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Literature / The Boys from Brazil

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A Simon Wiesenthal Center operative finds something big. All around the world.

A 1976 novel by Ira Levin, it was adapted into a 1978 film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, starring Laurence Olivier (in his last Academy Award-nominated role) as Nazi hunter Ezra Liebermann and Gregory Peck as Dr. Josef Mengele. The score, which was also nominated for an Oscar, was composed by Jerry Goldsmith.

In Brazil in 1974, a young busboy finds himself serving a table full of jovial, elderly German ex-pats in the midst of a celebratory dinner party. The busboy overhears a sinister conversation: these men are former Nazis who are planning the assassination of 94 civil servants around the world, motives unknown. But the busboy is no busboy. He manages a single phone call to Ezra Liebermann, head of a secret network dedicated to tracking down fugitive Nazis and bringing them to justice. Before their conversation can end, the busboy is murdered.

Based only on this chancy information, Liebermann rallies his best spies to track down clues, both in hopes of saving the 94 victims and to discover the reason why they were targets. Some have already been killed. More are dying every day. But another, even stranger piece of the puzzle soon arises: thirteen years ago, every targeted family adopted an infant from Brazil, innocent children created by the Angel of Death himself, Josef Mengele, as part of a twisted plan to bring about a new Reich with a new leader.

Tropes featured in this work include:

