Blog Archive

28 April 2016

A Passionate Anti-Nazi Statement: The Mortal Storm

The rise of Nazism during the 1920s and 1930s met with different responses from the different major Hollywood studios -- this despite the fact that all of them were headed by Jews, including the Warner brothers, Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Samuel Goldwyn, Adolph Zukor, Jesse Lasky, Harry Cohn, and David O. Selznick, among others
Of course business concerns had to weigh with them; American films were extremely popular throughout Europe, including Germany. Producing a motion picture that would not be accepted in Germany could potentially lose a lot of money. But besides this, these men were either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants, of the generation of European and Russian Jews who fled persecution. I believe that this experience strongly predisposed them to play down any reference to Jews or "Jewish problems."
The Warner Brothers were the bravest, and during the1930s, Warners films were the cutting edge of anti-Nazi sentiment in Hollywood; starting early with such classics as George Arliss’ 1934 vehicle The House of Rothschild and 1937s The Life of Emile Zola. In fact Warmers’ great series of biopics almost all managed to use tales of historical persecution and injustice to cast a morally outraged eye on the activities and philosophy of the Third Reich. And they managed to do this in a way that is quite clear to the viewer despite continued and explicit pressure from the Hays Office to refrain from “offending” the Germans – and to refrain from even mentioning the fact that the Reich’s main targets were Europe’s Jews.
Warners and (eventually) other studios were able, through skillful writing, acting, producing, and directing, to criticize the Nazi regime and deplore the persecution of Jews without ever mentioning the words National Socialism or Jew. They knew what they wanted to say, and an audience member would have to be pretty darned ignorant of current affairs not to get it. The House of Rothschild, with Arliss starring as both founder of the famous bank, Meyer Rothschild, and his eldest son, Nathan, who headed up the banking house in London, is a paean to the family values and patriotism of Jews; the villain is a thuggish, viciously anti-Semitic Prussian played by Boris Karloff. The moral dynamic could hardly have been more explicit.
Margaret Sullivan, Frank Morgan, and Irene Riche

By 1940, the days of willful blindness were over; everyone knew what was going on in Europe. Our closest ally, Britain had been at war for two years. Despite the arguments of “America Firsters” who valued safety over resistance to the Nazi threat, even though it was obvious that someday they would indeed threaten us, most
Americans were reluctantly convinced that war was coming. Young men began to enlist in the armed forces. But still popular media and the film industry were reluctant to come right out and say that Germany was the enemy – especially considering the loss of revenue this would inevitably cause.
But films made from best selling books brought in revenue, too, and

had the extra value of built in publicity; the public already knew the title. The Mortal Storm was one such best-seller, by Phyllis Bottome, published in 1938. In 1940 seemed worthwhile for MGM to mount this as a major production. The film, directed by Frank Borzage, features a uniformly excellent cast; Freya Roth is played by Margaret Sullivan, her brothers Otto and Erich by William T. Orr and a very young Robert Stack, their lifelong friends Fritz and Martin by Robert Young and James Stewart, and Professor Roth and Mrs. Roth by Frank Morgan and Irene Rich.
The Mortal Storm shows the devastation of a close-knit German family, the Roths, during the rise of Nazism. It is a mixed family; Mrs. Roth was a widowed mother of two young boys when she married Professor Roth, a highly respected instructor of Biological Science at the University, who was Jewish. The Professor, a devoted family man, happily raised his wife’s sons as his own, alongside their own daughter, Freya. The family seems secure and happy, enjoying the prestige that a University professor traditionally enjoyed during the centuries when German education and scholarship were venerated worldwide.

Professor Roth is the living symbol of the destruction of German culture at the hands of the National Socialists. We first see him receiving the loving congratulations of his family, colleagues, and students on the occasion of his birthday; the staff of the University joins with the student body (mostly male but with a significant number of young women students) in singing a laudatory chorus of Gaudeaumus Igitur, the hymn of solidarity, fellowship, and pride in scholarship that had been sung in German universities for hundreds of years. That
Prof. Roth's birthday
evening, a family party follows – disrupted ominously by news on the radio that Adolph Hitler has been elected chancellor. Professor Roth hides his dismay at the excitement shown by his sons and their friend, Fritz, and counsels patience and tolerance. Freya and family friend Martin, a veterinary student, are not so optimistic.

