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Watch on the Rhine is a 1943 American drama film directed by Herman Shumlin. The screenplay by Dashiell Hammett is based on the 1941 play of the same title by Lillian Helman.


In 1940, German-born engineer Kurt Muller, his American wife Sara, and their children Joshua, Babette, and Bodo cross the Mexican border into the United States to visit Sara's brother David Farrelly and their mother Fanny in Washington, D.C.marker For the past seventeen years, the Muller family has lived in Europe, where Kurt responded to the rise of Nazism by engaging in anti-Fascist activities. Sara tells her family they are seeking peaceful sanctuary on American soil, but their quest is threatened by the presence of houseguest Teck de Brancovis, an opportunistic Romanianmarker count who has been conspiring with the Germans in the nation's capital.

Teck searches the Mullers' room and discovers a gun and money intended to finance underground operations in Germany in a locked suitcase. Shortly after, the Mullers learn resistance worker Max Freidech has been arrested, and because he once rescued Kurt from the Gestapomarker, Kurt plans to return to Germany to assist Max and those arrested with him. Aware Kurt will be in great danger if the Nazis discover he is returning to Germany, Teck demands $10,000 to keep silent, and Kurt kills him. Realizing the dangers Kurt faces, Fanny and David agree to help him escape.

Time passes, and when the Mullers fail to hear from Kurt, Joshua announces he plans to search for his father as soon as he turns eighteen. Although distraught by the possibility of losing her son as well as her husband, Sara resolves to be brave when the time comes for Joshua to leave.


The Lillian Hellman play had enjoyed a respectable run of 378 performances on Broadwaymarker, and Jack L. Warner paid $150,000 for the screen rights because he felt with its focus on patriotism it would make an ideal and prestigious propaganda film at the height of World War II. Because Bette Davis was involved with Now, Voyager, producer Hal B. Wallis began searching for another actress for the role of Sara Muller while Hellman's lover Dashiel Hammett began writing the screenplay at their farm in Pleasantville, New Yorkmarker. Irene Dunne liked the material but felt the role was too small, and Margaret Sullavan expressed no interest whatsoever. Edna Best, Rosemary DeCamp, and Helen Hayes also were considered. For the role of Kurt Muller, Wallis wanted Charles Boyer, who felt his French accent was wrong for the character, so the producer decided to cast Paul Lukas, who had originated the role on Broadway and had been honored by the Drama League of New York for his performance. Meanwhile, Hammett was sidelined by an injured back, and by the time he was ready to resume work on the script Now, Voyager was close to completion. Wallis sent Davis, a staunch supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and a fierce opponent of the Nazi Party, the screenplay-in-progress and she immediately accepted the offer.

With Davis cast as Sara, Wallis encouraged Hammett to embellish what essentially was a secondary role to make it worthy of the leading lady's status as a star, and to open up the story by adding scenes outside the Farrelly living room, which had been the sole setting on stage. The Production Code Administration was concerned that Kurt Muller escaped prosecution for his murder of Teck de Brancovis, and the Hays Office suggested it be established Kurt was killed by the Nazis at the end of the film in order to show he paid for his crime. Lillian objected and the studio agreed Kurt had been justified in shooting Teck, and the scene remained.

Filming began on June 15, 1942, only a week after Now, Voyager had ended production, and without a substantial vacation between projects Davis was on edge. As a result, she immediately clashed with Herman Shumlin, who had directed the play but had no experience in film, from the beginning and tended to ignore his suggestions. Her emotional overacting prompted Wallis to send Shumlin numerous memos urging the director to tone down her performance. Shumlin threatened to quit because he was unhappy with cinematographer Merritt B. Gerstad, who eventually was replaced by Hal Mohr in order to appease the director. Meanwhile, Davis also was at odds with Lucile Watson, who was reprising the role of the mother she had portrayed on stage, because she was an extreme Republican whose political views sharply contrasted with those of the Democratic Davis.

Several exterior scenes shot on location in Washington had to be cut from the film prior to its release due to wartime restrictions on the filming of government buildings.

When Wallis announced he was giving Davis top billing, she argued it was ridiculous to do so given hers was a supporting role. The studio's publicity department argued it was her name that would attract an audience and, despite her resistance, the film's credits and all promotional materials listed her first.

Davis and Lukas reprised their roles for a radio adaptation that aired on the January 10, 1944 broadcast of The Screen Guild Theater.


Critical reception

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it "a distinguished film — a film full of sense, power and beauty" and added, "Its sense resides firmly in its facing one of civilization's most tragic ironies, its power derives from the sureness with which it tells a mordant tale and its beauty lies in its disclosures of human courage and dignity. It is meager praise to call it one of the fine adult films of these times." He continued, "Miss Hellman's play tends to be somewhat static in its early stretches on the screen. With much of the action confined to one room in the American home, development depends largely on dialogue — which is dangerous in films. But the prose of Miss Hellman is so lucid, her characters so surely conceived and Mr. Shumlin has directed for such fine tension in this his first effort for the screen that movement is not essential. The characters propel themselves." In conclusion, he said, "An ending has been given the picture which advances the story a few months and shows the wife preparing to let her older son follow his father back to Europe. This is dramatically superfluous, but the spirit is good in these times. And it adds just that much more heroism to a fine, sincere, outspoken film."

Variety called it "a distinguished picture . . . even better than its powerful original stage version. It expresses the same urgent theme, but with broader sweep and in more affecting terms of personal emotion. The film more than retains the vital theme of the original play. It actually carries the theme further and deeper, and it does so with passionate conviction and enormous skill . . . Just as he was in the play, Paul Lukas is the outstanding star of the film. Anything his part may have lost in the transfer of key lines to Bette Davis is offset by the projective value of the camera for closeups. His portrayal of the heroic German has the same quiet strength and the slowly gathering force that it had on the stage, but it now seems even better defined and carefully detailed, and it has much more vitality. In the lesser starring part of the wife Davis gives a performance of genuine distinction."

The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures observed, "Paul Lukas here has a chance to be indisputably the fine actor he always has shown plenty signs of being. Bette Davis subdues herself to a secondary role almost with an air of gratitude for being able to at last be uncomplicatedly decent and admirable. It is not a very colorful performance, but quiet loyalty and restrained heroism do not furnish many outlets for histrionic show, and Miss Davis is artist enough not to throw any extra bits of it to prove she is one of the stars."

Awards and nominations

The film won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Picture.

Paul Lukas won the Academy Award for Best Actor, the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama (the first time the award was presented), and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor.

Lucile Watson was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress but lost to Katina Paxinou in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Dashiel Hammett was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay but lost to Philip G. Epstein, Julius J. Epstein, and Howard Koch for Casablanca.

DVD release

On April 1, 2008, Warner Home Video released the film as part of the box set The Bette Davis Collection, Volume 3, which also includes The Old Maid, All This, and Heaven Too, In This Our Life, and Deception.


  1. Watch on the Rhine at the Internet Broadway Database
  2. Watch on the Rhine at Turner Classic Movies
  3. Stine, Whitney, and Davis, Bette, Mother Goddam: The Story of the Career of Bette Davis. New York: Hawthorn Books 1974. ISBN 0-8015-5184-6, pp. 170-172
  4. Higham, Charles, The Life of Bette Davis. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company 1981. ISBN 0-025-51500-4, pp. 164-166
  5. New York Times review
  6. Variety review

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