The Mortal Storm (1940)

As a piece of film history, The Mortal Storm is significant. It is the reason that WWII Germany banned Hollywood films from the country. It should not come as a surprise as the heroes of the story are oppressed and assaulted by the Nazis for not conforming to the rising ideological regime. But outside the context of history, it’s a well-crafted film, helmed by melodrama master Frank Borzage who breathes life into the characters of the story.

Prof. Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) teaches science at the local college in the German Alps, living a quiet, happy life with his family. It’s his birthday, a cause for much celebration by his friends and family, but it also marks the day that Hitler rises to power. While the youth celebrate, one of Roth’s students isn’t thrilled, Martin Breitner (James Stewart)., neither is Roth himself or his daughter, Freya (Margaret Sulavan). But as the new order rises, the three find it harder and harder to adhere to their beliefs as friends and family begin to overwhelm and ostracize them.

The film, therefore, centers the most on this ideological conflict, on how Nazism thrives on fear and terror, ravaging and consuming those who stand in its wake through sheer power. But even more than that, it brings in this allure, this idea of national patriotism and a new ascension of Germany that brings in the youth and once in there’s not a way out. It’s easy to see why this would have been banned by the Nazis because it doesn’t simply put them in a bad light but attacks their ideas head-on, at their very core.

But the core of the film itself is the drama of the characters and how these three people try to survive. The setting is a small village that has no real military presence, but as the people introduced as friends and family quickly become Nazis and begin to bear down on everyone who isn’t, the film shows how an isolated community can be shaken by a simple idea. It’s a powerful and moving tale, seeped more in the tragedy of losing loved ones and friends not to death, but to a conflict of beliefs that cannot even sit down and enjoy a beer together in the same pub.

Borzage brings together a stellar cast to flesh out the drama. James Stewart is the most notable name, and he’s solid and restrained as the simple farmhand. He’s a character who often falls back on bold, self-righteous monologs, but Borzage isn’t interested in giving Stewart that kind of material. There’s a softness to him, a weariness to his presence that is akin to his character in It’s A Wonderful Life, but (thank God) without the loud speeches.

Margaret Sullavan has more energy, and plays well against Stewart. It’s not a sparkling, electric romance, but more of a soft, implied relationship that works well without Sullavan coming on to strong. Once again, for Borzage it’s more about restraint here than anything else. What’s surprising about this film is how Borzage gives so many actors a great moment to shine. Actors who only have a few scenes or a few lines get their moment of glory and few directors would have so many scenes that focus on characters outside the leads.

But the real power that serves the drama, the real force that brings the audience into the film is the power of Borzage’s camera. With cinematographer William H. Daniels, Borzage finds ways to make the camera reflect the emotional feeling of a moment. As the film progresses and the characters become sadder, the lighting becomes darker and the characters not as well lit. There are also a series of tracking shots that ease the audience further into the lives of these characters.

All this leads to a fantastic final act. While Borzage’s Lucky Star ended in a fantastical last act, here he’s more rooted in real, gritty drama. It’s the natural conclusion of such a film especially with the ideological underpinnings of the entire piece but it also packs a real emotional punch. Borzage’s ability to craft both an intellectually thoughtful film that drives into the heart of Nazism while also crafting an involving drama makes The Mortal Storm an astounding achievement, and the reason that the film is more than just one for the history books.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing