Address Unknown (1944) is a very artistic examination of the consequences of fascism. The cinematography creates an otherworldly palette of light and shadow, of angles, of unbalanced screen images that is poetic and visionary. Classic films took on the subject of fascism and planted the nightmare on an everyday familiar world with everyday people we could relate to, unlike modern films which might tackle the grand subject of good versus evil and place it in an imaginary futuristic or superhero setting. The characters in classic films were unable to escape their circumstances with special powers or an arsenal of apocalyptic weaponry. They had only their brains, their courage, and their conscience.
This the second film in our series on classic films’ depiction of fascism. We covered The Mortal Storm (1940) last week here. With Donald Trump’s Faustian rise to become the official Republican Party nominee for President this past week, the subject of fascism is one we need to examine very closely, not as a history lesson per se, viewed safely from a distance, but as a very personal blueprint on how to fight it in our midst—with brains, courage, and conscience.
Address Unknown came late in the war, and so was not so much a warning of the consequences of what was going on in Nazi Germany – though certainly, Hollywood likely felt the subject still worth pursuing morally and financially. The interesting thing about the movie is it shows very little of jackbooted Nazis, the sneering villains of most wartime patriotic fare. It is instead a psychological nightmare of one man’s seduction, and the price he pays for going over to the dark side. As such, it is not a flag-waving, drum-beating story, but a mature, contemplative tale that, unfortunately as we see today, is timeless.
Paul Lukas stars as a German-born art dealer who has lived in San Francisco for many years. He is married to Mady Christians, and they have five sons. Four of the boys are school-age, the oldest, played by Peter van Eyck, is a young man and works in the art gallery with his father.
Morris Carnovsky plays his longtime partner in the gallery, also originally from Germany. Mr. Carnovsky is a widower with a grown daughter played by K.T. Stevens. Stevens, and Mr. Van Eyck, have known each other since childhood, are romantically involved and intend to be married.
The story begins with the partners toasting each other on a sunny terrace in San Francisco, grateful for their life in America, and secretly celebrating because they think that Lukas’ son and Carnovsky’s daughter are about to name the day of their wedding. These old friends look forward to having their families united. It is also something of a farewell celebration, because Paul Lukas is slated to take his family back to Germany for a period of time to do business for their art gallery. Lukas will buy paintings in Europe and ship them back to Carnovsky in San Francisco to be sold in their gallery. Paul Lukas’ eldest son, Van Eyck, is going to remain in America to work at the family business. However, Carnovsky’s daughter, Miss Stevens, is going to go to Europe with Paul Lukas his family to study acting.
The fathers are disappointed when the young people announce that they are not going to set a date for their wedding. They are going to wait until Stevens returns from Europe and then decide on their plans. It is a great letdown, and the mood of the story changes with this first announcement.
In Europe, Paul Lukas will meet Carl Esmond, a local baron who will seduce Lukas with the lure of the brand-new Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Mr. Esmond is educated, erudite, and hardly a Nazi thug. But he approves of the order and discipline that Hitler is bringing to Germany, the pride Hitler appears to be instilling in young people, and even though Esmond is a nobleman, the kind of person Hitler hated, he takes the view that Germany is progressing for the good. He will make Germany great again. We last saw Carl Esmond as they bad guy bullying Ann Blyth into a forced marriage in The World in His Arms (1952), and here as the Nazi officer in Resisting Enemy Interrogation (1944).
Mady Christians, whose film career was winding down (she died in 1951) was reunited with Paul Lukas in this picture. You may recall we mentioned her as playing opposite Lukas on Broadway in Watch on the Rhine in the same role that Bette Davis took in the 1943 movie of that play. We briefly mentioned it in the intro to the Ann Blyth series, but a more in-depth look at that play can be found in my book, Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star.
Mady Christians, like Mr. Esmond, originally hailed from Vienna, and there are a number of German cinema actors in this movie to give it credence. There are also a few old Hollywood character actors who are fun to pick out, including Amory Parnell as a busybody mailman – who has a much more important role in this movie that we might realize later – and Frank Faylen plays a smart alec journalist.
