13 August 2017

How to Become a Nazi: The Mortal Storm

(This is a repost of an article from a few months ago. It seems timely now.)

A Nazi book-burning
In The Mortal Storm, we see a country ruled by a "leader" whose world view is based largely on self- aggrandizing fantasy, establishment of one religious group as a scapegoat for social ills, contempt for women, demonizing other  cultures and nationalities, and promoting "alternate facts" above scientific reality.

Perhaps it’s time to look again at this great anti-Nazi film from 1940. The Mortal Storm begins to look like a warning cry from the past that we ignore at our peril.

This film is about the Nazi takeover of Germany, and it starts with an election. Many of us may have forgotten that Adolph Hitler was legally elected to office in 1933. But here we don’t see the politics, the plots, the famous men, the workings of government; instead we witness the disintegration of a family, and the slow death of love, trust, honor, and friendship. We see at first hand how Hitler’s Nazi Party corrupted the sincere patriotism of his deluded followers, twisting every honest thought and feeling into something brutal and vindictive. Some individuals resist the seduction of yielding to the will of a leader; but others, in return for group identity and the strength and power it gives, surrender themselves.

Morgan, Stewart, Young

The story follows Professor Victor Roth (Frank Morgan), a teacher of physiology at an ancient university, and his family, including his wife, Amelie (Irene Rich), his daughter, Freya (Margaret Sullavan), his teenage son, Rudy (Gene Reynolds), and his stepsons, Erich (William T. Orr) and Otto (Robert Stack), and their friends Martin (James Stewart) and Fritz (Robert Young). These young adults have all grown up together. At first it is hardly mentioned that the respected professor is Jewish, and his wife is not. As the story begins, the Professor is feted in the classroom and at home on the occasion of his 60th birthday. His students, male and female, gather and sing “Gaudeamus Igitur,” the medieval song of learning, knowledge, and truth that celebrates the centuries old liberal tradition of German education. It’s actually a light-hearted drinking song, but it contains these lines (in Latin):

Long live our fellowship,
Long live the students;
May truth alone thrive
May brotherhood flourish

These words were soon to disappear from German universities.
At the family party, Roth’s stepsons express their love for him, saying he has been the best father they could ask for. Adding to the celebration, Fritz tells the family that he and Freya have become engaged, and the party proceeds with cake and presents. But soon some news disrupts the happy evening — Adolph Hitler has become Chancellor of Germany.
A happy family party for Professor Roth

To Professor Roth’s carefully hidden dismay the young men, except Martin, greet this with enthusiasm. They turn on the radio to hear live coverage of the announcement, and we hear the first mass chants of “Seig Heil!” Fritz, Otto, and Erich smile proudly at each other, feeling a warm glow of triumph.  Many Germans saw their country’s defeat in World War 1 as a deep humiliation, one that these young men burn to avenge; they are excited at the prospect of making their country "great again."

“We’ll see a new Germany! Nations who want peace have nothing to fear.”
“But if they want war, by Heaven, they’ll get it!” Fritz adds.
Mrs. Roth looks worried. “But what about people who think differently? What about those who are non-Aryan?”
But Otto reassures her. “Men like Father are an honor to Germany,” he says. The boys are not happy with Martin’s lack of enthusiasm, however.
“Now there’ll be one Party, and only one!” Fritz says.
“A man’s got to take a stand — if he’s not for us, he’s against us, and against Germany,” Erich says.
Freya demurs. “You’re getting very intolerant, all of you.”
“Well, we should be intolerant — of anyone who opposes the will of our leader,” Otto says flatly.

They have already begun to think of the “leader” as the embodiment of the country; to disagree with him is to insult Germany. This is the beginning of the end of civilization — the idea that the “will” of one individual should replace the will of the people, or the very concepts of law, ethics, and morality.

The young men get a phone call causing them to hasten off to a political meeting — all except one. Martin, the veterinary student, isn’t interested in going along. “Peasants don’t have any politics; they keep cows.”
“Well, if they want to keep their cows they’d better have the right politics,” Fritz answers sharply. Martin does not back down, however.

