This somber anti-fascist tale opened 18 months before Pearl Harbor, when American isolationists, both inside and outside the movie industry, were still calling the shots. As the documentary Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust points out, Germany made up 10% of Hollywood’s foreign market, and the studio moguls—all of them Jewish—felt even more threatened by anti-Semitic currents washing through American society at the time. MGM was also the least political of the studios, so it takes something more than Louis B. Mayer’s love of glossy literary adaptations to explain why he okayed a film version of Phyllis Bottome’s novel.
The film begins on the night that Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor of Germany in 1933, and goes on to cover the ensuing years, as history bears down like a freight train on two men: a soft-spoken freethinker (James Stewart) who quietly withdraws from society when his lifelong friends plunge headlong into the Nazi madness, and a Jewish professor (Frank Morgan) who is stepfather to an Aryan family that includes two sons of military age. Despite its gassy, unparseable title, The Mortal Storm avoids the stodginess and stridency of so many wartime pictures, thanks largely to its ensemble work—Margaret Sullavan, Robert Young, Robert Stack and Bonita Granville help round out the cast. The Alps may be represented by obvious models and matte shots, but the characters come with detailed histories and an air of having known each other forever. And that’s something different from most films of the era: an acknowledgement that life under Hitler remained a social tapestry. Though real-life counterparts may have been few and far between, it’s important to the movie’s ethos that even the young man who has cruelly turned on his loved ones can feel a shred of self-doubt.
Frank Borzage’s years in silent cinema can be seen in his gliding camera moves (especially during an invigorating ski race), and in sequences like the one in which Stewart and Sullavan find themselves in a beerhall surrounded by monsters. When the troops break into one of their drinking songs with their arms raised in the fascist salute, the young couple warily rise to their feet with a perfect mixture of apprehension and disbelief on their faces, and the fact that they’re facing the opposite direction of everyone else seems like a poetic gesture rather than a weighted symbol.
It’s not clear when the story takes place other than sometime before the Anschluss in March 1938. In the movie’s world street-beatings and book burnings are common, and the Nazi regime’s attack on rationality is a close match for what we know was going on in those years. And though the Final Solution still lay in the future, and one might think such an apocalypse unimaginable before it occurred, the filmmakers intuited at least something of what was to come in a heart-rending farewell scene. The atmosphere is one of harrowing, mindless violence, widening fear and a deep and growing sorrow. [A note: despite the fact that Hitler’s name is tossed about along with the swastika and other Nazi trappings, the word “Jew” is never uttered in the film—“non-Aryan” is the term of choice—and the setting is downplayed (though not denied). The Mortal Storm was still potent enough for Germany to ban MGM films after it appeared—a testament to the power of a movie that was being made even as its vast historical events were still unfolding.]