By Norman D. Livergood
In an earlier essay, we analyzed the movie Casablanca as an allegorical drama. Similarly, interpreting the movie Watch On the Rhine as an allegory,1 we can gain a great deal of insight that will help us respond intelligently to current world events.
"In the first week of April 1940, there were few men in the world who could believe that in less than three months, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, and France would fall to the German invaders. But there were men, ordinary men, not prophets, who knew this mighty tragedy was on the way. They had fought it from the beginning, they understood it. We are most deeply in their debt. This is the story of one of these men."
The film depicts the willful, lethal ignorance of an American family concerning the Nazi fascist terror. When the fight against fascism becomes a reality in their home, they are forced to take sides in the struggle for freedom.
The main character of the screenplay is Kurt Muller (Paul Lucas), a man who has given his life to fighting fascism. His wife, Sara Muller (Bette Davis), is an American-born woman who fell in love with the German freedom fighter and has faced poverty and danger with him for seventeen years.
Kurt has brought his wife and their three children to stay with his wife's mother, Fanny Farrelly, (Lucille Watson), a rich, spoiled, domineering, self-centered woman who is interested in nothing but her own idle pleasure.
Oblivious to what is going on in the world, the mother-in-law has mindlessly allowed a Romanian fascist and his wife to stay as guests in her home. Fanny's son, David Farrelly (Donald Woods), has strong feelings for Marthe de Brancovis, the Romanian's wife (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Marthe has grown to detest her husband and has fallen in love with David.
Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris), the failed Romanian diplomat, pries into Kurt's briefcase and discovers that he has over twenty thousand dollars hidden in it. From what Fanny and David heedlessly tell him about Kurt, Teck surmises that Kurt is an anti-Nazi. Teck finds out from the German embassy who Kurt really is. When he discovers that Kurt's best friend and colleague has been captured and that Kurt will be returning to Europe, he demands ten thousand dollars to keep quiet.
Fanny and David, lethally naive, are willing to pay the Romanian fascist his blood money, but Kurt realizes that Teck will tell the Germans everything he knows--which will mean almost certain death for Kurt.
Not shrinking from the necessity of what must be done, Kurt kills Teck and prepares to leave for Europe immediately. Fanny and David are aghast, but have been somewhat shocked awake by the deadly villainy of the Romanian fascist they had allowed into their home. They stand behind Kurt.
The screenplay ends after Kurt has been gone for some time--without any word from him--and it is now time for the oldest son to take his place in the battle against fascism in Europe.
The title of the screenplay, Watch On the Rhine, resonates with echoes from several sources. A favorite song of the German soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was titled "Watch On the Rhine."
The song is probably most famous as the song sung by Nazi soldiers in Rick's Cafe Americain in the film Casablanca when Victor Laszlo, a renowned anti-Nazi, leads the Free French sympathizers to drown out the Nazis with the Marseillaise, the French National Anthem.A voice resounds like thunder-peal,
'Mid dashing waves and clang of steel:
The Rhine, the Rhine, the German Rhine!
Who guards to-day my stream divine?
Dear Fatherland, no danger thine;
Firm stand thy sons to watch the Rhine!
An ironic twist is added to the title by the fact that the last major battle by the Allies against the Nazis was known by the German soldier as Wacht am Rhein, Watch on the Rhine. The battle was known to the American soldier as The Battle of the Bulge and to the Belgians as The Battle of the Ardennes.
Watch On the Rhine is one of several movies adapted from works by Lillian Hellman. In 1931 she met the writer Dashiell Hammett, who remained her sometime companion until his death in 1961. Watch on the Rhine was the only collaboration for the two.
Hammett, the writer of the screenplay for Watch on the Rhine, was perhaps best known as the author of detective novels and his fictional character, Sam Spade. One of Hammett's novels was made into the highly-popular movie, "The Maltese Falcon."