  • Adaptational Name Change: From Yakov Liebermann in the novel to Ezra Liebermann in the film.
  • All Your Base Are Belong to Us: Villainous example, as Mengele's superiors torch his base and kill his men.
  • And Starring: "And Introducing Jeremy Black." Black never had another screen credit, though he did do some stage work.
  • Angry Guard Dog: The Wheelock family has about a dozen well-trained dobermans. They're trained to wait, guard, attack, and even kill on command if given certain words. However, even if you know the words, it doesn't matter because they won't obey anyone they haven't been trained to Mengele found out the hard way.
  • Apocalypse Hitler: Mengele's theory is that if it's possible to perfectly replicate Hitler, from genetic composition down to the kind of events that moulded his life, everything else will come eventually.
  • Argentina Is Nazi-Land: Paraguay and Brazil, in this case.
  • Car Fu: In the film, one of the assassins uses his car as a weapon to murder a German postman.
  • Cassandra Truth: Mengele tells one of the Hitler clones his true origins. It fails, with the clone initially dismissing Mengele as 'weird' and then expressing horror after he learns that Mengele killed his father.
  • Children Are Innocent: In spite of the fact that most of the boys from Brazil are clearly budding sociopaths, Liebermann is against their assassination, since they haven't committed any crimes.
  • Cloning Gambit: Mengele's plot is to create new, original Hitlers by cloning him and recreating his upbringing, to the extent of arranging for the boys to be adopted by parents who had a similar background to Hitler's own and planning to discreetly assassinate their fathers at the same time as Hitler's father died.
  • Conveniently an Orphan: Invoked Trope: The Nazis plan is to kill the boys' fathers to replicate Hitler's origin story. But one of them, after knowing Mengele killed his old man, sends the dogs to attack him.
  • Crazy-Prepared: The Nazis' back up plans have back up plans.
    • Mr. Wheelock has a pack of Dobermans that are so well trained they will kill anyone upon command, and will immediately attack anyone carrying a gun, and if one of them is shot they will run right past that dog and towards the person with the gun.
  • Creepy Blue Eyes: The Paraguayans in Mengele's compound and all of the cloned Hitlers.
  • Dated History: The movie puts Mengele in Paraguay (though the mothers of the kids are Brazilian), his speculated real life location. He actually did live there for some time, but in the 1970s he was really in Brazil (where he died in 1979, meaning that besides the deteriorated health he could have seen the movie).
  • Deadly Euphemism: The Wheelock family dobermans have been trained to perform actions when you say film terminology ("Action!" to attack, "Cut!" to stop, etc.) Mengele discovers the hard way what happens when someone says "Print!" after Jeremy discovers Mengele just killed his father.
  • Dead Star Walking: A retroactive example happens with Steve Guttenberg in the film.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Barry Kohler in the movie. The first 30 minutes focus on his investigation into Mengeleís presence in Paraguay, until he is murdered by Mengele's goons.
  • Doctor's Disgraceful Demotion: Doctor Josef Mengele escapes the fall of the Third Reich and flees to Brazil. For his part in wicked experiments on humans, Mengele was stripped of all credentials, and branded a war criminal. Nevertheless, Mengele secretly continues to conduct his Magnum Opus experiment: creating clones of Adolf Hitler, which have been seeded with foster parents in foreign countries.
  • Double-Meaning Title: The titular "boys" from Brazil initially seems to refer to the enclave of Nazis that secretly live there, as in "the old-boys network." It isn't until about halfway through the book that we find out the "boys" are the cloned children. Levin's notorious for these little hidden-in-plain-sight spoilers: the Nazis can't be the "boys from Brazil" since they're in Brazil; they're from Germany or Austria (?)!
  • The End... Or Is It?: There are still 95 clones of Hitler all over, ticking timebombs. And it's heavily implied that Mengele's scheme worked, as one of the Hitler clones is seen drawing a stadium full of people cheering a "great man".
    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.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Or Daddies, in one of the Hitler clones' case, since he gets Mengele devoured by his dogs after finding out he killed his father.
  • Expendable Clone: Averted. While Mengele's superiors want the project scrapped, Mengele's very aware that his clones are aging in real time, and that each is irreplaceable - especially since re-creating the original through upbringing is largely a manner of luck.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: The dogs don't like Mengele.
  • Failure Hero: At the end, the heroes' efforts amount to nothing as the villains are disposed by their own schemes.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Mengele suddenly finds himself wishing that his cloned Hitlers weren't quite so sadistic.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Kohlerís death in the movie.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • Mengele finds himself at the mercy of one of his cloned Hitlers. Oops.
    • Earlier in the movie, one of the Nazi assassins expresses doubts over his mission to an old comrade, who advises him to go ahead. Turns out he's the man meant to be killed.
  • Hunting "Accident": One of the parents' murders is disguised as such.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • Josef Mengele goes from, essentially, a psychotic State-sponsored Serial Killer who was, in reality, a totally incompetent scientist; to the Diabolical Mastermind behind both a cloning project at least a century ahead of its time, and an elaborate political scheme to recreate the Third Reich.
    • A Discussed Trope when it comes to Adolf Hitler, in the sense that merely creating a clone of him (and raising him in a near-identical way) is enough to potentially bring about The End of the World as We Know It. If nothing else, he is dreaded enough that everyone fears this outcome. Social, political, economic factors and everything else be damned! So much so that Gorin wants them all killed.
      Liebermann: I say in my talks it takes two things to make it happen again, a new Hitler and social conditions like in the thirties. But that's not true. It takes three things: the Hitler, the conditions... and the people to follow the Hitler.
  • Impersonation Gambit: As Liebermann has sent messages to the potential victims warning them, Mengele turns up at the house of his next victim pretending to be Liebermann.
  • Karma Houdini: The various assassins, all die-hard Nazis and former concentration camp guards, are all called back and none are killed or arrested.
  • Karmic Death: Mengele dies at the hands of one of his precious clones (who sics lethal guard dogs on him.)
  • Large Ham: Both protagonists are enjoying their roles, particularly Peck.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Mengele's and his fellow Nazis' ways to take out the clones' parents. As his Villainous Breakdown continues, Mengele kind of starts caring less about this detail.
  • Nazi Hunter: The protagonists, Liebermann being the most prevalent among them. As the film goes on, Liebermann becomes the only one that doesn't believe the situation is so dire that the Godzilla Threshold of ordering the death of 95 kids is an acceptable way of dealing with a potential threat.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Liebermann is an obvious expy of Simon Wiesenthal. Averted for Josef Mengele of course—it's not like he was in a position to sue!
  • "Not So Different" Remark: At the end of the movie, Liebermann accuses the Nazi hunters of being this in regards to the Nazis, since they wanted to kill children for their goals.
  • Oh, Crap!: Mengele has an epic one on his face throughout his death scene, as he realizes the dogs are going to tear him apart and the only one who can stop it is the Hitler clone, who's clearly enjoying every minute.
  • One-Book Author: Jeremy Black, who played the titular kids, never had another film role, although he still had a career as a stage actor.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping:
    • James Mason has a truly fake attempt at a German accent.
    • In-universe, Mengele can't quite lose his German accent when speaking English, especially having trouble with "th" sounds.
  • Original Position Fallacy: One of the SS assassins recognizes his old commanding officer living abroad under an assumed name; to his old comrade he confides his doubts about his mission, and whether killing elderly civil servants will really make any kind of difference. His commander reminds him to remember his duty, and to think of the glory of the Reich restored, and that the deaths of a few old men is a small price to pay for that. The assassin agrees - and pushes his old commander over a cliff to his death, since the man's assumed alias was the target.
  • Secondary Character Title: The titular children being Hitler's clones, with both protagonists and antagonists racing around the world and against the clock to find the one that has become a "perfect" copy.
  • Spotting the Thread: In the final confrontation, when both Mengele and Liebermann cannot move because the dogs will attack, Mengele tries to spin a story to get the Hitler clone to trust him. However, he lets it slip that he said "no more gun" in an attempt to get the dogs to back off. The Hitler clone immediately catches this.
    Clone: So you had the gun.
  • Shown Their Work: Both the book and the film are noteworthy for describing cloning science accurately, including the process of replicating another human, which was only theoretical at the time both were made.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Another Nazi Hunter tells off Liebermann for burning the list of cloned Hitlers, saying it was stupid old fools like him who allowed the Holocaust to happen. Liebermann replies that it was Nazis "who would kill even children to get their way."
  • You Cloned Hitler!: Probably the Trope Codifier.
  • "You!" Exclamation: Liebermann gives a quiet yet furious "You..." on finally coming face-to-face with the notorious Angel of Death he's hunted for years.
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Mengele asks his superiors why he can't "just shoot Liebermann", only to be denied. However when he finally does have the chance, he decides to engage in Evil Gloating about his Evil Plan, giving a wounded but still alive Liebermann a chance to tell the boy to go looking for the father that Mengele killed.
  • You Killed My Father: Mengele gets the horrible death he deserves when Billy Wheelock (the Hitler clone) discovers Mengele killed his adoptive father and orders his guard dogs to tear the Doctor apart.

Alternative Title(s): The Boys From Brazil