Starring James Stewart in a WWII drama that is not well-known today but is as worthy of remembrance as Casablanca and A Farewell to Arms, The Mortal Storm takes a hard look at the fanaticism that preceded the start of WWII. The movie begins in 1933 on the eve of Hitler’s ascension to Chancellor of Germany and centers around a well-known and highly regarded science professor played by Frank Morgan and his family.
The movie begins on the professor’s birthday. The opening scene is lively and upbeat as gifts come pouring in for the professor at his home. But when he goes to the university expecting birthday wishes, none of his colleagues seem aware that it is his birthday. Feeling dejected, he walks into his classroom where his wife and children, colleagues, and his entire class are there to honor him. The love and adoration of his friends and colleagues as they shower him with praise sets the scene for the impending storm that would sweep through this small college town nestled in the Alps.
The professor goes home to spend his birthday with his wife and four children; two stepsons which are from his wife’s previous marriage, a son and a daughter named Freya played by Margaret Sullivan. James Stewart (Martin Breitner) is one of his students and a close friend of the professor’s daughter Freya. Freya’s boyfriend Fritz played by Robert Young completes the tight trio of friends, though it is evident from the beginning that Martin is in love with Freya.
As the professor raises a glass to toast his family, cheers from the radio in the background catches the attention of all. The maid runs into the dining room to cheerfully announce that Hitler has been made Chancellor. The professor’s stepsons, one played by a young Robert Stack and Freya’s boyfriend Fritz cheer and celebrate. Worry colors the expression on the professor’s face and his wife’s. Martin is noticeably upset.
Fritz notices Martin’s reaction and immediately begins to press him to join the cause and to celebrate with them. Martin refuses. An argument starts to erupt when the professor culls them all saying, “May we not believe as we choose and allow others to do the same?”
It is from this point that the movie illustrates the dark storm that overcomes the professor’s family as lifelong bonds of friendship are severed. Though never explicitly stated in The Mortal Storm, the professor is Jewish; his wife is Aryan as are her eldest sons who are happy and proud to join the German Army. Their daughter Freya and their youngest son are part Aryan and part Jewish, which had not been an issue prior to Hitler’s rise to power.
The moral dilemmas, the courage of people like Martin Breitner and his mother, the cowardice of some, the vicious conformity of others, all create the tense atmospheric storm which crescendos all the way to the end, climaxing with a race on skis through the Alps to the Austrian border.
This movie was very atypical and daring for its time. Many studios in 1940 did not dare criticize Nazis or Hitler. American audiences at that time still considered the Nazi regime a European problem and were not interested in seeing movies about a European war. This movie blatantly attempts to prick the consciences of movie-goers everywhere to see what was happening in Europe as a mortal storm that affects all mankind.
The movie is based on the highly acclaimed novel written by Phillyis Bottome which was first published in 1938. If ever you have the opportunity to see the movie or to read the book, it is well worth your time. Check the movie schedule on TCM.com and search for The Mortal Storm (1940) starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan for show times or to purchase the DVD. Find the book here on Good Reads.