Propaganda is weird. Seriously weird. For whatever reason, during the height of World War II, someone deemed it necessary to start redeeming the German character. Thus we get Watch on the Rhine, adapted from Lillian Hellman’s play of the same name. There’s nothing here that’s an attempt to justify fascism, but one of the central tenets of the film is that not all Germans (or Italians, for that matter) are bad people. In fact, the main villain is Romanian.
As the film begins, the Muller family is arriving in the United States through Mexico, presumably before the start of the war, or at least before the American involvement in the war (or they probably wouldn’t let a German through). Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) is German while his wife Sara (Bette Davis) is an American expatriate coming home for the first time in 17 years. The Mullers have with them their three children: Joshua (Donald Buka), Babette (Janis Wilson), and Bodo (Eric Roberts, and not the one you immediately thought of). We learn right away that youngest child Bodo is a pretentious little snot.
Home is with the Farrelly family, which consists of matriarch Fanny (Lucile Watson), son David (Donald Woods) and Fanny’s assistant/friend Anise (Beulah Bondi). Also staying with the Farrellys are the de Brancovises, deposed minor Romanian royalty. Marthe (pronounced as one syllable) de Brancovis (Geraldine Fitzgerald) has a budding romance with David Farrelly despite her marriage to Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris).
Teck deserves a little more explanation. While not specifically a fascist, he hangs out at the German embassy gambling with the fascists. Teck is desperate to get back to Europe by any means available, and if that means working at some underhanded games, well, that’s par for the course. He’s relatively unbothered by his wife’s romance and is actually unbothered by others knowing where he spends his evenings.
This is going to cause a problem because the Mullers are active anti-fascists and have spent the last number of years going back and forth across Europe trying to stop the Nazi spread. Kurt, in fact, fought in the Spanish Civil War on the republican side. Kurt is traveling with a locked briefcase containing a variety of documents and a horde of cash to be used in anti-fascist efforts on the continent. This becomes relevant when word arrives that Kurt’s friend and co-collaborator has been captured by the Gestapo.
This, more or less, is the film. The Mullers slowly attempt to adjust to life in the United States while Teck de Brancovis attempts to get any information he can out of them that will be useful to his German pals. When he realizes that Kurt is planning to go back to rescue his friend, it presents a perfect opportunity both for blackmailing the Mullers and for pressing his own agenda for getting a return visa.
The relative simplicity of the story may well be its biggest problem. A lot of what happens feels tangential to the story itself, almost as if it was necessary to fill out the run time of the film. The conclusion goes too long. The final confrontation between Teck and the Muller/Farrelly clan begins with something like a good half hour left to go and takes up the bulk of that half hour. Is it all necessary? Perhaps. There are some pretty nice speeches in that half hour and a lot of deserved vitriol leveled at Teck. But it doesn’t seem to end.
The problem is that I’m not sure what needs to be added to the plot to bring something more to this story. Perhaps we need another level of intrigue or at least something more for there to be intrigue about. It doesn’t feel big enough or grand enough to require nearly two hours to get through.
Take, for example, the character of Marthe. There’s some interest regarding her relationship with both David and Teck, but she becomes a missing person as the film draws to a close. She basically tells Teck that she won’t be going anywhere with him, a sort of verbal divorce, and she’s gone. She doesn’t appear again. There’s plenty there that could be investigated and a lot more done with the potential of this part of the story…and it just evaporates into nothing. We don’t even learn the fate of Marthe by the end.
I mentioned earlier that Watch on the Rhine was adapted from a stage play. It feels like it. I can imagine this being a pretty compelling stage play, but for a movie, it lacks something to make it really interesting.
Why to watch Watch on the Rhine: World War II intrigue.
Why not to watch: There’s not enough here to carry the length.