Tonight is night when the Oscars are handed out for the best movies, directors, actors and so on. I’ve always been a big film fan and I always look forward to seeing who wins even on the years when I have hardly seen a movie. It also makes me think of many of my favorite movies, films that stick in my mind and, like any other form of art, define who I am.
A few weeks ago, I saw one of these favorites of mine, Watch on the Rhine. It was made in 1943, adapted for the screen by Dashiell Hammett from the prize-winning play written by his wife, the great Lillian Hellman. It concerns a family in the Northern Virginia area across the Potomac from DC whose daughter ( Bette Davis in a supporting role here) returns home from a war torn Europe for the first time in many years with her husband and children. It is set, and was written, in the years before our entry into World War II.
Her husband is a German freedom fighter, Kurt Muller, who is a wanted leader in the underground movement against the Nazis. He is played by Paul Lukas in a magnificent performance, one that won him the Academy Award for Best Actor that year over Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bells Toll. Yes, it was that good.
His Muller is the common man who finds himself in the role of the selfless hero willing to give up everything– his career, his family, his life– in order to stand against evil. It’s not a task Muller sought but is one he must shoulder. His words are simple, direct and powerful. Lukas, who also originated the part on the Broadway stage, is brilliant and, whenever I see this movie, I am haunted for weeks afterwards by Lukas’ performance. The power of it thrills me but I find myself questioning my own strength and beliefs as a human. Thankfully, I have never been put into a situation like that faced by Kurt Muller and hopefully never will. But would I be able to stand with even a fraction of the grace and courage of Lukas’ character?
I doubt it but I don’t know.
But I know that this movie’s ability to fix that question in my mind for weeks make it a great movie with great acting and world-class writing. Hopefully, this year’s movies will have a film like Watch on the Rhine that will haunt future generations when they watch it years from now.