The Mortal Storm

Released:  1940

Cast:  Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Robert Young, Frank Morgan, Robert Stack

SUMMARY:  In 1933, well-respected science professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) celebrates his 60th birthday.  Professor Roth is beloved by both colleagues and students, including Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) and Martin Breitner (James Stewart).  Both are family friends, and join the Roths for a birthday party that evening.  Also in attendance are Roth’s wife Amelie, his stepsons Otto (Robert Stack) and Erich, and his children Freya (Margaret Sullavan) and Rudi.  During dinner, Fritz proposes to Freya, and she accepts.  However, the happy mood is disrupted by the announcement that Adolf Hitler has been named Chancellor of Germany.  Otto, Erich and Fritz are thrilled at the news, as they are vehement supporters of Hitler.  However, Martin (who is secretly in love with Freya) refuses to endorse the man, as does Roth (who, it is implied, is Jewish).  Roth believes in science and provable facts, many of which have been disavowed by the Nazis.  Very quickly, Otto, Erich and Fritz become members of the Nazi party.  When the local party members turn against Roth, they follow along, and boycott his classes.  Despite their urgings, the three cannot convince Martin to join the Nazis.  An old teacher of Martin’s is harassed by young Nazis for not singing along with them, and Martin intervenes.  Later, when the man is being beaten outside, both he and Freya rush to the rescue.  This serves to both alienate Martin from his former friends, and to alert the other Nazis to his feelings.  When he tries to visit Freya, Otto and Erich refuse to let him into their house, and forbid him to see their sister.  When he ignores them, the pair and their friends beat him up.  This incident causes a separation between Otto and Erich and the rest of the family; around the same time, Freya breaks her engagement to Fritz, who cannot tolerate her politics and interference.  Some time later, the former teacher asks for Martin’s help in fleeing the country.  Martin helps the man get through a difficult mountain pass, but as the Nazis know of his actions, he cannot return to Germany.

Freya begins to miss Martin tremendously, and is thrilled when she finds out that her father will be traveling to Austria (Martin is in Innsbruck) to give a lecture, since she will be able to accompany him.  On the very day that she learns this, her father is arrested and imprisoned for his continued disavowal of Nazi beliefs.  The Nazis refuse to tell the family where Roth is imprisoned, and even Otto and Erich cannot help.  Finally, Freya pleads with Fritz for help, and he arranges a brief visit between Roth and his wife.  During this visit Roth requests that his wife take Freya and Rudi and flee the country.  The family plans to wait until Roth is released to do so, but he dies of a “heart attack” in prison (the real cause is not mentioned, but Freya believes that he was murdered).  Freya, her mother and Rudi board a train to Austria, but at the border the train is stopped and the passengers are searched by Nazi authorities.  When one of them finds Roth’s manuscript in Freya’s suitcase, he detains her while allowing Mrs. Roth and Rudi to continue on.  After some time, Freya is released, but her passport is confiscated.  She returns to the family home and finds a letter from Martin’s mother, requesting a visit.  When she arrives at the Breitner house she learns that Martin has returned for the express purpose of taking her to safety in Austria, through the same mountain pass he used with the teacher.  The two leave immediately.  However, a young girl who works for the family is detained by the Nazis that night, and forced to reveal the situation.  The Nazis decide to drive to the pass, then pursue Martin and Freya on skis.  Fritz is appointed to lead the party, and his requests to be relieved of the job are ignored.  The party does manage to catch up to Martin and Freya near the Austrian border.  Just before they cross, Fritz orders the men to start shooting, and Freya is hit.  Martin scoops her up and carries her across the border, but she dies shortly thereafter.  Fritz returns to the old Roth home, where he reports the events to Otto and Erich.  While Erich blames Martin for the events, Otto seems to admire the man for standing up for his beliefs.  Before leaving, he wanders through the house, hearing the voices of his family in happier times.

MY TAKE:  This movie is unusual because it actually condemned the Nazi party before the U.S. joined WWII (this movie was released in 1940; the attack on Pearl Harbor, which prompted American entry into the war, didn’t come until the end of 1941).  There were very few movies addressing this issue at the time, which is sort of understandable, since people probably didn’t really grasp just how crazy Hitler and the Nazis were.  The interesting thing is that MGM sort of tried to hedge their bets with this film:  it’s obviously anti-Nazi, and obviously condemns the Nazi principles.  However, while the swastika is frequently used, and Hitler is directly mentioned, there is no explicit confirmation that the film is set in Germany, save for the very beginning text introduction.  Even more interesting, the religion of Roth and his family are never actually clarified — in fact, the word “Jew” is never used.  Instead, they are referred to as “non-Aryan” (and their last name is Roth).  Apparently, this was because MGM had a pretty big German market and was trying not to alienate it.  As you can probably guess, this was an epic failure.  Hitler (and, I would imagine, everybody else on the planet) knew exactly what the movie was talking about.  Hitler got so pissed that he banned all MGM films in Germany.  The sad — and sort of spooky — thing is that this was a pretty accurate depiction of what would happen both in Germany and around the world.  When this movie was released, Hitler had been in power for nearly seven years, but World War II had only just started (end of 1939).  The persecution of the Jews was already present, but this film seems to hint that the fanaticism of the Nazis was beyond what most people thought.  As demonstrated, the Nazis managed to completely turn people against family and lifelong friends very quickly.  It’s incredibly sad.  I wasn’t sure why the movie had the family fleeing to Innsbruck — Innsbruck is in Austria, which was annexed by Hitler in early 1938.  This movie was set before this time, but the movie makers would have known about it.  Additionally, while the characters may not have known that the country would be annexed, surely they knew that Hitler was born in Austria.  It doesn’t take a real big leap to figure out that he might want to take over that country as well.  I liked the movie, but this particular aspect seemed really dumb to me.  Of course, I hated that Freya died at the end.  However, this was a bit overshadowed for me by a nagging question:  why the hell wasn’t that woman wearing a hat?  She’s skiing for hours through the Alps, and she’s not wearing a hat?  Martin’s wearing one, but it’s not pulled down over his ears.  Maybe I’m unaware of how cold the Alps are, but it would seem to me that covering your ears would be a really good idea.  I also thought that they should have made themselves a bit smaller of a target when trying to elude the Nazis.  For pity’s sake, at least try to crouch down on your skis.  In addition to going faster, you’ll make yourself a lot harder to hit.  The movie did feel a bit like an earlier, sadder, less musical version of The Sound of Music to me.  However, this movie is a lot more up-close with the Nazi movement.  The endings were similar, but the von Trapps actually left Austria through the Alps, rather than entering it.  FYI, if you thought Professor Roth’s voice sounded familiar, it’s because he played the Professor/Wizard in The Wizard of Oz.  Also, the maid that works for Martin’s family (whose mother is played by frequent monster-movie actress Maria Ouspenskaya) is played by Bonita Granville, who was the first person to play Nancy Drew onscreen.

RATING:  Sad but good.

 

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