Hollywood was reluctant to tackle Nazism, even though – or maybe because – the major studios were run almost exclusively by Jews. Perhaps they feared their very Jewishness would be used against whatever anti-Nazi message they wanted to convey by fascist partisans, eager to latch onto any “proof” of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. It isn’t as if Germany – or Europe for that matter – had a monopoly on anti-Semitism. Fascists and their sympathizers could have very well argued that it was natural for Jack Warner and Adolph Zukor to make anti-Nazi films because they were part of a immense Jewish conspiracy (Elders of Zion-esque) bent on controlling the world. As the decades have progressed Hollywood’s prolonged silence has become less and less defendable, some going so far as to suggest that the timidity of the studio heads makes them almost complicit in the Holocaust.
However, Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 loosened some of the Hollywood honchos’ inhibitions about criticizing Germany even though the U.S. was technically neutral until the attack on Pearl Harbor. Warner Bros. released a tepid expose of Nazi spies and saboteurs in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), but the movie ignored conditions in Germany in favor of condemning their subversive hostilities against neutral nations. The first direct attack on the racism and repression of Hitler’s Reich (that I know of) was MGM’s The Mortal Storm, a full-throated condemnation of Nazism based on the novel by Phyllis Bottome who lived in Germany in the late 1930s.
Starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan with Frank Morgan in a supporting role we might expect lighter fare, a sort of follow up to the trio’s earlier comedic hit The Shop Around the Corner. But there is nothing light in this bleak tale of Prof. Viktor Roth, a beloved university biology professor at the dawn of Hitler’s rise to power and the fractures within his own family caused by hysterical politics. Because Roth is Jewish he quickly falls from respected intellectual to venomous traitor, eventually ending up in a concentration camp.
Roth’s plight is complicated by ideological rifts in his own household. His stepson’s Otto and Erich have bought into the Nazi ideology with the same fervent conviction as newly converted cult members, apparently never connecting Hitler’s anti-Semitism this their own stepfather. They, along with their childhood friend Fritz, believe Hitler will bring glory back to Germany. Even their sweet grandmotherly maid cheers when Hitler is appointed chancellor. On the other side of the ideological coin are Roth’s daughter Freya (Sullavan), his wife, and another lifelong friend of his children, Martin (Stewart, who masterfully combines the right amounts of befuddlement and heroism as an ordinary but principled man caught up in extraordinary times); they are quietly cautious – fearful even – of the future. They don’t expect national greatness and freedom, but fear, paranoia, betrayal, and repression.
Fritz (Robert Young**) along with Otto and Erich urge Martin to join the Nazi Party, to declare his allegiance, to say whether he is with them or against them. Martin refuses to join, being more than ambivalent about joining any organization that depends on violence and intimidation for its strength. He’d rather rescue the local school teacher from a band of Nazi thugs than join them. He’s right when he points out the unseemliness of a group of young men ganging up on a single old man. No one with any strong sense of right or wrong could actively join a group like that. Martin’s stand also brings him closer to Freya who, not incidentally, had been engaged to Fritz. This inserts a personal component into the rift between Martin and Fritz which will climax in tragedy.
The Mortal Storm directed by Frank Borzage (Seventh Heaven, A Farewell to Arms, Three Comrades) is a sobering film even after decades of anti-fascist films. In 1940 though this would have been the first cinematic depiction for many Americans of what life in Nazi Germany looked like. The movie may not be as strong as it could have been because Roth is scrupulously never referred to as Jewish, only “non-Aryan.” And things may be exaggerated for dramatic effect, but not by much. (I don’t think Roth would have been embraced by his students and colleagues one day and shunned the very next just because of Hitler’s appointment. I suspect it would have been a more gradual process, but it takes a master to depict subtlety in film and, let’s face it, Borzage may have been a competent director, but he was no master.) The scene that stands out, that confirms this movie’s place as a sincere and effective, if not masterful, film is when young Nazi party members overwhelm Roth’s class and challenge his insistence that there is no biological basis to determine any difference between the races. He refuses to back down from his position and is immediately and vehemently branded a traitor by some of the very students who had feted him days before. They file out of the room as he uselessly cries, “But it’s science. It’s science.” There’s no reasoning with blind ideology.
Hitler ended up banning not just The Mortal Storm, but all MGM movies from Germany. The movie illuminated one too many truths that Hitler would have preferred kept in the dark: Essentially that Nazism is a corrosive political system that sustains itself on fear and ignorance. That doesn’t have any modern day corollaries, does it?
** Thanks to reader Helene for pointing out that I gave Robert Taylor rather than Robert Young the credit for the role of Fritz. Yikes, what a bone-headed error.