After I finished watching Around The World In 80 Days, I decided to watch the 1943 film, Watch on the Rhine. Though both films are immortalized in the record books as a multiple Oscar nominee, Watch on The Rhine might as well have taken place in a totally different universe from Around The World In 80 Days. Based on a play by the always politically outspoken Lillian Hellman, Watch On The Rhine is as serious a film as Around The World In 80 Days is frivolous.
It’s also somewhat infamous for being the film for which Paul Lukas won an Oscar for best actor. When Lukas won his Oscar, he defeated Humphrey Bogart, who was nominated for his iconic performance in Casablanca. This is justifiably considered to be one of the biggest mistakes in Oscar history and, as a result, there are people who will tell you that Watch On The Rhine is a totally undeserving nominee, despite having never actually seen the film and not being totally sure who Paul Lukas was.
Up until I watched the film yesterday, you could have included me among those people.
What’s interesting is that Watch On The Rhine almost feels like a companion piece to Casablanca. Both films were resolutely anti-fascist, both of them dealt with a member of the Resistance trying to escape from a German agent, and both films climaxed with a gunshot. The part played by Paul Lukas, a German engineer named Kurt Muller, feels like he could be an older version of Casablanca‘s Victor Laszlo. Finally, whereas Casablanca centered around “letters of transit,” Watch On The Rhine centers around money. Kurt is smuggling money to the Resistance. Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris), a dissolute Romanian count, demands money in exchange for not informing the Germans of where Kurt’s location.
(Of course, both Casablanca’s letters and Watch on the Rhine’s money are an example of what Hitchcock called the MacGuffin. The letters and the money are not important. What’s important is that both films use the thriller format to inspire viewers to support the war effort.)
The film takes place in 1940, when America was still officially neutral. Kurt and his American wife, Sara (Bette Davis), have secretly entered the United States through Mexico. Officially, they are only visiting Sara’s brother (Donald Woods) and mother (Lucille Watson) in Washignton, D.C. Unofficially, they are looking for political sanctuary. However, Kurt still finds himself drawn back to Germany, especially after he finds out that one of his friends in the Resistance has been arrested by the Gestapo.
Not surprisingly, considering its theatrical origins, Watch On The Rhine is a very talky and a very stage-bound film. Almost all of the action takes place in one location and a good deal of the film’s running time is devoted to Kurt giving speeches. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a complaint. Though the film may have been released at the height of the war, the play was written at a time when America was still officially neutral and many elected officials were adamant that, even if it meant Hitler taking over the entire continent, America should never get involved in the affairs of Europe. Watch On The Rhine was Hellman’s attempt to both expose what was happening in Germany and to rally them to the anti-fascist cause. Watch On The Rhine may be propaganda but its anti-Nazi propaganda and who can’t appreciate the importance of that?
When it was originally released, Watch On The Rhine was sold as a Bette Davis vehicle. To be honest, Davis doesn’t really do much in the film. She supports her husband and she has a few sharp words for Teck but, otherwise, her role is definitely secondary to Paul Lukas. Davis took the role because she believed in the film’s message. It’s a good message and, for that matter, Watch On The Rhine is a pretty good film. It’s well-acted, intelligently written, and perfectly paced.
But what about Paul Lukas’s Oscar? Well, let’s state the obvious. Humphrey Bogart should have won the award for Casablanca. That doesn’t mean that Paul Lukas doesn’t give a worthy performance. He originated the role on stage and he does a good job of bringing the character to life on film, bringing a sincere intensity to even the most stagey of Kurt’s monologues. Whenever Lukas speaks, he’s explaining to the filmgoers why the U.S. must take a stand against Hitler and his followers. Considering that Watch On The Rhine was released at the height of World War II, I imagine that this, more than anything, led to Lukas winning his Oscar.
Watch On The Rhine was also nominated for Best Picture. It was deserved nomination but, in this case, the Academy made the right decision and gave the Oscar to Casablanca.