Paul Lukas, just on the strength of his performance in the film Watch on the Rhine, for which he won an Oscar®, is one of my favorite actors. Address Unknown really shows his range, particularly when you compare it to the hero he played in Watch on the Rhine. That film showed a man courageous, committed, but deeply torn by his commitment and what his actions were doing to his family in his effort to fight fascism. He declares what he does for a living, “I am an antifascist.”
In Address Unknown, he plays a man who falls under the spell of fascism, which leads to his own doom. His work here is meticulous and we can always see the range of emotions playing on his very expressive face. His joy at the thought of his son marrying his partner’s daughter; his disappointment when they hear the marriage is to be delayed; his amused, eye-rolling attitude over his young sons, who, all born in the United States, are going to run into culture shock when they go to Germany with him because there will be no baseball there. He is a proud and indulgent father, an attentive and kind husband, and a loyal and affectionate friend to his partner. He is a good man. Because he is a good man, he seduction into the Nazi creed is all the more painful for us to watch. It is easy for us to dismiss bad guys and morons as bad guys and morons, but when we come across a gentle soul who turns evil and is corrupted either because of a lack of will, or a desperate need to be flattered, we are faced with an even stronger message of right and wrong.
That is the particular achievement of this movie. It does not serve up platitudes, and it does not show things in black and white, but there are still clear demarcations between right and wrong, and like people walking on a footpath in the woods, following a marked trail, if we keep our eyes open we can see them, clearly. If we are careless and do not pay attention, we turn the wrong way and get lost.
How this tale is told in this introspective and intelligent examination is largely through stylistic imagery. The director here is William Cameron Menzies, and the film has a wonderful mosaic of extreme close-ups, off centered positioning of the subject, and stark lighting. We begin the movie with extreme close-ups of Paul Lukas and Morris Carnovsky toasting each other, and it almost looks like a scene out of Citizen Kane (1941) and a similar kind of cinematography here. The movie is quite visually stunning, and it turns this simple story to one of deep psychological horror.
When Paul Lukas and his family get settled in Munich, he receives a letter from his partner Carnovsky in San Francisco. Lukas is delighted to receive the letter because already he is homesick for America.
Carnovsky asks, “Who is this Adolf Hitler?... I do not like what I hear of it.”
This movie is about an exchange of letters. It is based on a novel of the same name where the plot is told through the exchange of letters between these two men.
Paul Lukas can hardly answer Carnovsky, because he is still new to Germany, does not really know much about Hitler himself, but almost immediately his ability to reply to this question is stifled by Carl Esmond. Esmond encounters Paul Lukas and a friend in a local ratskeller that Lukas knew from days gone by. Lukas looks around; it is quiet and forbidding and he says the place has changed from the happy place he knew as a youth, but he can’t put his finger on it. He has read the letter aloud, and Esmond, with cool authority, tells him about Hitler’s virtues. We see Lukas’ expression turn from curiosity, to being flattered that the great Baron is sharing a table and sharing his knowledge and giving him attention, but Lukas is embarrassed that his friend in America has asked this question and put him in an awkward position when he has read it aloud.
Carnovsky in San Francisco gets a letter from Lukas telling him that Hitler is good. Oh yes, he’s done some bad things, storm troopers breaking windows and being thugs, but essentially we have to take the good with the bad. Carnovsky and Lukas’ son, Van Eyck are surprised to get such a letter. Van Eyck immediately expresses concern about Miss Stevens.
We are back in Vienna when Miss Stevens shows up at “Uncle” Paul Lukas’ house in Munich. She enters at the end of a long shadow. She warmly greets him and he is pleased that she has come. She has taken the stage name of Stone because it is shorter and will look good on a marquee. The Baron is there when she visits and he notices that her monogram on a purse does not match her last name of Stone. When she has left the room to visit with her “Aunt” Mady Christians, the Baron asks Paul Lukas about the monogram, and Lukas gushes that Stone is just a stage name, that her real name is Eisenstein.
The Baron says the one word that puts fear into the heart of Paul Lukas. He asks, “Jewish?”