It's an indictment of American culture that Hellmann and Hammett, who wrote a number of anti-fascist works, were both hounded by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. Hellmann was merely questioned by the fascist committee, but Hammett's career was essentially destroyed in 1951 when they branded him as an active communist. Hammett refused to cooperate during the hearings and spent six months in jail. Later the Internal Revenue service accused him of tax delinquency. Hammett never wrote again.
Paul Lukas deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1943 for his role in Watch On the Rhine. Lukas had become a U. S. Citizen in 1933, so the movie and the part had personal significance for him. Lukas had played the role on Broadway.
On his role in Watch on the Rhine, Lukas commented: "The writing is so right you don't have to learn the part. It sticks to you. I amuse myself by changing a gesture occasionally."
Bette Davis, the consummate egotist in personal life, turned in a self-aggrandizing performance in her role as Sara Muller. Davis's life is a tragic tale of Hollywood narcissism. She had received excessive praise from such movie moguls as Jack Warner, who when asked to define the term "movie star," answered "Bette Davis."
Davis was later to make a fool of herself when she said that her role as Sara Muller was an "idiot part, but likable." The role of Sara required a quality Bette Davis never possessed, so she couldn't portray it through acting: naturalness or genuineness. Davis later compounded her infamy by claiming: "My name made possible a play of Lillian Hellman’s to ever be on the screen." The play and the role of Sara Muller are much larger than Bette Davis as a person or an actress, dealing with perennial issues of human freedom.
Overall, the screenplay demonstrates how naive people--like Americans today--are oblivious to fascism until it intrudes in their personal lives. In applying this powerful allegorical drama to the present time, we see that each character in the screenplay represents a section of the American people today.
There are some twenty-first century Americans who realize that we are under seige by an insidious U.S. brand of fascism: the demonic cabal and its puppet American president. These people are portrayed in Watch On the Rhine by the character of Kurt Muller. Kurt had watched Nazism destroy his country and decided that he had to join the fight against this plague. He had been imprisoned, wounded numerous times, his hands broken when he was tortured during interrogation. He hates violence, but does not shrink from killing fascists to protect his life and the life of his comrades.
"I fight against fascism; that is my trade."
"It is awkward to place it neatly. It sounds so big and it is so small. I am an anti-fascist and it does not pay well."
Teaching his son about the ongoing struggle for human freedom: "Our forces are small, therefore we must risk no more men in any enterprise than it is needed to carry it out. Always in our work a man will wish to go with you. We are not here to show that we are brave, and not to be modest either and say, 'I am not important, let me take the risk.' He takes the risk who is entitled."
Explaining to Fanny and David the nature of his struggle: "I do not tell you this to show that we are remarkable but to prove that they are not."
"That's noble of you," the insipid Fanny says to Kurt.
"One means always in English to insult with that word 'noble?'" Kurt asks.
"Of course not," Fanny replies.
"It is not noble, it is only the way I must live."
Kurt explains to Fanny and David that he killed the Romanian fascist because he threatened not only his own life but the life of thousands in the anti-Nazi underground: "I do what must be done. If I do not, I only pamper myself. Do I now pretend sorrow? No. I will always keep my hope that we may make a world in which all men can die in their bed."
After Kurt has killed the fascist, he explains it to his children: "Whoever does it, it is all bad. But you will live to see the day when it will not have to be. Always there is a man who loves children and who will fight to make a good world for them."
Sara Muller represents those persons who support the leaders of the struggle for freedom.In response to her family's misplaced commiseration: "I didn't have a hard time--not they way they mean. Not ever."
To Kurt: "I would marry you any day in my life."
"What a wonderful work fascism has done in convincing the world they are men from legends."
"They've done very well for themselves, unfortunately," David replies.
"But not by themselves. We don't like to remember, do we. They came on the shoulders of some of the most powerful men in the world. That makes us feel guilty. So we prefer to believe they're mysterious men from the planets. They aren't. They're smart and they're sick and they're cruel."
To the Romanian fascist: "You mean my husband and I do not have angry words for you. It goes deeper than that with us. We know how many there are of you. We have seen you in so many houses."
