The night before Independence Day we viewed a film from 1943, called Watch on the Rhine, based on a play by Lillian Hellman (adapted by Dashiell Hammett), starring Paul Lukas and Bette Davis. It was a competitor that year with the powerful, and subsequently more famous Casablanca, with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, but Paul Lukas won the Oscar, not Bogart; Casablanca did win Best Film.
The two movies, both placed prior to the US entry into the war, treated similar themes, namely the human cost of participating in the anti-Nazi underground. Casablanca, of course, drew on an exotic locale, plus Bogart’s appeal as disillusioned expatriot Rick, and a compelling love story. Watch on the Rhine had none of these attractions, but quickly draws us in with a sense of growing danger to Lukas, playing anti-Fascist Kurt Muller, who has just emigrated from Europe with his wife Sara and their three children to her mother’s lavish home in suburban Washington, DC. In the house is a guest, a down-and-out Romanian aristocrat (Teck de Brancovis, played by George Coulouris) looking to ingratiate himself with the Nazis at the German embassy. Teck discovers Kurt’s identity just as Kurt learns that a comrade, Max, in the underground has been captured in Germany. Kurt decides he has to leave his family and return in secret to help with funds he raised in Mexico. But now Teck has to be dealt with, lest he alert the Germans.
This is the immediate problem. The underlying dilemma, though, is the consequence of Kurt’s dedication to the movement, which has placed his family in danger for 17 years. The aim in coming to America was for rest, and safety, away from the constant fear and danger. But once again, he must leave them, this time maybe for good. Sara tries to dissuade him:
Kurt: Well, Sara. . .
Sarah: — No.
Kurt: — It must be yes.
Sara: But Max knows you’re not well enough. He sent you here.
Kurt: But now I am more well than he is.
Kurt: I think tonight, Sara, darling. But I do not know. It will depend on the Count de Brancovis.
Kurt makes a phone call, comes back and tells Sara that Max is alive, but taken prisoner, with others.
Sara (to Fanny, her mother): He’s going back to get them out. Is that right, Kurt? Is that right?
Kurt: Yes, darling. I must try. They were taken to Sonnenberg and guards can be bribed there. It has been done once before at Sonnenberg. I will try for it that way.
Sara: Of course you must go back. I guess I was trying to think it wouldn’t come.
Sara (to her mother): Kurt’s got to go back. He’s got to go home. It’s hard enough to get back. . . but if they knew he was coming. . .They want Kurt bad.
Sara (to Kurt): All right, Kurt. You’ll do it. You’ll get them out.
Sara (to her mother): Kurt will do it. You’ll see.
Sara (to Kurt): You’ll get Max out all right. And then you’ll do his work, won’t you? And you’ll do a good job. The way you’ve always done. Don’t be afraid, darling. You’ll get home. Yes, you will. You’ll get home. [Sara, crying]
The three children quickly sense that “Something is wrong.” Kurt sends the two little ones up to bed, but calls his teenage son, Joshua, out on the porch in the dark:
Joshua: You’re going away again,aren’t you, Papa?
Joshua: You must let me come along. I will help in. . . In small ways. I will learn. You will teach me. I am not as yet a man. . . and it would not be of such importance if anything happened to me.
Kurt: I will give you some rules now. Please remember them, Joshua. And never to disobey them. Our forces are small. Therefore, we must risk no more men in any enterprise. . . than it is needed to carry it out. Always in our work, a man will wish to go with you. That is wrong. We are not here to show that we are brave. . . and not to be modest, either, and say: “I am not important. Let me take the risk.” He takes the risk who is entitled to it. Soon you will be a man. Never have I doubted that for you. Also. . . this will be what a man should most do. I’m right?
Joshua: Of course, Papa.
Kurt: You are young. You are smart. You are strong. You are a fine investment for our work. . . when the time comes. In the meantime, I give you orders. You think. . . you’ve trained yourself in mind and body. Your day is not so distant. If it should come and I have not as yet returned. . . It is not wise, perhaps, to speak so far in the future. . . but the world goes bad. . . and who knows how long that will last. Therefore, with delicacy and care, I wish you also to prepare Bodo. . . when his time too shall come. God help us. Go upstairs now. Say nothing to the others. I will come later.
The Count, Teck, returns, having learned from the Germans that Kurt is a member of the anti-Fascist underground. Teck has also broken into Kurt’s briefcase, and knows he has $23,000 in it. So he is now in a position to blackmail Kurt: for $10,000 he will not tell the Germans that Kurt is about to return to the underground. But the money was raised for the cause, and Kurt knows he cannot trust the Count to keep a bargain. He draws his gun, and takes Teck out to the garage. There is a shot.
Sara has picked up the phone and made a midnight air reservation for Kurt. He says he will take David’s (Sara’s brother’s) car with Teck’s body, leaving Fanny and David to deal with the consequences when the body is found. Stunned by this turn of events, nonetheless they agree and, before Kurt leaves, offer him money they have in the house. In the meantime, Kurt must say goodbye to his three children upstairs:
Kurt: I have something to say and it is important to me to say it.
