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Posts Tagged ‘Dashiell Hammett’

Watch on the Rhine- Bette Davis and Paul Lukas, 1943

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In Praise of the Fighters

There are men who struggle for a day and they are good.

There are men who struggle for a year and they are better.

There are men who struggle many years, and they are better still.

But there are those who struggle all their lives:

These are the indispensable ones.

Bertolt Brecht, The Mother,  1930

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I came across this short poem/song taken from the play The Mother written by Bertolt Brecht and was reminded of one of my favorite movies, Watch on the Rhine, which featured one such indispensable fighter. I was reminded, as well, of the path we are hurtling down as a nation, especially in the light of the events here of the last few days and weeks. The transformation is accelerating as all guide rails that have protected us in the past are smashed aside. The parallels between what is happening here at the moment and the formation of other authoritarian/fascist regimes in the past century are haunting.

But this short verse and this movie favorite of mine remind us that in almost all of these other regimes, they have been opposed and often defeated by people of great strength and resolve. They were Anti-Fascists or Freedom Fighters who put aside concerns for their personal benefit or safety and devoted their lives to opposing, in every possible manner, the cruelty of fascist rule.

You might read this and shake your head and think that this is an overstatement of what is taking place, that things are not so dire as I might see them and that we are light-years away from fascism.

I hope you’re right.

But I remind you that in all of these past regimes there were large numbers of their citizens who thought just that same thing, that such a thing was inconceivable. It can’t happen here. But authoritarianism creeps up on you, taking hold little by little. Then, when there is a window of opportunity for it to impose its total will on the citizenry, it accelerates at a pace that exceeds the ability of normal response to restrain it.

It may be too late beyond that point but for these people who stand in brave opposition. The fighters.

I urge you to see Watch on the Rhine if you get a chance or at least read the original play. The film was made in 1943, adapted for the screen by Dashiell Hammett from the prize-winning play written by his wife, Lillian Hellman. It concerns a well-heeled family in the Northern Virginia area across the Potomac from Washington whose daughter ( played beautifully by Bette Davis ) 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 year or so before before our entry into World War II.

Her husband is a German freedom fighter named Kurt Muller who is a fugitive 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. Muller did not seek this task but knows that it is one he must shoulder. His words are simple, direct and powerful.

Lukas, who also originated the part on the Broadway stage, is brilliant. 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, to this point, 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 really don’t know.

There is a different first line of Brecht’s song at the top of the page taken from another translation of the verse from its original German: Those who are weak don’t fight.

I sincerely hope I don’t fall into that category if the situation ever presents itself at my door.

And I worry that it is coming up my walkway even as I write this.

 

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