sounds good, but I felt like his tone always made him sound kind of confused. Aside from that though, I really have no complaints on his part.
Gregory Peck as Mengele did a decent job. Some scenes seemed almost corny and too obvious he was just acting. When this came out people criticized his acting, and Peck blamed it on the fact that people aren’t used to seeing him play the villain, so maybe that’s part of my problem I’m not sure
The boy who plays the Hitler clones-Jeremy Black does a good job, though he was wearing contacts for the blue eyes, but they were weird looking and was distracting. I also felt like they kept him from showing emotion in his eyes. Nonetheless, he did a good job playing the various clones. This was actually his only film acting, but he had a long career in theater.
The movie follows the book very closely, but of course there have been some changes. So, let’s get right into them
But, back to the waitresses, this is one of the changes because in the book their gathering doesn’t take place at a Japanese restaurant in Brazil (where it is set in the book), it’s in some huge mansion in Paraguay. And instead of one of the waitresses helping Barry, it’s a young boy.
Then with Barry, in the movie he was able to send Liebermann photos, and when he called him he actually played the recording rather than just telling him about it. So Liebermann didn’t really need to guess whether it was true, because he had the evidence. In the book Liebermann isn’t sure if it’s legit but feels he should research it just in case.
Movie Barry also sends the photos to a friend of his and the friend reaches out to Liebermann. In the book, Liebermann gets the help from a young guy, but it’s not because of Barry. In the book Liebermann is a public speaker, to keep the knowledge of WWII alive and a way to support the cause of finding Nazis, and as a way to help it be prevented in the future. At one of his events he is speaking to a group of college students. The idea comes to him to ask them if they can make heads or tails of the info Barry has given him, in a hypothetical way as to not raise suspicion. So, he asks them and they give him some ideas. Later one of those students approaches him and says he doesn’t think it was a hypothetical question after all and offers his help.
The one that confused me the most, was that they have Mengele living in Paraguay. They still say that the boys were born in Brazil, but for some unexplained reason they have Mengele in Paraguay. The movies itself was filmed in Portugal! It would be one thing if it was filmed in Paraguay so they were like, well let’s have it based there since that’s where we are filming. But it wasn’t filmed in either country! So may as well just call it Brazil!
Anyway ,the book goes in detail with the Nazis that go about and kill the 65 year olds, and the movie shows some of that as well though maybe some slight changes happen. Partly because the movie doesn’t have the time to go in to the backstory of some character who is just going to be killed off.
With one of the guys who is killed, names Emil, in both the book and the movie Liebermann goes and interviews his wife to see if there is a reason Mengele would want him dead. When there the door is answered by a young dark haired boy and in the hallway area there are mirrors on both walls, so it looks like there are never ending reflections of the boy. This is of course done as foreshadowing because there are indeed many of this exact same boy. This is done in both the movie and the book.
In the movie when he interviews the wife, it’s kind of an awkward scene. The wife is trying to be flirty, but it just comes off as uncomfortable and awkward. Not sure if that was done on purpose or not.
Back to Mengele, in the book when he finds out the men have been told to abort the mission, he sets out at first not to the Wheelock home, but to a hotel Liebermann is going to be staying at. He’s there for a couple days looking out for Liebermann and practicing his plan on how he is going to trick him and then kill him. Though in the end Liebermann never shows up, and Mengele decides instead to go to the Wheelock home. This whole hotel sequence is taken out in the movie
Another change is that in the book once he kills Wheelock, he puts on Wheelock’s clothes and pretends to be him when Liebermann initially shows up. While talking, Mengele, who is of course German, is trying to hide his German accent but it comes out here and there. Liebermann notices this and at first thinks that Wheelock is trying to mimic him in an insulting way. He himself tries to lessen his accent, and he notices that that is what Wheelock is also doing. He isn’t mimicking Liebermann, he has his own accent he is trying to subdue.