Professor Roth, portrayed by the great Frank Morgan, sadly watches them leave. Hitlerism has already begun to divide the formerly loving family, its tendrils wrapping around the young men, fed by their desire for status and approval from their peers. But this is only the beginning.

As the weeks and months go on, everything changes. Hitler soon consolidated supreme governmental power in his own hands; his word alone was the law, and no elected bodies had legal standing oppose him. All government entities, from the civil service to the court system to the armed forces, were ruled by decree. Soon all the young men are wearing uniforms, and the streets are patrolled by aggressive squads looking for signs of disobedience to the Chancellor’s will. Schoolchildren are taught that the leader always does what is right. Jews are blamed for all social ills, and Jewish businesses are targeted for harassment. Liberals and others who disagree with "might makes right" rule are dismissed from their jobs.
Singing the praises of the leader. Or not.

A turning point comes when Freya, Otto, Erich and Martin meet in a tavern in the mountains where they spent convivial times in the past. But everything goes wrong. First everyone in the tavern stands, gives the Nazi salute and sings a tribute to “our great leader,” which contains the words
“…no race on earth can keep our land from glory; we are by birth the rulers of the world.”

Martin and Freya are aghast to see their friends and brothers take part in this ritual.
Only Martin stands up for Mr. Werner

Then they witness a gang of Nazis harassing an elderly man — who turns out to be Mr. Werner, a former schoolteacher of theirs, who has failed to return the Nazi salute. Freya is outraged when Otto and Erich allow this to happen. Only Martin is willing to take a stand and protect the old man from the thugs (the thug-in-chief is played by a very young and extremely effective Dan Dailey.).
Fritz, Otto, and Erich, however, don’t seem to see anything wrong with a mob of able-bodied young men roughing up one elderly one, if it is the will of the leader. In fact, Fritz says anyone who opposes the leader is an enemy of his country.

Freya attempts to remonstrate with him and is told,
”Keep out of this, Freya — this is no woman’s business.”
Fritz reprimands Freya for interfering in politics "no woman's business"

Just then someone yells out that the Nazis are beating the teacher — they waited to get him alone outside and attacked. Martin rushes out to assist him, followed by a furious Freya.
When she returns home by train, accompanied by Fritz and her brothers — who look a little ashamed — Fritz tells her that women shouldn’t mix in public affairs. First they argue; then, seeing that she might actually be willing to break up with him, he becomes conciliatory and say she needn’t bother her head about such things. This does not noticeably mollify her.
Freya doesn't conceal her anger

As things continue to change, Fritz’ ideas about women’s place seems to be the new norm. At the university, girls are suddenly banished from classes, to be replaced with row upon row of uniformed, hostile youths in Nazi uniforms who will accept only the rigidly doctrinaire views of their leader. Professor Roth, who is an expert on blood groups, is now being pressured to declare that “Aryan” blood is different, and purer, than “non-Aryan” blood. Science is being replaced with “alternate facts.” But since this is not true, he cannot say it — so the Nazi students stage a walkout, and soon Professor Roth is dismissed from his proud position. As he leaves the university where he spent so many years, he witnesses an organized book-burning, with volumes by Freud, Heine, Thomas Mann, and Einstein — any thinker who challenges the worldview of the leader — being tossed into the flames as the crowd chants mindlessly, “We burn you! We burn you!” The professor sees that his stepsons and Fritz, their lifelong friend, are part of this crowd, their eyes glazed, their faces red in the firelight. He passes on. The intellectual life of the great university that he loved has ended.

