Watch on the Rhine (1943) is a tale of resistance against fascism and the price of commitment. In its drawing-room intrigue on the showdown between Nazis, enablers of fascism, those who resist, and those who are completely naïve about the evil forces around them, it focuses on the motivations, regrets, and fears of a single resistance fighter. Paul Lukas, who won the Academy Award for his sensitive portrayal, is asked by Lucille Watson, his American mother-in-law, who gives his family refuge, about why he must always sacrifice for the cause against fascism? Why not leave the job to somebody else?
“But why must it always be your hands?”
He answers, “For each man, his own hands. He has to sleep with them.”
A day of reckoning comes to each person, for different reasons, and at different times. What we see today in American society commonly, and not so furtively called The Resistance is also a fight against fascism, but it is taking the form of a social movement, with brave public protests, and sometimes with casualties, but for everyone there is a price to pay. Watch on the Rhine has always been one of my favorite movies, and one of the aspects of the movie which I find so fascinating is the treatment of the Paul Lukas character. He is both a hero, and a fanatic, and yet he is a most mild-mannered gentleman, loving and kindly to his wife and children, rather beaten and weary in middle-age, and by his own admission, fearful. He is an unlikely hero, and his very gentleness and empathy, his being haunted over his resistance activities and what harm they do to his family makes him a very compelling character. But he has a backbone of steel and snaps into action like someone who never questions his own motives.
We have discussed Watch on the Rhine in previous posts: in this one centered on George Coulouris’ villain who is the greatest threat to Paul Lukas, and in this post on American idealism.
Ann Blyth performed with the original Broadway cast (not in the film), with Paul Lukas, George Coulouris, Lucille Watson, Frank L. Wilson, and Eric Roberts. In my book on Ann’s career, Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star., I go into more detail on the stage play and its impact on American theatre – it was a tremendous hit. The eloquent script was by Lillian Hellman, and its director, Herman Shumlin, also directed the 1943 film.
We meet the resistance fighter in the very first moments of the movie. He does not look anything like a fighter of Nazis. He is a timid, shuffling family man, shepherding his wife and three children to the United States border with Mexico. They are coming to the United States as refugees from a war-torn Europe. They are nervous about going through customs. We see among the stack of passports stamped by the official that four are identical, and the top one is different from the others. That one is a United States passport because his wife, played by Bette Davis, is an American citizen. The first thing he says when they step over the line into the United States, “And now you are in your own land, Sara, and that is good.”
Just as the hero of the story does not look like a hero, the bad guys do not look like typical Hollywood Nazis. George Coulouris is a dapper Romanian ex-diplomat. We see him mostly in evening dress, and he is charming, well educated and well spoken. This movie shows us that the real evil are not the Nazis in uniforms, but the parasites among them who use those who are more powerful to get money, favoritism, and some of that power for themselves. Eventually, we get to see the local Nazi ringleader played by Kurt Katch, but he is not a smartly dressed in a commandant’s uniform. He is sloppily dressed in an old sweater playing poker. So far nobody looks as they should.
But he is really quite sinister because he is soulless and crafty. He sits in an office in the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. The Nazis are in the American homeland, close to the center of government. They are close to the bankers, the industrialists who support the regime. This Nazi shuffling cards is far more dangerous to our government than Panzer units.
We then see, in comparison, that George Coulouris is just a pawn. He is most certainly a danger to Paul Lukas, but he is fighting for his own rank and survival as well in a world of fascism. As we noted in our series of posts last summer (The Mortal Storm (1940), Address Unknown (1944), Storm Warning (1951), Keeper of the Flame (1942), and Seven Days in May (1964)) that fascism is cannibalistic. Fascists always eat their own. We may see the correlation in our own time with the co-dependent, but adversarial relationship between Trump and Bannon, between Trump and Mitch McConnell, between Trump and every conservative Republican who needs him to put forth their agenda, but who will inevitably be stabbed in the back by him and possibly even share his fate if they do not shed their complacency.
The play, and the movie, is an examination of America’s innocence and naïveté not just about evil and our impending doom, i.e., entering the war, but the evil whirlwind that created it.
Complacency is the greatest evil in the movie. One of its representations is in the lovely Geraldine Fitzgerald, who plays George Coulouris’ wife, who hates him on principle but who puts up with him for much too long, until it’s almost too late. They sit in the garden as guests of Lucille Watson, themselves refugees from Europe, and Geraldine says, “I just lie still now and hope... Maybe something good will happen.”
