Original Air Date: January 24, 1963
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
“And then one morning, the country woke up from an uneasy sleep, and there was no more laughter.”
A group of young brown-shirted neo-nazis loudly preach their anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant rhetoric on a street corner in New York City. Their leader is Peter Vollmer (played by legendary Hollywood actor Dennis Hopper), a man who is mocked on the streets and goes home to his gentle and kind caretaker, an older German Jewish man named Ernst Ganz (Ludwig Donath). Ernst spent nine years at the Dachau Nazi prison camp, and he sees Peter’s politics as stemming from deep insecurities and a desire to be respected.
“Portrait of a bush-league Führer named Peter Vollmer, a sparse little man who feeds off his self-delusions and finds himself perpetually hungry for want of greatness in his diet. And like some goose-stepping predecessors he searches for something to explain his hunger, and to rationalize why a world passes him by without saluting. That something he looks for and finds is in a sewer. In his own twisted and distorted lexicon he calls it faith, strength, truth. But in just a moment Peter Vollmer will ply his trade on another kind of corner, a strange intersection in a shadowland called the Twilight Zone.”
Soon Peter is visited by a shadowy figure who begins offering advice to support the Nazi movement –first he gives advice about Peter’s speeches, but then the advice grows considerably darker. He convinces Peter to stage a killing for one man in his group to make it look like a foreigner did it. As time passes, the ploy works and larger groups begin to attend the neo-nazi rallies but Ernst disrupts one of them. Next, the shadowy man demands that Peter kill Ernst with a Luger. After committing the deed, Peter returns and demands to see this shadowy –and he is revealed to be none other than Adolf Hitler himself (Curt Conway). While the phantasm of Hitler propounds his immortality, police officers arrive and dramatically confront Peter in a shootout that leaves Peter bloodied in an alleyway, shocked to discover his own mortality.
“Where will he go next, this phantom from another time, this resurrected ghost of a previous nightmare – Chicago? Los Angeles? Miami, Florida? Vincennes, Indiana? Syracuse, New York? Anyplace, everyplace, where there’s hate, where there’s prejudice, where there’s bigotry. He’s alive. He’s alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He’s alive because through these things we keep him alive.”
I thought this was a bold and poignant episode, though as far as critiques of the Nazis go I much prefer the earlier Season 3 episode “Deaths-Head Revisited” or the Season 1 episode “Judgement Night.” Nevertheless, recent reminders of the American neo-nazi threat persist to this day, not least of which during the last couple election cycles, the subsequent rallies in Charleston and Charlottesville, and also the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol in which Nazi flags and slogans were proudly displayed while a sitting U.S. President refused to intervene. In an era that has so painfully lost its way, Rod Serling’s “He’s Alive” serves as an echo, reminding us of the better angels of our nature.
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- Rod Serling scripted a much longer version of this teleplay with the intent of making it into a movie but it was never produced. He was dismayed when a now-lost scene was cut from the episode.
- There was a complex shot initially captured of a swastika in the protagonist’s eye while lying in bed, but it was ultimately not used in the final cut.
- The censors forced Serling not to feature any prominent swastikas or other Nazi insignias in the episode so he was forced to get a bit creative and torches were used instead.
- This was an early network program to showcase neo-nazi groups on television. Apparently, CBS was inundated with letters from viewers critical of the shocking, hateful rhetoric in this episode, as well as from hate groups who wished to be portrayed in a more favorable light.
- Rod Serling was a lifelong enemy of bigotry in all its forms, and as a Jewish-American World War II veteran, he held the Nazis in particular disdain.
- The character of Peter Vollmer may have been inspired by George Lincoln Rockwell, a World War II veteran-turned founder of the American Nazi party. He and his lackeys drove around the country disrupting Civil Rights rallies until Rockwell was eventually shot by one of his own disaffected party members in 1967.