Freya breaks off her engagement to Fritz. He is angry and pained; it seems he really does love her, as far as he can. But he is also in love with the mystical dream of racial superiority and the “natural” right to rule the world. Freya firmly tells him it’s all over, and he storms out, simmering with resentment
Stewart, Sullavan, and Ouspenskaya
Martin and Freya become more friendly than ever. She admires his strength of character and the gentleness with which he tends the animals on his mountain farm. His mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) welcomes her.  One night as he sees her home they meet her two brothers, Otto and Erich, and several other youthful Nazis just leaving. Otto angrily orders Freya to stop seeing Martin, and orders Martin to stay away from their home. Freya, with equal anger, tells him to mind his own business, and another unequal fight ensues, only to end when Mrs Roth runs from the house to reprimand her sons for fighting with Martin, who has always been welcome in her home.

“I’m so ashamed,” she says. The boys are more concerned with losing face in the eyes of their cronies than their mother and sister, and decide to leave their parents house for good. Professor and Mrs. Roth are distressed, but Freya angrily tells them to get out.
Otto and Erich threaten Martin

The family’s disintegration gathers speed; Professor Roth has written a textbook about blood groups, and plans to go to a conference in Vienna (which is in Austria, and not part of the Third Reich — yet) to lecture on the subject. But he never arrives, and never returns from this trip. Mrs. Roth and Freya are frantic with worry. They are unable to find out anything about what has happened to him. Finally Freya approaches Fritz, who is now a minor official. She’s willing to swallow her pride to plead with him for information about her father; finally, apparently feeling a touch of remorse, which he strives to conceal, Fritz tells her that Professor Roth has been arrested for denigrating the “alternative facts” preferred by the leader and sent to a concentration camp.
Freya begs Fritz for news of her father

And here a word should be said about Robert Young’s performance as Fritz, which is brilliant. His conflicting emotions, the war between self-importance and shame, the initial idealism turned to mindless obedience to the leader — even when he is asked to do what he would never have dreamed of doing a few years earlier — are clear to see. Fritz is in a constant state of struggle; his actual love for Freya has to be crushed once she gives her allegiance to her non-Aryan father, yet he cannot crush it.
He argues to himself that individuals must sometimes be sacrificed to the greater good, regardless of their actual innocence — yet he can’t help knowing that the persecution of people like Professor Roth and Mr. Werner is fundamentally dishonorable. He began as a patriot, willing to work for the good of his country; now he’s on and endless treadmill, where he can never relax, never rest. Every minute of every day must be spent in calculating how to placate his superiors in the party — and bracing for what they will ask of him next.
Frank Morgan as Prof. Roth

Mrs Roth gets permission to visit her husband in the camp. His hair and beard are entirely white, and he wears a prison-like uniform with a “J” on the sleeve. Though she tells him everything she’s prepared to try to obtain his release, he knows he will never see her again. Frank Morgan powers this wrenching scene; every look, every word, is laden with the pain of this loss that he doesn’t want her to see.
When they part, after just a few minutes, she says, trying to smile, 
“You’ll be free soon.”
He looks at her for the last time, and says, with a different meaning, 
“I’ll be free soon.”

From this point, the plot snowballs; soon they hear of Professor Roth’s death in the camp. There is nothing to keep what's left of the family in Germany. Mrs Roth, Freya, and Rudy make plans to leave the country. But when they reach the border with Austria, their luggage is searched and Professor Roth’s unfinished manuscript -- containing facts contrary to the leader's "sacred vision" -- is found in Freya’s suitcase. She is detained in Germany as her mother and brother cross the border into Austria, waving goodbye out the train window.

But Martin is in Austria, having helped the teacher Mr. Werner escape through a secret pass through the mountains that only he knows. And he arrives to rescue Freya. As they prepare to ski through the steep ravine that will take them to freedom. Freya's former fiancee Fritz and her half-brothers Otto and Erich  are meeting with their superiors. The Nazis have discovered Martin's plan, and are determined to stop them. Fritz requests that he be relieved of the responsibility, saying that Freya and Martin were once his closest friends. His commander says that that is why he is being assigned this task -- he must choose between his personal loyalty and his leader. Fritz obeys.
Fritz is ordered to hunt Freya and Martin down

Martin and Freya leave via the secret pass but they are followed by a posse of guards, led by Fritz. Their journey is strenuous and harrowing, and they are near the Austrian border when one of the guards takes a shot. Freya falls. Martin manages to carry her across the border but it is too late.