For the first time, we realize that Morris Carnovsky and his family are Jews. This is not a fact that has ever distressed Paul Lukas in the past, but suddenly it changes things. We see the expression on Lukas’ face. He is uncomfortable, he is embarrassed. The Baron warns him about such an association and leaves. The camera settles on Lukas for a moment, again his face registering a changing parade of emotions. He is like a child who is fretting, pouting and resentful that his party has been spoiled. There is a shot about table height looking up at Lukas and his grim expression tells us he has reached a decision. He turns off the table lamp. We are left in darkness by his hand.
In San Francisco, Carnovsky gets a letter, “We must, for the present, discontinue writing each other. You will understand, I know, that it is impossible for me to be in correspondence with one of your race.”
Van Eyck reads the letter over “Uncle” Morris Carnovsky’s shoulder. “What in the world is he talking about? He must be insane.”
Carnovsky is more forgiving. He understands that Lukas is only writing this letter because of the censorship that is going on in Germany at the moment. He must say the right thing or he will get into trouble. Carnovsky is hurt, but he understands. But he brightens, he tells his partner’s son that there is another way that they can freely send letters and not have to worry about the censors. He will send a letter to Lukas hand-carried by a friend who is an American journalist.
Our old friend Frank Faylen is the wiseguy journalist, who sits in the office of a Nazi bureaucrat, where Paul Lukas works at a new job – he has apparently given up being an art dealer. Faylen is unimpressed by the officious Nazi gatekeepers and lower-level management of this government office, and bluffs his way in to see Paul Lukas. You may remember Faylen most from his role as Ernie the cabdriver in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). He cheerfully gives Lukas the letter, but Lukas dismisses him arrogantly.
Back in San Francisco, Carnovsky, now desperate to clear the air and understand Lukas’ intention, writes one more time saying that he understands there is censorship, but that he needs some word of reassurance from Lukas that everything is all right in their friendship. “But there is so much madness in the world, I need a word of reassurance.” The simple word he requests Lukas to send back is “yes.”
Lukas’ answer is no.
Van Eyck has had enough. He wants K.T. Stevens to come home now. Her father reminds him that she’s up for new job in Berlin as a leading lady and he doesn’t want to cable her and spoil her big night. They will wait to contact her.
We go to Berlin, where her play is being rehearsed. It is a religious theme and she is to recite the words from the Beatitudes, Christ’s words from the Gospel of Matthew. During rehearsal a Nazi official tells the director the following lines are censored:
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God…
…and other lines from the Beatitudes. Disobedience is treason.
On opening night, the feisty Miss Stevens decides to say the forbidden lines. The censor stops the show and demands the director to come out but Stevens courageously defends the director saying that she was the one who made the decision to put those lines back in.
The smarmy little censor announces to the audience that the actress’ name is not Stone, but rather Eisenstein. In a moment we hear murmurs in the audience, and soon shouting, of the word, “Juden!”
Stevens, who was brought up in America, not only finds this all a bit too ridiculous to swallow, but she is proud of her heritage and will not back down. It ends in a mob scene, in a chase and she is on the run.
Eventually, a hunted outlaw, she will make her way to Munich and her “Uncle” Paul Lukas’ home. Brownshirts are fast on her heels. When he answers the door and sees it is her, he will not let her in. She has been hurt and she’s bleeding from her hand, and she leaves a bloody handprint on his wall as he closes her out. She’s shot on his doorstep.
Carnovsky gets a curt letter in San Francisco, “Heil Hitler. Your daughter is dead.”
Carnovsky sits, sobbing, utterly destroyed, while Van Eyck gently pats his shoulder. We see a close-up of Van Eyck’s hand in ministering comfort and then pulling back, forming into a fist. A subtle symbol that’s important later.
Back in Germany, Mady Christians has just had another baby, another son. At the christening, Baron Carl Esmond congratulates her on having so many sons, thereby doing her duty. The parents smile to their guests, but when they are alone with the baby, we see their marriage is on the rocks. Mady Christians is disgusted with Paul Lukas. She dislikes the change in him, and she is horrified at his having turned away Stevens in her hour of need. She intends, when the baby is able to travel, that she will take her sons away to Switzerland.