There is the complacency of Lucille Watson and her son played by Donald Woods, who will have put Bette Davis and Paul Lukas in danger simply by having a sneak like George Coulouris in their home and giving him shelter; aid and comfort to the enemy, if you will, but also by not resisting. They have embraced American isolationism. They have not taken the moral step of resisting evil.
Paul Lukas resists evil at every turn, because he is practical and knows that fascism will devour his children and others if he does not fight it, and also because he is an idealist who believes that the world can be better. It is the fascinating picture of a sane fanatic, though he does worry, “Maybe now I am sick, too.” He has risked all to fight the Nazis, given up his engineering career, put his family in danger numerous times, they must always be on the run, and are often hungry. Is this the picture of a responsible husband and father, a protector and provider? He struggles with this dilemma.
There is, despite its sober message, a great deal of humor in this movie, and inspiration. But it is the discussion of one’s personal commitment to ideals that is most interesting to me. There is much food for thought in this movie.
The play and the screenplay are very neatly and intricately constructed. The cast are all splendid. The arrangement of the characters on screen to show their power struggles, their weaknesses in relationship to each other is excellent work by Director Shumlin, and it is quite interesting to see that though this is his first motion picture, he was as adept at understanding the perspective of the camera as he apparently was the power of stage blocking.
We can also incidentally note that Lucille Watson was a conservative Republican and Bette Davis was a liberal Democrat, but they could both contribute their talent to this noble Hollywood film that challenges American ideals and American commitment.
When Paul Lukas remarks to Lucille Watson that each man must decide for himself the level of his own commitment, “for each man his own hands. He has to sleep with them,” Donald woods replies, “I guess that’s how we should all feel. But you have a family. Isn’t there someone else who hasn’t a wife and children?”
Lukas replies, “Each could find his own excuse. Some have bullet holes. Some have fear of the camps, and many are getting old. Each could find a reason; many find it. My children are not the only children in the world, even to me.”
There were at least three radio versions of this play and movie of which I am aware. The first, which contains only scenes, is part of the 15 minute Treasury Star Parade promoting the selling of war bonds. The host is Fredric March. Paul Lukas and Mady Christians, who played the Bette Davis role on Broadway, play their characters and also have a brief interview with Fredric March. It was done during the road show of Watch on the Rhine in 1942 after it closed on Broadway and just before the motion picture was made.
Another version was made for Screen Guild Theater October 1, 1944 to promote the film. It stars Paul Lukas, Bette Davis, Lucille Watson, George Coulouris, and Donald woods, who all appeared in the movie.
Yet another version was made for Academy Award Theater August 7, 1946 again with Paul Lukas as the only member of either the original Broadway play or the movie to appear in this particular cast.
The play, when it was first produced in 1941 before we entered World War II, was a lightning rod for discussion on our susceptibility to fascism, not just homegrown Ku Klux Klan clowns and German-American Bund rallies, but also brought speculation on our possible insidious adoption of authoritarianism to which Europe seemed so susceptible. Would foreign agents be able to introduce that kind of corruption here, using our own isolationism, our apathy and disinterest for political intrigue against us? The banker, the industrialist, the press, sit like automatons around the poker table and watch the soulless Nazi deal them cards.
Lucille Watson and Donald Woods play host to a viper in their midst. Geraldine Fitzgerald stays with her husband, knowing he is evil, because standing up to him is too unpleasant. Then Paul Lukas, Bette Davis, and three kids straggle into the room after an exhausting journey of possibly 7,000 miles, thinking they are on a holiday in America, the safest place on earth. It would be difficult to pick out who in this cast of characters is the most gullible of all. One by one, each in his or her own way, become resistors. We don’t know the end of that story.
The play, incidentally, was produced again in Washington, D.C., this past February at the Arena Stage with Marsha Mason in the Bette Davis role. Read the review here by John Stoltenberg. The first paragraph indicates this story is still relevant:
Whatever this play meant to Broadway audiences when it debuted in 1941, just prior to America’s entry into a war of resistance to fascism abroad, what matters now is what it means to audiences just as America has entered a war of resistance to fascism here at home. Does Lillian Hellman’s principled script—now in a praiseworthy production on the waterfront at Arena Stage—stand the test of time? Does it warrant viewing, in other words, as a Watch on the Potomac?
Judging from audience response on opening night, the answer is yes.
"Watch on the Potomac," indeed.
"Watch on the Potomac," indeed.