Fritz is seen meeting with Otto and Erich. He tells them what happened, and, faced with their stunned expressions, cries "It was my duty!" Otto and Erich, shocked, disagree sharply, and Otto runs from the building, apparently heading for Austria to find his mother and stepbrother. The family has totally shattered. Family loyalty, friendship, love, and trust have been destroyed. 

Seeing people surrender their own moral judgement to doctrines that civilized men and women know are wrong, give themselves over to predjudice, injustice, and outright cruelty, we ask ourselves, "How could they do it? How could the kill every good impulse in themselves, and do such vile things?" This is how. 


06 August 2017

The Captive Heart: Emotional Rescue

This is my contribution to the Fourth Annual Great British Invaders Blogathon -- Read 'Em All!

Michael Redgrave falls in love with a dead man's wife through letters
It's almost better to come across this movie by accident; at first it seems to be a typical, well-made British World War 2 morale-builder, with quite honest attempts to take note of people's real concerns. But this film covers a lot of ground; there's a bit of adventure, a classic P.O.W. drama, and finally a quite unexpected and moving romance. The film is beautifully photographed, and perfectly paced, so that emotional points are clearly made in brief scenes, despite a complex structure.
The film begins with a spoken statement of appreciation for the contributions and sufferings of prisoners of war, and we see a group of dispirited men shuffling wearily towards what turns out to be a railroad station. As they go, we see a series of flashbacks to the lives of these men before their capture -- the cheerful Welsh builder (Mervyn Johns, getting to use his own accent for a change), the aspiring composer, the young Scot (Gordon Jackson, naturally) proposing to his girl as his troop train pulls away from the platform. We see these same men, dirty, ragged, and exhausted, about to be put aboard a train heading for who knows where, presumably a prison camp.

Redgrave, Jack Warner, Mervyn Johns, and Jimmy Hanley
At the station orders are given to the British officer in charge (Basil Radford, here quite the action hero), but none of the Germans speaks English and none of the Brits speak German -- until one prisoner, who gives his name as Geoffrey Mitchell (Michael Redgrave), comes forward and offers his assistance, since he does in fact speak perfect German. The German officers want to separate the British officers from the men, but the British refuse. That settled, the prisoners are bundled onto freight cars, and a British medical officer passes among them, checking on their various injuries and wounds, his inquiries meeting with responses like, "Musn't grumble, sir."
As the train rumbles on, we see via flashback that Mitchell isn't Mitchell at all, but an escaped prisoner caught in the battle in which Mitchell was killed, and who, to prevent instant execution, assumes Mitchell's identity. Then the scene shifts to England, where we see Mitchell's wife, played by the extremely lovely Rachel Kempson (the future Lady Redgrave and the mother of Corin, Vanessa, and Lynn Redgrave), trying to find information about her husband, though candid family conversation shows that their marriage was on the rocks. 

