The global political climate was dramatically changing in 1940 especially in Europe. The Nazi machine was already wrecking havoc and the United States was a little over one year away from entering World War 2. It was during this time that “The Mortal Storm” was released. When reading up on the film I learned that this was one of few openly anti-Nazi movies to be released prior to America’s entry into the war. The film and subsequently all other MGM movies were soon banned in Germany.
“The Mortal Storm” was directed by Frank Borzage, a filmmaker I was relatively unfamiliar with but who had a lot of success during the silent era and with early talkies. Here he tackles very potent and relevant topics of the time – Naziism, the rise of Adolph Hitler and the effects these things had on families and friendships. It’s a sincere and effective adaptation of Phyllis Bottome’s 1938 novel and it’s full of passion but also tragedy.
The film is set in 1933 and takes place in a small Bavarian town. The opening ten minutes cleverly sets up the gut punch we get later on. We’re introduced to a prominent science professor named Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan). It’s his birthday and we get a series of playful scenes revolving around that. At his home later that evening we sit in on his birthday dinner with his family and old family friend Martin (James Stewart). We see his daughter Freya (Margaret Sullivan) become engaged to the cordial and mannered Fritz (Robert Young). Everything is painted as happy and intimate.
But one radio broadcast changes that forever. During their meal it is reported that Hitler’s power has grown and the Nazi party has become the one German political party. In an instant the happy moments at the table turn tense and contentious. Fritz and Prof. Roth’s step-sons show their previously unseen support of the Nazi ideals. Martin and Prof. Roth show concern and hesitation over embracing Hitler and his direction for Germany. From there things only get worse and the once joyous and united household is torn apart by intolerance and strife.
The story takes several interesting turns including a romance angle that at first seems wantonly obvious. But the romance doesn’t smother the film’s bigger points and instead is used to serve them. It’s also interesting to see how the film tries to soften the edge of its message while still pounding it home with clarity. For example the term “Jew” is never used in the film, but Dr. Roth and others are called a “non-Aryan”. The implication is clearly there. Also the film rarely uses “German” or “Germany” in its dialogue and the setting is rarely discussed. But these things do nothing to dull the blade the film uses to cut into Naziism and a different sides of its influence.
One of the few difficulties I had was seeing the cast as German citizens. Think about it, Jimmy Stewart, not even attempting an accent, with that distinct voice of his being a German farmer. This really stood out to me. But that doesn’t mean the performances are bad. Quite the contrary, they are fantastic. Margaret Sullavan shines as the lovely and conflicted Freya and the seasoned Frank Morgan is the beating heart of the story. Also look for a young Robert Stack playing one of Prof. Roth’s sons. It was his second film performance.
This was the last of Stewart and Sullavan’s four movies together. Shortly after the film Stewart would enlist in the military and fight during World War 2. Sullavan made only five more movies before sadly being engulfed by personal issues. Still “The Mortal Storm” is a fine reminder of their beautiful chemistry. But it’s also a gutsy film with a much stronger message than people were accustomed to hearing. And even today the film stands strong as a testament to the persuasive power of the movies.