I enjoyed this scene in the book as it gives this mounting suspense as you anxiously wait for Liebermann to realize that it is Mengele in front of him.
In the movie they got rid of this. When Liebermann walks in the unlocked door, he enters the living room and sees Mengele and knows right away who he is, and they get in a tussle where in Liebermann is shot.
While filming this, Peck was 62 so not too old, but Oliver was 70 so they had to carefully act out that scene to make sure Oliver didn’t actually get injured
Another small change, is that in the book the Wheelock boy wants to be a filmmaker, the next Alfred Hitchcock. But in the movie, he is a photographer. All the clones are of course creative in some way, because the real Hitler had been a painter when he was young.
The commands he uses on the dog in the movie “cut” “print” “action” rather than “attack” “stop”, etc. Where in the book they are pickles, mustard, and ketchup. I don’t know why they changed it to film terms though because in the movie he wasn’t in to film, he was a photographer. So, using film terms is just random.
Prior to going to the Wheelock home, in the book Liebermann stops to see a Rabbi names Gorin who is part of Young Jewish Defenders group to get their help with all this and after the whole ordeal at the Wheelock place, Gorin is the one that says they need the list of names, so they can make sure the Hitler clones die. Then in private Liebermann flushes the list I believe and says that he won’t let that happen. In the movie is the young friend of Barry’s who wants the boys killed, and Liebermann burns up the list in front of him.
Now with the very end, they made the Wheelock boy pretty similar in both books, though maybe a bit crueler in the movie. Though in both the book and movie he basically blackmails Liebermann to ensure he won’t get in trouble for sicking the dogs on Mengele. In the book it ends with one of the boys whose father was killed, and he is drawing a picture of someone who is captivating an audience, the quote from the book says,
“Who would he be, this man on the platform? Someone great, that’s for sure, with all these people coming to see him. Not just a singer or comedian; someone fantastic, a really good person that they loved and respected. They paid fortunes to get in, and if they couldn’t pay, he let them in free. Someone that nice… they were cheering, telling him—the man, that is—how good he was, how much they loved him… He could hear the people cheering, roaring; a beautiful growing love-thunder that built and built, and then pounded, pounded, pounded, pounded. Sort of like in those old Hitler movies.”
It never says which boy this is, but clearly things don’t look too good.
In the movie it ends with the Wheelock boy in his dark room, processing photos he took of Mengele and Liebermann’s bodies, then it shows he has hung Mangles animal tooth bracelet up. Once again, implying that he could be going down a bad path.
Speaking of the bracelet, in the book and movie he finds this animal bracelet in the old hospital where the boys were born. He returns there and is looking around, remembering what it had been like. In the book he sees the bracelet on the ground and thinks it must have been left by one of the native women and that she wore it for good luck. He is feeling down at the moment, so he picks it up and carries it with him in hopes it will bring him good luck. And that’s about it, the book didn’t use the bracelet symbolically in the end the way the movie did.
Book or Movie
The book as a whole I enjoyed. Levin definitely had a cinematic way of writing, maybe because he also wrote some scripts. But he kept my interest throughout and did a good job making his characters come to life.
The movie followed the book very closely which I appreciated. And as I said above, overall the acting was well done. I did find it a bit slow moving at times, and had it not been for this podcast I probably wouldn’t have ended up finishing it, especially since I already knew how it would end based on the book. So, in the case of The Boys from Brazil, the book wins.
Though having said that, I don’t know that I would read it again. Good as a one-time read for me.
A side note, when I was researching this I found that the cartoon Archer makes reference The Boys from Brazil. Apparently one of their characters is one of the boys and they have a flashback and show a character that looks like Gregory peck from the movie. So I found that entertaining that it has made its way into pop culture to some extent.
Also back in 2006, director Brett Ratner said he was going to make a remake of this movie. But, it’s 2020 now and no movie, so not sure what went wrong there. If they were to someday make another version I would most likely go see it.
Check out my review of another Ira Levin novel-The Stepford Wives book vs movie!