Basil Radford, Michael Redgrave, and Guy Middleton
Mitchell tries to blend in with the others, but they detect that he is not who he says he is. At first this arouses some suspicion, but eventually the British prisoners come to trust him, and conceal his real identity from the Germans. Meanwhile, the Nazis in charge of the camp proceed with the usual creepy psycho-drama, cutting off all communication with the outside even though the prisoners are supposed to be allowed to send and receive letters; they call the men to an assembly and blast triumphant German marching songs through the loudspeaker. This last backfires somewhat, as the Brits answer with a rousing rendition of "Roll Out the Barrel." 
Music and song become very important expressions of nostalgia, patriotism, determination, and strong feelings of every kind in this film. When the men were first marched from the railroad to the camp, they defiantly whistled "There'll Always Be An England" as they went.  Dai, the Welshman, organizes a choir for Christmas, and everybody sings familiar carols. They sing to drown out German "propaganda" music. They may have stiff upper lips, but they can also belt out "The Long and the Short and the Tall," and it resonates with unspoken solidarity and mutual support.
Most of the middle of the film is taken up with displaying British wit, endurance, and pluck. The men endure boredom, personal frictions, homesickness, and the constant barrage of Nazi self-aggrandizement. The flow of letters back and forth resumes, and the false Mitchell gets a letter from the real Mitchell's wife, Celia. To avoid suspicion, he answers, asking her to write to him just as if he were a stranger. She thinks this is her husband,  reformed by his wartime experiences, and she does just what he asks, describing the life of the village where they live, the nearby farms, the doings of their children. He replies, and they write back and forth for what turns out to be years. 
But the time eventually comes when some of the men are repatriated. Despite the prisoners' efforts, the commandant has become suspicious of Mitchell, and his life is increasingly at risk the longer he stays in the camp. The British put their heads together to think of a plan. It seems that the master list of prisoners to be sent back to England is in the safe in the commandant's office. 
"Well, why don't we steal it, sir?"
"How could we get it open? None of us is a professional safe-cracker."
"Well, actually, sir," one of the men speaks up, "I am."
So that's what they do. They steal the list, alter it, and put it back. Mitchell is included in the group of repatriated soldiers. 
When they arrive in London, he sees Celia looking for her husband in the crowd, but doesn't speak to her. But after reporting to the authorities, and being assigned to the Free Czech forces headquartered in Britain, he does visit Celia. In a restrained but very emotional scene, he tells her that his name is Karel Hasek, and that he wrote the letters she received from the prison camp, and that her husband is dead. She is overwhelmed by this information, and he simply tells her that he loves her, and leaves.

Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson
The final scenes begin a few months later with a montage of the celebrations of V-E Day, as people pour into the streets, singing and dancing with joy. Fireworks are set off all over the country, in every village and town. Celia is watching the display with her children when she gets a phone call from Captain Hasek. Her face floods with happiness -- now she knows that he is the man she fell in love with through his letters. 
Director Basil Dearden does a wonderful job with this film, and I actually think it's one of his best, moving quickly but with perfect clarity through a complicated story and many characters. But the real center of the film is Michael Redgrave, in a deeply felt, intense, mesmerizing performance. Tall, athletic looking, and handsome, Redgrave could have been a movie star if he had wanted to; he was more interested in the demanding world of classical stage drama, but all of his film performances are well worth seeing. Here he conveys Karel's loneliness, fear, and gratitude with power and subtlety -- and all of these things are a tribute to Britain, and the British character, as the soldiers accept him, a foreigner, protect him, and finally risk their own safety to save his life and send him home.

The Captive Heart is available on Filmstruck as part of the Basil Dearden collection. Also available are other Redgrave performances: The Importance of Being Earnest, The Lady Vanishes, Time Without Pity, and The Browning Version.

31 July 2017

The "Mae West" Effect

Lady Lou checks out the scene in She Done Him Wrong

In 1933 talk about women's fashion was suddenly news, though the headlines it engendered weren't exactly solomn: "Bed Slat Figure Wanes as Women's Styles "Go West,"" one stated gleefully. "The "Lady Lou" Styles Capture Feminine Fancy," reads another. Why was this unusual enough to merit news coverage? Because Mae West had arrived on motion pictures screens, witty, sexy, and with a unique glamor unlike anything anyone had seen before.
The twentieth century had brought with it a fashion revolution. Womens styles of late 19th century reached a height of elegance and elaboration that has seldom been equaled. The silhouette of the fashionable woman was, as it had nearly always been throughout the centuries, curvaceous. But changing social roles, work outside the home, and the ferment over women’s political rights, made these lovely gowns seem outmoded and impractical by the 1910’s. Women discarded their full skirts, their corsets, and their long, heavy hair, sometimes with mixed feelings, but generally greeting the new fashions with an increased sense of freedom. Before their eyes was the fresh and fashionable example of Mrs. Vernon Castle, whose slim, active figure and boyish bobbed hair became a new ideal in the years right before the outbreak of World War 1.
From this distance, it’s really difficult to realize just what a shock these new fashions were. There had been fads for slim outlines and even short hair during the Regency period, in the early 1800’s, but this was not in living memory, at least not for anybody under the age of 100.  People had grown up seeing women in skirts that touched the ground and hair piled high. These “new” women really seemed new.
Irene and Vernon Castle
From 1914 to 1918, Europe was consumed with the Great War; the U.S. joined in vigorously in 1918. This disaster eventually shattered belief in authority of all kinds, including social convention. It’s not too extreme to say that the war shook Western Society to its foundation. Young people who came of age during and immediately after the conflict felt cut off from older generations, and also felt that they faced a new world of modernity without much guidance from the past. After the war, fashion became yet more extreme, with skirts skimpier than they had ever been, hair as short as a boy's, and an ideal figure that was essentially waistless, bustless and hipless. 

