Watch on the Rhine (1943): Shumlin’s Oscar Nominated Version of Hellman’s Play, Starring Paul Lukas in Oscar Winning Performance

Warner (First National)

Lillian Hellman’s anti-Fascist play, adapted to the screen by novelist Dashiell Hammett (and Hellman’s companion), is poorly directed by Herman Shumlin, who can’t conceal the film’s theatrical origins; Shumlin also directed the Broadway production.

Repeating his stage role, Hungarian-born actor Paul Lukas plays Kurt Muller, loyal husband to Sara (Bette Davis), refugees from Nazi Germany, who arrive with their children to visit Sara’s mother, Fanny Farrelly (Lucille Watson) in Washington D.C.

Sara has been married for 18 years, but grandma Fanny has not met her grandchildren, Joshua (Donald Buka), Bodo (Eric Roberts), and Babette (Janis Wilson), and she’s understandably eager and anxious, as she confides in her son David (Donald Woods) and housekeeper Anise (Beulah Bondi).

There are not the only guests in the house: a Romanian count by the name of Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris) and his American wife Marthe (Geraldine Fitzgerald) are also there, fthus facilitation in a contrived way ideological and political encounters.

The Mullers plan to stay in the U.S. only until Kurt’s health improves, whereupon he will return to Europe to finish his business. Hellman never specifies exactly what Kurt’s business is, which accentuates the largely propagandistic play with its overt messages.

Some suspense is introduced when the Romanian count, who is friends with diplomats at the German embassy. During a poker game at the Embassy, where he is regarded as a parasite, Teck hears of the Gestapo’s failed attempt to crash an underground resistance group. Apparently, the leader of the anti-Nazi movement, Max Freidank, had been captured by the Gestapo, but he cannot be tortured into revealing the names of his comrades.

He begins to suspect that Kurt is one of “Them.” Volunteering to spy on Kurt, the count later confront Kurt, trying to blackmail him, which provides further opportunity for verbose speechesand ultimately the killing of the count.

The personal and political merge when Kurt sees it as his duty to protect his family, to which goal he is willing to take extreme measuresand even sacrifice himself. Sara arranges for Kurt’s immediate flight to Mexico, and implores her mother and brother to allow him time to get away before reporting the count’s murder to the police.

The film’s most touching scene is the Kurt’s tender farewell from his family, particularly elder son Joshua. Like father, like son. Months later, when there’s no word of Kurt’s safe arrival, Sara fully realizes that Joshua will soon be going to Germany to look for his fatherand carry on his dad’s mission in the underground movement.

Made in 1943, the film was inexplicably nominated for Best Picture and other major Oscars (see below), perhaps because it was one of Hollywood’s first movies to spell out the Nazi evil, and by extension fascism in general.

Davis, then at the height of her career, due to the popular melodramas (“The Great Lie,” Little Foxes,” “Now, Voyager”) received top-billing but actually plays a secondary part, the devoted wife-mother. By standards of her better work, she gives a restrained, understated performance.

Despite static direction, predictable text, and stereotypical characters, the outdated film is watchable, due to its historical value and polished production values, including Merritt Gerstad’s cinematography and particularly Max Steiner’s score.

There is no doubt that politics played a role in Paul Lukas’ win of the Best Actor Oscar, in a year in which Humphrey Bogart was nominated for his most iconic and poplar role in “Casablanca.” Some of the other Best Actor nominees also appeared in war films, such as Gary Cooper in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and Mickey Rooney in “The Human Comedy.”

Oscar Nominations: 4

Picture, produced by Hal B. Wallis

Screenplay: Dashiell Hammett

Actor: Paul Lukas

Supporting Actress: Lucille Watson

Oscar Awards: 1


Oscar Context

This was the last year, in which ten films were nominated for Best Picture. In 1944, the top category was standardized to include five nominees (as in most categories).

In 1943, “Watch on the Rhine” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with “Casablanca” (which won), “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “The Human Comedy,” “In Which We Serve,” “Madame Curie,” “The More the Merrier,” “The Ox-Bow Incident,” and “The Song of Bernadette.”

The most nominated films were “The Song of Bernadette” (12), followed by “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (9).

Charles Coburn won the Supporting Actor for “The More the Merrier.” Lucille Watson lost the Supporting Actress to Katina Paxinou for “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”