In the aristocratic Farrelly home outside Washington, D.C., Fanny Farrelly, with the assistance of her two servants, Anise and Joseph, prepares for the arrival of her daughter, Sara, and her husband and children. Sara has not visited her mother for twenty years, and Fanny has never met her three grandchildren. Nervous about the visit, Fanny tries to get her son, David, and her house guests, Count Teck de Brancovis and Countess Marthe de Brancovis, to breakfast by 9 a.m., as her late husband had decreed.
To her housekeeper, Anise, Fanny reveals that the count and countess are heavily in debt and that she is concerned about David’s attraction to the countess. As Fanny and David breakfast on the terrace, Teck and Marthe argue about money, including his gambling with the Nazis at the German embassy, and about Marthe’s attraction to David.
After the count and countess retire to the terrace, the Mullers arrive and are impressed with the spacious living room. Sara, poorly dressed, delights in the beautiful things she could not remember. The family discusses Sara’s childhood and her memories of unlocked doors, plentiful food, and beautiful clothes—such a contrast to her own family’s bleak existence.
Pleased with Sara’s mature children, Fanny asks her, “Are these your children? Or are they dressed up midgets?” Responding to Fanny’s and David’s questions, Kurt, Sara’s husband, talks about his family’s travels and admits that he has not worked at his profession as an engineer for several years, since 1933. He also confesses that his family has not had adequate breakfasts because his new occupation, which he identifies as “anti-fascist,” does not pay well. Earlier in his work as an engineer his life was normal. Married to Sara for twelve quiet years, their lives changed when a festival in his hometown ended with a street fight and the murder of twenty-seven men by Nazis.
Kurt and Teck are wary of each other. Kurt recognizes the count’s name, and Teck probes to find out more about Kurt. While the family breakfasts on the terrace, Teck examines their luggage. When Marthe tries to interfere, Teck threatens her, warning her not to make plans with David.
Ten days pass, and everyone is now comfortable in the house. Sara is crocheting, Fanny and Teck play cribbage, Bodo “repairs” a heating pad for an anxious Anise, Joseph teaches Joshua to play baseball, and Babette makes potato pancakes for dinner. When Teck questions the children in an obvious attempt to learn more about their father, Sara cuts him off, saying, “It’s an indulgence to sit in a room and discuss your beliefs as if they were a juicy piece of gossip.”
Teck announces that he and Marthe plan to leave in a few days and suggests that the nature of Kurt’s work means that the Mullers will also be moving on. Fanny objects, joking that she plans to keep her family with her for several years because she will take a long time to die. David and Kurt return from assisting a local farmer, and talk turns to Babette’s birthday party and to presents for the whole family. Teck becomes angry at the suggestion that David has bought jewelry for Marthe, so Fanny tries to distract him by confronting him with the rumor that he has won a great deal of money in a card game with Nazis.
Kurt and Teck spar about Germany, and Kurt sings “Watch on the Rhine,” a song about Germans returning home from World War I. Kurt also sings lyrics made up by Germans, with whom he has fought against the fascists...
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in Spain. Teck again questions the children about their father’s activities. Kurt responds, telling Teck to address his questions directly to him.
The atmosphere is temporarily lightened when Marthe enters with dresses that Fanny has bought for Sara and Babette. The pleasant scene is interrupted by a long-distance phone call for Kurt. Teck, Marthe, and David argue about David’s gift to Marthe. She declares she will not leave with Teck, insisting David does not have much to do with her situation. When Fanny objects to her staying, Marthe informs her that she had been forced by her mother into the marriage with Teck when she was only seventeen years old and that it had always been an unhappy relationship.
Kurt returns from the call, saying he must leave for California. Teck confronts him with a news story on the capture of three of Kurt’s resistance colleagues in Germany. Teck had learned of the capture at the German embassy the previous evening, and upon reviewing a list of resistance fighters, a list the Nazis had given him, he made the connection between Kurt and a man called Gotter, whom the Nazis want. Revealing that he has broken into Kurt’s briefcase and had found $23,000 in cash, Teck demands $10,000.
David and Fanny insist that Kurt not submit to the blackmail because they do not believe Teck could harm anyone in their safe American home. Kurt, however, explains that he belongs to an organization the Nazis have outlawed, and they have placed a price on his head. Consequently, he has had problems with his passport and cannot go to the American authorities. Sara realizes that Kurt has to return to Germany to buy friends out of the German prisons, though this would involve great risks for him. She comforts Kurt, clearly supporting his decision.
A half hour later, Kurt, Sara, Fanny, and David are waiting anxiously for Teck to return. Kurt uses the opportunity to dispute the idea that Nazis are supermen. He talks about his imprisoned friend Max, who had saved his life. Teck returns with Kurt’s briefcase, but when Kurt refuses to pay the blackmail money, Fanny and David decide they will do so. With them out of the way, Kurt overpowers Teck and kills him.
Kurt justifies his actions to David and Fanny, who accept the violence as necessary and admire Kurt’s struggle and sacrifices. Emotion-laden farewells follow. Kurt’s farewell to his children is especially moving as he speaks of men who love children and fight to make a “good world” for them. Fanny and David are left alone, “shaken out of the magnolias,” and bracing for the trouble they know will come when Teck’s body is discovered.