We tend to forget now that Hollywood produced very few anti-Nazi films prior to the United States entering the war at the end of 1941. Until Pearl Harbor, there was strong opposition to entering the war and many Americans, including in Hollywood, felt pressure to remain neutral.
One of the few, and arguably the best exception to this is the 1940 film The Mortal Storm.
Based on a 1937 novel by British writer Phyllis Bottome and directed by Frank Borzage, it concerns the Roth family in 1933. Since at the time the German market was still a very large one, the film barely mentions it takes place in Germany. It also skirts around the issue of religion by calling the head of the family, Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan), “non-Aryan” instead of Jewish. Married to a woman who is not Jewish, he has two stepsons Otto and Erich (Robert Stack and William T. Orr) as well as a daughter Freya (Margaret Sullavan) and a son Rudi (Gene Reynolds).
The family is happy and successful. As the film opens, they are celebrating Professor Roth’s 60th birthday. At the party are friends of Otto, Erich, and Freya: Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) and Martin Breitner (James Stewart). Fritz pressures Freya into announcing their engagement, much to the disappointment of Martin. The festivities are interrupted by the announcement that Adolph Hitler has become Chancellor of Germany.
The young men, save Martin, are overjoyed by the news. Martin claims to be uninterested in politics. Fritz, Otto, and Erich all become fervent members of the Nazi party. Freya is disturbed by Fritz’s and her brothers’ fanatical embracement of fascism. Freya realizes she can never marry a man like Fritz and breaks off her engagement.
One night in a tavern a man who refuses to join in singing a Nazi anthem is harassed. Freya and Martin stand up during the singing but refuse to join in. Martin helps the man escape the country by taking him across the border to Austria. Before he leaves, Martin and Freya declare their love for each other, even though they have no idea when they will see each other again, because it would be too dangerous for Martin to return.
Soon Professor Roth is also a target of harassment by the new regime. He refuses to change the curriculum he teaches because it is contrary to Nazi beliefs. He is boycotted, then arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Before he dies, he pleads with his family to leave the country.
On the journey Freya is detained because she is carrying a notebook with her father’s work. Her mother and youngest brother are permitted to cross the border, but her passport is confiscated. Martin’s mother Hilda (Maria Ouspenskaya) sends for Freya. She is delighted to see Martin. He has returned so he can help her escape across the border. Before they leave Hilda leads them in a toast where they drink out of a traditional bride’s cup. Martin and Freya now consider themselves married.
Fritz is commandeered to lead a patrol to go after them. Reluctantly, he agrees. The patrol catches up with them near the border. Martin and Freya make a run for it but Freya is shot and killed.
When Otto and Erich hear of Freya’s death, Otto finally rejects his Nazi beliefs.
One of the most stunning aspects of watching this film now is how it resonates with this current moment in history. The Roth family is happy; the two stepsons adore their stepfather. Yet politics divides this family and their circle of friends—rather, smashes it into pieces—with extraordinary ease. At first, Martin and Freya try to stay above politics, but soon see that is impossible because of the cruelty of the Nazi regime. The rejection of science that contradicts the beliefs of the Nazis also resonates today. (Professor Roth is a science teacher.)
The cast, most of whom do not even bother to attempt a German accent, is nevertheless stupendously good. This was the fourth and final film Stewart and Sullavan made together. Borzage uses a great deal of restraint with the love story and their chemistry enhances it. Robert Young and Robert Stack, who so often played romantic or heroic leads during their careers, are excellent choices for their roles because of the sense of normalcy they bring to them when we first meet them. Morgan and Ouspenskaya are touching as the doomed father and the mother who encourages her son’s heroism, even though she is aware of the existential danger.
In spite of attempts to tip-toe around the religious identity of the Roth family, the Nazi regime was furious about the release of The Mortal Storm and banned it, as well as all MGM movies, from distribution in Germany.
As of this writing, it is very difficult to see this film, which is so wrong. It is an excellent and unfairly overlooked work, and tragically, still relevant to this time.