The Mortal Storm – Best Pictures of 1940 (#7)

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.

Martin and Freya consider what to do as their world goes crazy around them.

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.

Freya pleads for information about her father from Fritz, one time friend and lover, now ideological automaton.

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.



Filed under 1940, Yearly Best Pictures

7 responses to “The Mortal Storm – Best Pictures of 1940 (#7)

  1. Another great review, Jason! I saw this movie recently too, and thought Morgan, Stewart and Sullavan were all excellent in the lead roles. As you say, it is disconcerting in a way to see these three together in such a bleak film after ‘The Shop Around the Corner’, released earlier the same year – though I’ve seen it suggested somewhere that you can almost see this one as a sequel to Lubitsch’s film, because this shows how the sort of small European towns which featured in his comedy were now being torn apart and destroyed.

    On the slowness of Hollywood to respond to what was happening in Europe, John Greco reviewed ‘The Mortal Storm’ at his blog a little while ago and mentioned that at this time the studios were coming under pressure from politicians not to breach various neutrality acts by criticising Germany. Borzage broke through against that, even if he did have to do things like using the term “non-Aryan”, which does weaken the film, as you say. I think the scene in the pub is one of the most powerful in the film, and the scenes with the students objecting to his lectures because the facts of science don’t fit their ideology. Also the ending is haunting and very reminiscent of the ending to ‘A Farewell to Arms’. I’m a bit surprised to hear you say Borzage wasn’t a master, as I’ve been very impressed by the films of his I’ve seen so far, especially the pre-Codes ‘A Farewell to Arms’ and ‘Man’s Castle’, though I haven’t seen all that many of his as yet.

    • Thank you Judy! I didn’t think about this as being a kind of dark sequel to “Shop Around the Corner,” but the more I thought about the more it made a crazy, depressing kind of sense. You almost can’t help but wonder what would have happened to the characters in “The Shop” once the war breaks out.

      I’ll have to check out Greco’s piece, though I’m not sure studio heads declined to make anti-Nazi movies because of pressure from the government. I suspect they welcomed it, both because Europe and Germany in particular remained large markets for them and they didn’t want to threaten that, and also because many of them were sensitive about their status in this largely anti-semitic country as powerful Jews. Even here in Los Angeles, where we would think they would be welcomed with open arms everywhere, the swankiest country clubs barred their entry into their restaurants, golf courses, and pools. They had to get together with other Jewish business leaders and start their own club. So they were well aware of the precariousness of their power. We have to give credit to Louis B. Mayer for finally greenlighting this project even though it could have been made years earlier.

      I agree with you about the pub scene. It is crucial for Stewart’s character as so many event come to a head forcing him to make a very public and dangerous choice. Like the lecture scene, it is powerful.

      As far as Borzage, I think he was a good director, but he never reached the artistic heights of masters like Orson Welles, John Ford, Jean Renoir, or Yasujiro Ozu. He may have been a solid director, but I don’t think anything about his work really stands out that any other competent director couldn’t have done.

  2. All very interesting, Jason, thank you! Plenty of food for thought. Just on the country/golf clubs in LA, I read Errol Flynn’s (in)famous memoirs a year or two ago, and remember he said that Jack Warner was angry with him because he joined one of these clubs near the Warner Brothers studios and used to go to it most lunchtimes. Apparently JW used to scream at him that if he was good enough to work for, Flynn shouldn’t join a club that wouldn’t accept him as a member. Flynn thought this was most unfair because he said he wasn’t anti-semitic himself and didn’t make the club rules – must have seemed like a very feeble excuse even at time of publication.

  3. “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?”

    Excellent final paragraph there Jason! Despite a rather hacknayed script and the unavoidably artificial sets, Borzage’s handling is assured and the message comes across compellingly. Seen in retrospect this is probably Hollywood’s most impressive anti-Nazi movie. The performances are impassioned as well.

    • Sure we’ve seen more sophisticated deconstructions of fascism, but I don’t know if I would call the script hackneyed. (OK, some characters transitions are abrupt, but in a society dominated by fear that isn’t entirely unbelievable.) I agree with you praise of Borzage and the actors. I was especially impressed by Stewart. The struggles play out in his expression and those puppy dog eyes more effectively than any contrived speeches. He sees the insanity going on around him, but standing up against it means putting his life in danger. It’s scary how complacent people get that “that could never happen here” because movies like this show how easy it is for something like that to happen just about anywhere. All you need are a handful of leaders, a gaggle of die-hard ideologues, and enough fear to keep the rest of us quiet. Again, I ask, are there any modern day corollaries?

  4. Helene D. Bell

    I love your blog. I am such an avid fan of classic movies. Don’t want to sound rude but please change actor Robert Taylor to Robert Young. Quite a departure for him playing the despicable character, Fritz in The Mortal Storm. He should get the proper recognition.

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