Skies Turn Dark: The Mortal Storm


Confronting evil. Dan Daily, Jimmy Stewart Granville Bates. The Mortal Storm (1940)
Confronting evil. Dan Dailey, Jimmy Stewart Granville Bates. The Mortal Storm (1940)

Adolf Hitler is rightly vilified in the aftermath of the horror he unleashed. It was not always like that however. Even at the start of WWII Hitler was seen as not only a savior of Germany but the world in general. He had passion, unshakable belief in his cause, charisma and persuasive powers to move millions to come join him in this crusade.

The fact this crusade had a lot to do with racial purification and superiority only made the Pro-Nazi ranks swell. There was not a whole lot of couched language when it came to racial superiority. For many there was one group that for the sake of mankind had to emerge as the one on top. Hitler called them Aryans, the supermen who would sweep the continents clean for the glorious Fatherland.

Writer Phyllis Bottome knew a crock when she heard it. Living in Germany during that time she knew the face Germany was showing to the rest of the globe was hiding a heart of darkness.  Indeed many people were won over by Berlin’s hosting of the 1936 Olympics. Amidst all the suspicions and criticisms it was a triumph of presentation.

Yet it was all a facade. Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass) was only two years away but the Nazis had already started to institute pogroms targeted at certain groups labeled as undesirable. Chief among them the Jewish people.

Bottome’s The Mortal Storm published in 1937 took the Nazis head on. It went into great detail about what was actually happening in Germany including the emergence of concentration camps. Naturally the Nazi high command wanted to get their hands on the book and it’s author to prove it was all a lie.

One year later MGM had bought the rights to The Mortal Storm. It was certainly an odd pick. For one MGM as well as the other motion pictures studios wanted no parts of any controversy particularly one that was unfolding in real time. Any effort to strip the offending parts out of the final draft and focus on the conventional love story failed miserably. That was bound to happen when Claudine West worked on the screenplay.

West was a very successful writer for MGM (The Barretts of Wimpole Street, The Good Earth, Goodbye, Mr. Chips). In her opinion Bottome nailed it big time and West took it upon herself to make sure the focus stayed on exactly who the bad guys were and what they were up to.

Storm clouds gather. Paul Von Hindeburg and Adolf Hitler (May 1933). Four months before Hindeburg had named Hitler Chancellor of Germany.
Storm clouds gather. Paul Von Hindeburg and Adolf Hitler (May 1933). Four months before Hindeburg had named Hitler Chancellor of Germany.

Released in 1940 The Mortal Storm is the story of the Roth family. Victor Roth (Frank Morgan) is a much loved and respected professor at the local university. He, his wife Amelie (Irene Rich) and daughter Freya (Margaret Sullivan) along with stepsons Otto and Erich Von Rohn (Robert Stack and William T Orr) live a pretty tranquil life in a small village near the German Alps. Two university students Martin Breitner (Jimmy Stewart) and Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) are extended family who also vie for Freya’s attention.

The dinner table conversations are spirited but filled with love laughter and respect. That is until this night. It is the Professor’s birthday when suddenly the maid excitedly rushes into the room to let everyone know that Hitler has just been made Chancellor of Germany.

The impact on the family is immediate. The Hitler supporters Fritz and the Von Rohns are ecstatic. Finally in their minds Germany has a strong leader who will take the country to new heights of greatness and prosperity.

The Roths and Martin are very concerned. They have heard all too often the Nazi’s express their opinions about certain people and ideas. While Fritz and the others attempt to ease their fears the atmosphere in the room has grown somber and tense. An exchange between Martin and Fritz personifies how things are going to be from now on.

It’s not just the Roth house that has experienced this transformation. Everyone and everything in this small hamlet has been touched. You’re either for Hitler and what he stands for two hundred percent or you are the enemy. Patriotism swiftly turns into fanaticism. A peaceful village now gives way to danger on every corner. A danger that is headed straight for the Roth family.

The Mortal Storm is a frightening movie mainly because World War II had just started the year before and nobody knew how it would end. If early battlefield victories were any indication then a betting person would have put their money on the German war machine which could only make film going audiences of that time more afraid.

Director Frank Borzage does not let up. Yes he balances it with lighter moments but it’s hard to have lighter moments when an avalanche is bearing down on you. For that reason Borzage knows that it would be sheer folly to pretend an approaching disaster isn’t approaching. So while we do get a respite here and there they are few and far between. The urgency of Borzage’s direction is horribly exhilarating.

Margaret Sullivan who had worked with Borzage in Three Comrades is outstanding as Freya. There’s a wonderful naturalistic quality to her acting which separated her from many of her contemporaries.

Jimmy Stewart as Martin Breitner is also quite good. There’s something comforting about the way he stands up to the mob. No matter the odds Martin won’t be bullied. It’s like finding an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Frank Morgan’s restraint as Professor Roth speaks volumes. He’s a dignified man who doesn’t want to rush to judgement but his analytical mind knows that there’s a lion in the streets looking to devour whoever is in it’s path. Namely him.

But for me the revelation here is Robert Young. Fritz Marberg is not evil waiting to come about. He’s a man who truly loves his country and cannot stomach what has happened to it. Germany was great and must be great again. Anything less is unacceptable. Marberg doesn’t necessarily hold any personal animosity but if someone is on the other side of the fence regarding the future of Germany (as he and the other Nazis see it) they must be destroyed. Duty to the Fatherland trumps everything especially family and friends. Young who had also worked with Borzage previously gives a knockout performance.

The world in 1940 was being ripped apart with no end in sight. The Mortal Storm yearns for that better day when love and laughter can fill the house once again. But no one knew if they would ever see that time again which is why the film offers no easy answers or tacked on happy ending. Uncertainty ruled and if better days were on the horizon then there was going to be a heavy price to pay in order to get there.

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