The Mortal Storm (1940)

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.

  • Greg F spoke:
    20th/08/2010 to 1:09 pm

    I’ve long wanted to see this and think now I will finally just pick up the DVD. It’s always been rather shameful how little Hollywood portrayed the Nazis prior to our involvement in World War II, particularly after Kristallnacht. The thought of candy-coating Nazism or not portraying actual Nazi figures for fear of offending some isolationist pricks in the states seems sickening. It’s good to know that, according to a voice I can trust, this movie lives up to its reputation of laying it on the line for all to see.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    20th/08/2010 to 7:08 pm

    It’s absolutely one of Borzage’s best films, with A FAREWELL TO ARMS, SEVENTH HEAVEN and MOONRISE and it’s every bit as noteworthy and artistically accomplished as your pssionate review attests to. I bought the Warner Archives DVD just months ago, and was very impressed with the sense of urgency you point out , as well as acknowledgement of the great turns by Frank Morgan and Margaret Sullavan. Of the other two Borzages you mention here that deal with this subject, I’d say both are quite impressive.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/08/2010 to 7:12 pm

    Greg – It lays it on the line in spades. I’ve Tivo’d this film several times and always chickened out of watching it. It was on TCM the other night as part of Robert Stack night (he’s so YOUNG in this film), and I thought, “It’s time.” God, it was hard. Borzage was the only director to tackle the subject head on, but it was alluded to by the sheepish Jewish producers, for example, in The Life of Emile Zola in 1937 (William Dieterle). I understand the fear, which was actually well-founded when considering what happened to Hollywood in the 1950s. Jews know more than most how lethal those threatening vibes can grow to be.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/08/2010 to 7:14 pm

    Sam – I haven’t seen the other two films I mention, but I did see Man’s Castle just a few short weeks ago, and was very impressed with the dignity and reality he lends to the destitute of the Depression. It’s a rare filmmaker who can make love so timeless and still comment on social conditions.

  • Rod spoke:
    21st/08/2010 to 4:12 am

    This is my favourite Borzage film and a great example of how consciousness-raising, timely films can also be poetic, philosophical, and very, very exciting. My only significant problem with it is Borzage laying on the overt spirituality at the start and end far too thick (that voiceover through the clouds at the start irresistibly reminds me of Glen or Glenda). Great filmmaking like Stewart and Sullavan’s escape through the mountains at the end does the job of suggesting twinning opposites of transcendence and brutalisation. And that great final scene anticipates The Magnificent Ambersons.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/08/2010 to 10:30 am

    Yes, Rod, the prologue/epilogue is heavyhanded, but I simply ignored it. I’ve read that Borzage’s more overt religiosity as his career progressed pushed him into disfavor with the cinephile community. Now I’m very eager to see those later films just to see what direction he took.

  • Kevin spoke:
    21st/08/2010 to 12:01 pm

    I saw this the other night on TCM and loved it. The way the youth got swept in by the contagious enthusiasm of the Nazis was frightening. Maria Ouspenskaya as Stewart’s mother is marvelous in her determination to keep Stewart’s former friends from finding him.

    I cannot recommend this film enough.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/08/2010 to 12:41 pm

    Ouspenskaya always troubles me a little, perhaps it’s her imperfect grasp of English-language nuance. She always sounds stilted. But I agree that she did a nice job here, the way she said her son’s life was in the young girl’s hands. That was Bonita Granville as the girl, whom I only know from the Nancy Drew movies. She was a little too hysterical in this part, but she gave it her all. Thanks for stopping by, Kevin.

  • Duroc spoke:
    23rd/08/2010 to 12:06 pm

    I’ve never watched this movie. This is so illuminating. I’m gonna search por this.

    Thank you Marilyn, your reader from Uruguay ;).

    ps: Sorry for my english.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/08/2010 to 11:55 am

    Thanks, Duroc. I hope you can find the film. It’s not as common as some, but well worth the effort.

  • Ferdy spoke:
    27th/08/2010 to 4:10 am

    Dear Marylin, my name is Ferdy (too). I’ve read your blog since years ago, and I put a link to your blog on my blog ever since. I like your writing, because I’m a fond of movies myself. Keep up the good work.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/08/2010 to 11:57 am

    I always welcome another Ferdy! Thanks for being a fan and commenting. And linking me!

  • Lorne spoke:
    5th/10/2010 to 7:53 pm

    Marilyn – Thanks for sparking an interest in a film I didn’t even know existed until now. I’m hopelessly, embarrassingly ignorant of film from before the mid 50’s – other than the best-known classics – but your review has me really curious. I also like the challenge of seeing a film that’s considered hard to watch.

  • Jeff Boston spoke:
    10th/12/2011 to 5:30 pm

    “The Mortal Storm” is a harrowing historical piece and a timeless treasure due to its many meaningful messages, mainly the folly of replacing God with man.

    At its outset, its conclusion, and throughout, “The Mortal Storm” reminds us that one should not follow the fallible, but trust in God. Nazism, aka National Socialism, is a poor substitute for “freedom; belief in God,” as the physiology professor (played to perfection by Frank Morgan) declares to his wife. In fact, nearly all of the traditional, conservative individuals in the movie whom oppose the terrorizing socialist takeover pray to God or reference God in some fashion. None of the Nazis do. Stark contrast, but done in subtle fashion in this paramount production.

    Well done, with the main message that never should the ruse of Man trump the rule of God.

  • john spoke:
    10th/11/2016 to 7:57 pm

    Hate to bring this up: Here we go again! The Sheeple have spoken: 8 November 2016!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/12/2017 to 11:54 am

    Horrible indeed, John.

  • John spoke:
    8th/12/2017 to 1:32 pm

    Although a Lower East Side Kid my model for the spoken word was the Nabe. What a great model was this film. The themes were also graspable! On the other hand the only other film which rammed home existential fear for an 8 year old was “A Journey for Margaret.”

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