This certainly was a change from the past, and for a while young women reveled in it. 

Fashion evolved through the twenties to the early thirties, as short, beaded evening dresses morphed into gowns that were structureless slips of bias-cut satin that skimmed the slender body.

Constance Bennett in a slim satin evening gown circa 1932

These fashions were very charming, and felt youthful and new. But there was one problem with them. Most adult women do not have waistless, bustless, and hipless figures. And after 25 years of trying to achieve them, they were pretty tired of making the effort.
Mae sings Frankie and Johnnie

Fortunately, a savior was riding to the rescue. In 1933, most unexpectedly, the highest-grossing motion picture was a period melodrama laced with wit called She Done Him Wrong, the creation of Broadway star, playwright and screenwriter Mae West. It was based on her hit play Diamond Lil, which was deemed too shocking for movies. She Done Him Wrong was a huge sensation; besides doing enormous business and keeping Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy, and proving so popular that midnight showings were instituted in some cities -- some of them for gentlemen only! -- it also created a tsunami in the world of high fashion.
The gorgeous period gowns adorning Mae's equally gorgeous figure were designed for Travis Banton's Paramount studio by Banton's chief assistant, Edith Head, and based on the original Broadway costumes for Diamond Lil by Dolly Tree -- all with major input from Mae herself. Tight fitting, low cut, glittering with sequins and fluttering with feathers, accessorized with wide brimmed hats and ostrich plume stoles, these costumes set off Mae's hourglass form perfectly, as she knew they would. And everybody noticed. Suddenly the aspects of the female figure that had been discarded twenty five years before were "in" again -- much to the gratitude of men in general, who had never exactly lost interest in the female figure. 
One of Dolly Tree's costumes for the Broadway production
Most people still looked to Paris couturiers as arbiters, and Mae West's look was a sensation in France. The fashions of 1934 suddenly went in in the middle, and various kinds of drapery adorned bust and hips. Elsa Schiaparelli designed a perfume bottle based on Mae's torso for her signature scent Shocking. (She would eventually design Mae's gowns for her 1938 film Every Day's a Holiday, which opens in 1899.) And Hollywood did not lag far behind; it has always seemed to me that leading ladies must have taken one look at Mae's fabulous gowns and said, "Hey! Where are my feathers and sequins and ruffles and lace?" Whether or not that's the real reason, in 1934 there was a rush of period films with gorgeous gowns for the stars; including Irene Dunne, Dolores Del Rio, and Kay Francis. 
Dolores Del Rio in Madame Du Barry

Of course, in daily life women were not about to adopt ankle-length skirts or heavy coils of hair again. Designers adapted the hourglass look to shorter hair and practical but flattering skirt lengths that hovered below the knee. The great costumer Gilbert Adrian added exaggerated, padded shoulders, which he originally designed to mask Joan Crawford's naturally unusually broad shoulders. This shoulder emphasis had the visual  effect of slimming the whole body. Women were released from the pressure to be wraith-thin, lest a bulge or a jiggle should show through the thin silk or satin of an early 1930's evening gown. It could be argued that the fashions of 1935-1945 were more becoming to more women than those of any other era. And women owed some of that to the astute sense of style and irresistible charm of Mae West.