Director: Frank Borzage
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The other afternoon, the hubby and I lunched at The Foundation, a vegetarian restaurant near Vancouver’s Antique Row. In addition to serving up great fare, the proprietors of the restaurant also offer inspiration. Looking like fortunes pulled from giant fortune cookies, quotes decorate the restaurant’s walls, including one from the great Illinois statesman, Adlai Stevenson II, that stared me in the face throughout my meal:
I consider a free society to be a society where it is safe to be unpopular.
Stevenson, of course, was rather unpopular with American voters of the 1950s, who thought his intellectual gifts, liberal ideals, and religious vagueness were suspicious and more than a little effete—twice they chose retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower as their president over Stevenson. I sometimes wonder how the course of history might have been changed had Stevenson outranked Joseph McCarthy and others of his ilk with more than a little sympathy for fascism.
The powerful anti-Nazi film The Mortal Storm was a rare show of strength from the Hollywood that later would be brought to its knees by McCarthy. At a time when the major studios were avoiding the subject, MGM took a stand. Hitler was peculiarly adept at understanding the power of seditious art; much to his annoyance, his “show trial” of “degenerate art” touring Germany was wildly popular. Not one to make that same mistake twice, after viewing The Mortal Storm, he banned all MGM films from screening in Germany.
It’s not hard to see why this film would have incensed him or any other good Nazi. While it exposed audiences to the truth of Nazi Germany in hopes of rousing them to action, modern audiences can only look at the film with a sense of foreboding as the happy and honorable Roth family is corralled and then strangled by the forces of madness.
Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) awakens on his 60th birthday to the felicitations of his wife Amelie (Irene Roth), daughter Freya (Margaret Sullavan), young son Rudi (Gene Reynolds), and grown stepsons Erich and Otto von Rohn (William T. Orr and Robert Stack). Viktor, a professor of biology, heads off to work and drops several hints about his special day, only to be ignored by his colleagues. Crestfallen, he walks into his lecture hall to the resounding applause and stamping of feet of his students, his family, and his colleagues. Student Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) and long-time family friend Martin Breitner (James Stewart) present him with an engraved trophy of the torchbearer. Initially annoyed at believing his birthday to have been forgotten, Viktor melts into gratitude and gives a heartfelt speech of admiration for his students and colleagues.
The family holds a celebratory dinner that night and Fritz brashly announces that he and Freya are engaged, though Freya has not yet consented. Just then, the Roth’s maid Marta (Esther Dale) comes in with word that Hitler has been made Germany’s chancellor. Fritz, Erich, and Otto run to the next room to listen to the news on the radio; they are ecstatic. Amelie is worried because Viktor is a Jew, but Viktor simply prays that Hitler will govern Germany with wisdom. Martin’s mood, initially darkened by Freya’s engagement, grows positively black with the news of Hitler’s ascendancy. The fissures we see in this family scene grow over the course of the film, as Fritz, Erich, and Otto join the Nazi Party, Martin helps a Jewish schoolteacher escape to Austria and becomes a fugitive himself, Viktor is arrested and killed for being a Jew and teaching facts that contradict Hitler’s notions of a master race of Aryans, and Freya is detained for trying to take Viktor’s last manuscript out of the country.
Frank Borzage was the logical—and only—choice to direct this film. He had made two previous films on the rise of the Nazis, Little Man, What Now? (1933) and Three Comrades (1938), while no other director came near the topic. But aside from his familiarity with the subject matter, Borzage—a director with a “touch” as personal and romantic as Ernst Lubitsch’s, but with deeper undertones—makes the downfall of this family a personal tragedy that has universal meaning. The fracture between the Roths and the von Rohns and Fritz isn’t as clean as is often found in other such films. Fritz really loves Freya and is torn first by his ideals and then, when those are betrayed, by his sense of duty; when Freya breaks with him, his pain and longing at seeing her underscore every scene. Erich and Otto feel genuine love for Viktor, who has been a real father to them, but get ground up in the Nazi machine so that their individuality is nearly lost; only Otto, the younger of the two, sees the folly that has been set in motion. Dale is perfect as the maid who turns on the Roths without much reluctance—as a member of the serving class, one certainly resentful of a perceived Jewish wealth and power, her happiness at the rise of Hitler and the emotionless way she leaves her job of 10 years rings tragically true.
The complex of emotions the great Margaret Sullavan brought to her craft are on full display here. Her embarrassment at Fritz’s announcement of their engagement is tinged with anger, her attempt at clinging to her affection for him an inward struggle, her dawning realization of the depth of her love for family friend Martin as gradual as it would be in real life. Stewart isn’t given much room to do more than a short version of his aw-shucks good-guy routine, but my interest in his performance was deepened by the knowledge that he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1940 and finally met the physical requirements in 1941. He really meant what he said in this film and put his life on the line to help people like the one he played here.
For me, Frank Morgan’s performance is the most heartbreaking. Although he was well-versed at playing kindly, sentimental roles, Viktor has an edge that, say, his Wizard of Oz never would have. There is nothing accidental about Viktor’s courageous actions. He refuses to teach anything other than what science has discovered, and shows up the caretaker at his university, whose limp “Heil Hitler” to a colleague is self-reproach enough. He says, “I’ve never prized safety, Erich, either for myself or my children. I prized courage.”
Borzage also could film action. As they attempt to ski to freedom in Austria, Freya and Martin are chased down a mountainside by a Nazi platoon led by Fritz. Recalling a more carefree ski they had early in the film, the irony and desperation of this scene keep one breathless with fear. The simple crumpling of one body far in the distance (which one is it?) after the platoon takes aim and fires is nauseatingly real.
The Mortal Storm is an exceedingly difficult film to watch. The attention to detail, the true performances, the inexorable rhythms of tragedy create an urgency that certainly must have been the aim of Borzage and his cast and crew. An important film in many ways in the careers of all those involved, it is the rare film that sends a message with a delicacy and artistry that any film enthusiast can appreciate.