WATCH ON THE RHINE (Herman Shumlin, 1943)

Mostly relying on Lillian Hellman’s expanded stage melodrama and some terrific performances, Watch on the Rhine is a stirring entertainment. Herman Shumlin’s first film—Shumlin had directed the Broadway production—has me crying so hard I can barely breathe whenever I watch it.
     On the train to Washington, D.C., Sara Muller, who has been in Europe for eighteen years, is accompanied by her very ill German husband, Kurt, and their three children. Another passenger asks Kurt what his trade is. His stirring—and honest—response: “I fight against fascism.” Also visiting Sara’s mother, Fanny Farrelly, are Marthe and Marthe’s husband, Teck de Brancovis, a former Rumanian diplomat who, prying into Kurt’s activities and identity, hopes to ingratiate himself with Nazis at the German Embassy. This is April 1940, and one European nation after another has fallen to invading Germans.
     The New York critics named Watch on the Rhine the year’s best film. Repeating his stage role, Paul Lukas won best actor accolades from A.M.P.A.S., the New York critics and the National Board of Review. While I prefer the brilliant actor in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), in which he plays a surgeon and urbane Nazi, and George Cukor’s Little Women (1933), he is wonderful as Kurt Muller. Despite a few naggingly sentimental moments, Bette Davis is superb as Sara, Kurt’s ideal life-partner, who has traded in her childhood wealth to dedicate herself to the cause of humanity. George Coulouris, however, is best of all as Teck, who mirror-images Kurt as a refugee with secrets. Ruthless and reckless beneath a calm, polite exterior, Teck wants only to find a way back to Europe. Only Lucile Watson is a washout; as Fanny, her few authentic notes are drowned in a swamp of dismal theatricality.

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