The Mortal Storm (1940) – A Review

The Mortal Storm 1940 James Stewart Margaret Sullavan
The Mortal Storm

It’s 1933 Germany and Freya Roth (Margaret Sullavan) is engaged to Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) a young politically passionate Nazi party member. When Adolf Hitler is announced as Chancellor of the country Freya’s close knit family become dramatically threatened. Her step-brothers are fervently supportive of the Nazi regime, her father is imprisoned, her relationship with Fritz is strained and her longtime friend Martin Breitner (James Stewart) is vocally opposed of the growing change and attitudes that is happening in his country.

This is a simple powerful movie. I don’t often see it get much attention, but it should. It’s a bleak story with drama and sadness. It conveys its message in a no-nonsense way. There’s no confusion as to its point of view and what it’s trying to illustrate to its audience.

Watching this now I’m shocked that the movie ever got made. This was before the U.S. was involved in WWII and the fact the film takes such a clear cut stand against Hitler and the Nazi regime is quite startling. I would have thought the movie studios (MGM made The Mortal Storm) didn’t want to make any waves and would go about gingerly making crowd-pleasing films. But somehow director Frank Borzage made The Mortal Storm and it continues to stand up as a timeless story.

The Mortal Storm 1940 anti-Nazi film

Based on a 1938 novel, the adaptation is a very well made film. The direction and actors are all excellent. It’s hard not to be effective with scenes of Stewart and an old man being beaten by a gang of thugs or he and Sullavan watching silently as the crowd around them raises their arms heiling Hitler.

Stewart is a beacon of good, but he doesn’t overplay his role. Towards the beginning he’d rather keeps his opinions to himself. He respects others beliefs and expects the same courteousness in return. It’s when he witnesses the brutal treatment of innocents that he takes a stand and is willing to put himself in harm’s way for them and what he feels is right.

Freya is torn between her relationship between Fritz, the persecution towards her father and the blind loyalty of her brothers. One of her brothers is played by an very young Robert Stack. I think it’s the youngest I ever saw him as!

Naturally something has to break and since it isn’t Fritz or Freya’s brothers Freya is forced to make some difficult decisions. If she’s not willing to go along with the radicalism that is blanketing her country she has no place there. It’s a sad situation and your heart goes out to Sullivan.

I don’t think it’s ever directly stated that the Roth’s are Jewish. I don’t think the word is ever uttered, but it’s clear that’s what’s going on. It’s certainly said that he’s not ‘pure Aryan blood’, so that’s enough of an inference of what the movie is portraying.

Not surprisingly the movie got plenty of attention when it was released, notably by Hitler himself who banned the film in Germany and subsequently all MGM films.

It’s a fascinating film to watch from the perspective of the time it was made. I’ll often read about Chaplin’s The Great Dictator as an early film that took a stance against Hitler, but barely ever see mentions of The Mortal Storm. I’m not sure why this movie doesn’t get more attention. But leaving aside the time it was first made and released, it’s a very good film all by itself that still packs as much of a punch today as it did in 1940.


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1 Response

  1. Anonymous says:

    I read about this movie in the book, 1001 movies you must see before you die, before I saw it. I hope that book helps it get more attention, as otherwise I would have never heard of it. I think the ending is especially good when Robert Stack is walking around the empty house with only the voices of the past for company. It is funny to imagine him being in the world war II comedy, To Be or Not to Be just two years later.

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