Babbette (his daugher): You are talking to us as if we were children.
Kurt: Am I, Babbie? I wish you were children. I wish I could say to you, love your mother, do not eat too many sweets… clean your teeth.
I cannot say these things to you. You are not children. I took your childhood all away from you.
Babette: We have had a most enjoyable life, Papa.
Kurt: You are a gallant little liar. And I thank you for it. I have done something bad tonight.
Bodo (youngest son): You could not do a bad thing.
Babette: You could not.
Kurt: Now, let us get straight together. The four of us. Do you remember when we read Les Miserables? You remember that we talked about it afterwards. . . and Bodo got candy on Mama’s bed?
Bodo: I remember.
Kurt: Well. . . the man in the book stole bread. “The world is out of shape,” he said, “when there are hungry men.” And until it gets in shape, men will steal and lie. . . and kill. But for whatever reason it’s done, and whoever does it. . . you understand it, it is all bad. I want you to remember that. Whoever does it, it’s bad. But you will live to see the day when it will not have to be. All over the world, in every place, every town. . . there are men who are going to make sure it will not have to be. They want what I want. A childhood for every child. For my children, and I for theirs. Think of that. It will make you happy. In every town, every village, every mud hut in the world. . . there is always a man who loves children. . . and who will fight to make a good world for them.
Kurt: Goodbye now. Wait for me. I shall try to come back for you. Or you shall come to me. The boat will come in and it will be a fine and a safe land. And I will be waiting on the dock for you. And there will be the three of you and Mama, Fanny and David. And I will have ordered an extra big dinner. . . and we will show them what our country can be like.
Joshua: Of course, Papa. That is the way it will be. Of course.
“The world is out of shape.” And it was then, in the most twisted way imaginable. But there were still good men, who wanted “a childhood for every child,” and were willing to put their lives on the line to get the world back in shape. It turned out to be a long slog, one that would have certainly enlisted Joshua (who in a cinematic postscript, when Kurt has not returned, tells his mother that he will soon have a birthday, and will be going after his father).
It was a long slog for our forefathers, too, leading up to and beyond July 4th, 1776, when they pledged “to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” upon the Declaration of Independence. There have been many other times bending the world “out of shape,” though perhaps none so dire and foreboding as Europe in the 1930s. Still Independence Day should remind us that while the world-twisting events may diminish, and we may enjoy peace and tranquility in our time, there are forces today that constantly seek the destruction of all that we hold dear. Even as I write, here in the United States there are bands of masked men in dark shirts attacking those on college campuses and in the public square, who dare to speak of the very ideas we celebrate on Independence Day, that “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed. . .”
Masked men in dark shirts. Are we heading back into that dreadful time when such gangs and their armies terrorized all of Europe? When the Kurt Mullers who loved their children were forced to battle for their lost worlds in the dangerous undergrounds against implacable and ruthless powers? The Dark Shirts here call themselves ‘Antifa’: their name and very logo are echoes of the German Communists who called themselves ‘Anti-Fascist’ because they were battling the National Socialists of Hitler.
But the Communists and Nazis were two hands of the same tyrannical devil, two factions, both dedicated to extinguishing Liberty across Europe, and ultimately ruling with an iron hand over the whole world. Is that the aim of the fascistic ‘Antifa’ and their sponsors here in the United States in 2019? Their methods are the same.
In the movie, we hear Kurt driving off into the night, with the body of the Count in the car.
Fanny reflects: Well. . . we’ve been shaken out of the magnolias.
David: Yes. So we have.
A phrase that lives on in film quotations—but what does it mean? Clearly enough, the stately magnolias are the quiet plenitude that Fanny and her son have long enjoyed. The gathering storm (Churchill’s postwar title) has finally hit the tranquil shores of the United States, and nothing will be the same.
It hasn’t happened recently, but our magnolias are waving in a threatening wind, and there are dark clouds on the horizon. There is yet time; perhaps the threat will pass us by, harmlessly out to sea. But we are not helpless.
Independence Day reminds us that the eternal values that gave birth to the American Experiment are still alive, and can be called upon to strengthen our resolve to defend the Republic against the spirit of Tyranny that would rise to destroy it. We must stand up, however, not cower in our comfortable estates assuming that the Dark Shirts can be allowed to run wild among us, not challenged nor stopped. When many, even well-meaning, elements of our society defend the supression of free speech and debate, for fear of appearing out of line with ‘correct’ doctrine, even going so far as to claim that a ‘wrong’ opinion is a threat that must be silenced, then we are in grave danger of giving ourselves over to ruthless masters whose only desire is to conquer and rule.
We can’t be shaken out of the magnolias, so long as we can stop the shakers in their tracks.