Quoting from her father: "The only men on earth worth their time on earth are the men who would fight for other men. We have struggled through from darkness, but man moves forward with each day and each hour, to a better, freer life. That desire to go forward, that willingness to fight for it, cannot be put in a man, but when it is there..."
Teck de Brancovis, the failed Romanian diplomat, represents the fellow-travellers and lackeys of the fascists of this world. In modern terms, he symbolizes the neocon Republicans and the Obama Democrats, the corporate executives, the unthinking Americans who willingly succumb to cabal lies: whether it be about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, about tax cuts for the obscenely rich, about degrading the environment, about the necessity of destroying Constitutional liberties in the endless "war against terrorism," whatever.
Teck betokens all the fascist collaborators who "sell the blood of other men" (in the words of the German song Kurt sings to explain why he fights against fascism).
Kurt explains Teck to Fanny and David: "All Fascists are not of one mind, one stripe. There are those who give the orders, those who carry out the orders, those who watch the orders being carried out. Then there are those who are half in, half hoping to come in. They are made to do the dishes and clean the boots. Frequently, they come in high places and wish now only to survive. They came later; some because they did not jump in time, some because they were stupid, some because they were shocked at the crudity of the German evil, and preferred their own evils, and some because they were fastidious men. For those last, we may well some day have pity. They are lost men, their spoils are small, their day is gone."
Fanny says to Teck, "The picture of a man selling the lives of other men--"
"Is very ugly, Madame Fanny." Teck completes her sentence. "I do not do it without some shame, and I must therefore sink my shame in large money."
Kurt to Teck: "You too wish to go back to Europe?"
Kurt: "But they do not much want you. Not since the Budapest oil deal of '31."
Teck: "You seem as well informed about me as I am about you."
Kurt: "That must have been a conference of high comedy, that one. Everybody trying to guess whether Kessler was working for Fritz Thyssen, and what Thyssen really wanted--and whether this 'National Socialism' was a smart blind of Thyssen's, and where was Wolff. I should like to have seen you and your friends. It is too bad: you guessed an inch off, eh?
Teck: "More than an inch."
Kurt: "And Kessler has a memory? I do not think Herr Blecher would pay you money for a description of a man who has a month to travel. But I think he would pay you in a visa."
Herr Blecher, the Gestapo Chief stationed at the Washington, D.C. German Embassy, symbolizes the Fascist leaders of the world.
Transposing to current times, Blecher represents the members of the demonic cabal and their puppet-figures. In the movie, Blecher boasts that the Nazis have divided the world into two camps: those who fear the Nazis and those who are puzzled and ignorant.
Fanny and David Farrelly symbolize today's complaisant, naive Americans who do not recognize fascism in their own "home" -- the United States. They "invite" these modern-day Nazis into their very midst by allowing them to seize the Presidency through a coup d'etat exactly as Hitler became Fuhrer through criminal intrigue.
As Sara makes clear to Fanny and David: "It was careless of you and David to have a man like that in this house."Willfully ignorant Americans today are so possessed by egomania--like Fanny and David--that they don't see what's going on in the world: the fascist cabal is destroying America and creating a militaristic, imperialistic, outlaw regime.
"But how could we know?" Fanny excuses herself.
"The world has changed and some of the people in it are dangerous. It's time you knew that," Sara replies.
The cabal helped Hitler come into power in the 1930s and has engaged in criminal behavior throughout its history.
Watch On the Rhine reveals to us that we must defeat this fascist element in our midst. The brilliant screenplay can inspire us to join in the worldwide struggle for freedom that brave men and women have been engaged in from the beginning of time.
1 Allegory (note how the definition of allegory requires an understanding of metaphor and metaphor requires an understanding of analogy):
- The veiled presentation, especially in a figurative story or narrative, of a meaning metaphorically implied, but not expressly stated; a prolonged metaphor
- The expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence
Metaphor: Use of a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea in place of another by way of suggesting a likeness or analogy between them
Analogy: a relation of likeness between two things or of one thing to or with another, consisting in the resemblance not of the things themselves but of two or more attributes, circumstances, or effects