It had admittedly been a few days since I’d made the time to sit down for one of these, but I had some time today to knock something out, and I figured there would be no better way to start up 1943 proper than with a Bette Davis film. As such, I went into Watch on the Rhine somewhat assured, knowing only the synopsis and that Paul Lukas won Best Actor for this film, and not much else. I’m not really sure why I felt so okay about diving into this one; it seemed like I had the notion that, now that 1942’s field was done with, that war propaganda films would basically be a thing of the past. Of course, the war didn’t end until 1945, and I really should’ve known better; still, I was not prepared for what kind of war propaganda film this would end up being. By that, I don’t mean that Watch on the Rhine is unique or different from other films of its kind; what I mean is that it was made as a war propaganda film, and absolutely no further thought or consideration was made towards the making of this picture.
Davis and Lukas are Sara and Kurt Muller, a married couple who make their way back to the States at the start of the film to meet back up with Sara’s American family after traveling across Europe for several years. It becomes known that Sara is not just married to a German man, but that Kurt is actively involved in anti-Fascist work that has necessitated his travels across the continent, work that has put him at odds with the Nazis and their sympathizers. Unfortunately, the Mullers arrive at Sara’s house at the same time that her mother is also housing another couple, Teck and Marthe de Brancovis; Teck being a Romanian aristocrat on the outs from his country, and frustrated with his marriage to Marthe, especially as she and Sara’s brother David get along a little too comfortably. Teck, who spends his time gambling with the members down at the German Embassy, finally sees a way to get back to his country once he finds out about Kurt’s work and sympathies, and the two men’s struggles, along with the rest of the family, will come to a head once something happens that convinces Kurt that he needs to return to Europe… with no one the wiser that he is returning. I was a little ambivalent toward the plot of this one when I started it, mostly because when I started it I was immediately taken aback by the acting in the opening scenes, particularly by the young actors playing Kurt and Sara’s three children. It’s often an issue in films, especially back then, when child actors need to actually be good, or at least believable, but good god was the acting from these three stilted; though the dialogue written for them that they deliver word-for-word with no omissions didn’t do them any favors. Neither did it help the adult actors either, though they at least did a better job of making it seem natural; even so, the scriptwriter must have been very proud of their ability to fit in a hundred words on the page when only ten would’ve sufficed, though I merely found it extraneous and mildly annoying to have to sit through. It was after the film was over that I looked into it and found the film was based on a stage play, which in hindsight makes complete sense, and unfortunately makes this yet another example of how not to adapt a stageplay for the screen. The pomposity of the writing is only matched by the overblown grandeur of the acting from everyone involved, which is seemingly compounded by the fact that the entire second half of the film takes place over a single night basically in real-time, so there’s no break for the audience to digest anything or come to terms with what is actually going on, making everything up to and including the film’s faults lumped on top of each other and made bigger for all to see. The presentation of the film came across so bluntly, like a make-up artist that opts rather than using a small applicator to finely apply layers of foundation and color to instead whap the subject on the face with a pillow covered in powder and consider their job done and over with. Such a style of film can and has been done well, but only if it’s right for the material and kind of film the material needs to be, and this was far and away the wrong approach to whatever this film tried to do.
Here’s how I guess my thoughts on Watch on the Rhine can be summed up: There can be two ways the phrase “on the nose” can be taken, either in a good way in that it doesn’t put on airs of falsity but instead opts for straightforwardness and brevity, or in a bad way, in that whatever is being described as thus is so blocky and rigid in its construction and presentation that it reaches uncanny valley territory; almost like a young child stepping on each individual brick as they walk along a sidewalk instead of walking in a normal, natural manner. Watch on the Rhine is the perfect cinematic representation of the bad way of being on-the-nose; every single thing involved in putting this film together is on complete display, in perfect stepping order, with no sense of presentation or blending of the seams to make anything in the film flow in a realistic manner, and it unfortunately was made worse by the bombastic delivery of the actual meat of the film. Not even Bette Davis emoting in every scene she’s in can save this from collapsing under its own weight, and I became rather miffed by the end of it all that this had somehow managed nominations not just for Best Picture, but for Best Screenplay as well. Propaganda films can work, if they have a good sense about them to be better or more than just being a film pumped out of the machine to fit a quota for the war effort, and unfortunately, Watch on the Rhine is very much a propaganda film that doesn’t want to bother with doing that at all.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10