Things have definitely turned sour for Paul Lukas. He starts receiving more letters and cables from San Francisco, but he doesn’t understand the messages. They mention painters and artwork but the notes seem to be written in a kind of code. He can’t make sense of them. We see that the censors picking up on this code are starting to make things a bit hot for Paul Lukas. He is being watched. The Baron questions Lukas’ loyalty to Germany. Lukas is helpless and floundering. He tries to defend himself. He tries to write back and pleads with Carnovsky to please stop writing him because he’s in terrible trouble. Every letter he gets puts him deeper and deeper under suspicion.
We have seen throughout the course of this movie the great psychosis that is fascism. He is seduced by falseness, by flattery, by a sense of power, by being told he is better than other people, but it is a double-edged sword. By propping up a fascist government, one very easily – and over very little provocation, almost in the blink of an eye – can become its victim. Fascism is invariably cannibalistic. Lukas has become terrified. He has become paranoid. He is now an enemy of the state he once was so proud to join. It is difficult to walk that line. This is why inevitably fascist governments fall, but of course, not until they do great damage on a civilization.
Lukas writes to his son instead and begs him to stop Carnovsky from sending any more messages. He writes, “You must go to any lengths, as you are my son.”
It’s an interesting line. We imagine perhaps Lukas means that Van Eyck should kill Carnovsky. As you are my son. Fascism demands ultimate loyalty.
The Baron is convinced that Lukas is a spy. When he confronts Lukas, the mail comes again and Lukas is nearly sick with worry when a letter arrives from San Francisco. He really isn’t doing anything wrong, obviously. He is not a spy. He has been a loyal member of the Nazi party and done everything they asked him to do. He wanted the prestige they gave him. He wants to be a good citizen of the Third Reich. But they don’t believe him. His intentions are irrelevant. He is under suspicion. To be under suspicion is to be automatically guilty. There is no due process here. To be slow to answer is to be guilty.
Mady Christians takes their children and leaves for Switzerland. Lukas gives her a letter to send to Carnovsky, begging him to stop sending any more letters. She is stopped at the border, but she is allowed to pass because she is no threat to the Third Reich. The Baron comes to warn Lukas for the last time, and Lukas, in desperation tells him that the letter his wife brought to Switzerland is the proof that he never wanted Carnovsky to write to him. He is told that ironically the letter was confiscated and destroyed. He has no proof.
We end this interesting movie with two grim scenes. Lukas stands outside the door of his home, an expression of deep horror etched on his face at approaching thugs coming to get him. He will be going to a concentration camp. Or murdered.
Then we go to San Francisco where Carnovsky reads a letter from Lukas that has been returned to him marked “address unknown” on the envelope. He is puzzled. Van Eyck is standing near him, watching him.
Spoiler time. The whole post has been a spoiler, but sometimes to be blunt is more necessary than to tease.
Carnovsky tells Van Eyck that he hasn’t written to Lukas in months, that he didn’t write this letter to him. He stopped when Lukas originally asked him to send no more letters.
We see Van Eyck’s face. He wrote the letters. He wrote them to implicate his father and to purposely put his father in danger. He wants revenge over the death of his fiancée. He wants to kill the monster that the Nazis created.
It’s a cautionary tale of sorts—beware the company you keep—but so artistically framed that we are not bludgeoned with lessons and morals. The lessons and morals are obvious.
Unless one is the kind of person to whom lessons and morals are not obvious, and they are the real perpetrators of fascism, not the ones in power, but ones keeping them there. And they are, ultimately, its victims as well. Eventually. But some weak-willed, weak-minded souls are only too happy to vote against their own best interests.
When you deny rights to others, you’re next.
Come back next week when we take on Storm Warning with Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan, and Doris Day. Part 8 of our series on the current state of the classic film fan follows the first Thursday in August. Our look at fascism in classic films will continue with two more movies in August, where we bring the curse to America.
My audio book version of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., narrated by Toni Lewis, is now for sale on Audible.com, and on Amazon and iTunes.