As the months go on, Otto and Erich become increasingly disrespectful of the liberal values and unbiased scholarship prized by the University, and by their stepfather, coming more and more under the influence of their violent but disciplined Nazi comrades. Their ruin begins with calls to pride, solidarity and patriotism, which hide the poisonous undertow of antisemitism, misogyny, and brutality that were at the core of Hitler’s philosophy. Fritz and Freya were childhood sweethearts, and planned to marry; but she finds his rigid dedication to his Nazi comrades and their mindless anti-intellectualism more and more alienating. She also begins to
Martin and Freya see their friends turn against them
bitterly resent his repeating the Nazi party line regarding women, saying things like “Women should keep out of politics” and “You’ll feel differently once you have a husband to guide you.” She finds herself turning increasingly to Martin. 

In one of James Stewart's finest performances, Martin seems superficially like just another provincial farmer; but the hint of steel beneath that relaxed posture, and the level, unshakeable gaze, suggest that he will prove a formidable opponent when the time comes. Stewart beautifully shows the confident strength beneath the laconic countryman's surface.
The plot of film is fairly simple; events follow inevitably on one another. What makes this movie so harrowing and tragic is the uniformly impressive acting. Margaret Sullivan is superb as Freya, an intelligent young woman who will not be silenced; in fact, I think it is one of her best film performances. Her first feelings of dismay transform with great clarity into righteous anger, as young men she grew up with betray every value she thought they shared. Stewart's Martin possesses moral strength that shows up the thuggish, brutal Nazis at every turn. Robert Young, in another standout

characterization, portrays a man voluntarily cutting loose everything that made him a person worthy of respect.
The moral center of the film is the great Frank Morgan, as Professor Roth. Morgan plays Roth as a man of love, gentleness, and honesty; he will not distress their mother, his beloved wife, by confronting his stepsons about their activities, however much he disagrees. When they leave his home for good, it is because of their own
decision to distance themselves from the man who has cared for them like a father. The book, and the film, shows how Hitler and the Nazi Party appealed first to naive young men's patriotism and idealism, and then twist these feelings into cowardly brutality. A key scene, for example, has a gang of uniformed Nazi thugs attacking and beating an elderly man for the crime of being a teacher; Freya and Martin, disgusted, intervene, as Fritz, Otto, and Erich meet their eyes with defiance mixed with an undertone of shame.
Soon the Nazis have taken power even in the University, making it their business to destroy every vestige of the atmosphere of free inquiry and honest debate that was the proudest achievement of European higher education. Now the young women have disappeared from the lecture halls, and ranks of uniformed young men occupy the Professor’s classroom (lead by Dan Dailey, excellent as a charismatic leader whose eyes burn with sullen hate). And inevitably a confrontation arises that Professor Roth will not avoid. During a demonstration of the technique of determining blood types, the leader rises and demands that the professor state whether or not the blood is “Aryan.”                                                   Roth says unequivocally that science has proven there is no difference between Aryan blood and anyone else’s blood. The uniformed “students” rise en masse and march out – including the young man who has been welcome in the professor’s home for years, Fritz.
Within a short while, Professor Roth is dismissed from the University he has loved all his life. As he departs for the last time, he witnesses the uniformed "students" making a bonfire of disapproved books -- Freud, Thomas Mann, Einstein. He spends his time working on a book about the science of blood typing. His former colleagues avoid him. Though he tries to reassure his wife,

he knows things will get worse, and plans a trip to Vienna (Austria was not under Nazi control at thus point) to arrange for its publication. He embarks on this journey and then disappears, and his wife and daughter are frantic to know what has happened. As a last resort, Freya actually begs Fritz, her  former fiancee, now a party official, to help -- and they discover that he has been arrested and sent to a concentration camp.
The paralyzing horror with which the two women receive this news says more than hours of dialog. (We know now what it meant, but moviegoers in 1940 might well not have known.) Like real people would, Freya and her mother avoid talking about the awful stories they have heard about concentration camps, and try to comfort each other. Mrs Roth is allowed one visit with her husband.
Now we see the formerly honored and respected Professor Roth wearing the plain gray convict's uniform -- with a "J" on the sleeve, the only mention in the whole film that he (or anybody) is Jewish.  Professor Roth knows he will never see his family again, and that he will never live to see freedom. During their brief, heartbroken
meeting, he does his best to ease his wife's sorrow by telling her the opposite. Morgan shows with depth and delicacy the warmth of his feeling for his wife, and the knowledge behind his reassurances that this is the end for them. His death is the death of the great German traditions of science, learning, and humanity.
Freya and her mother decide to leave Germany for good -- but when their train is just about to cross the border, it is stopped and searched by the Nazi border guards, and Prof. Roth's manuscript in Freya's luggage, and she is detained. Martin plans an escape on skis through a mountain pass only he knows about, but the border police discover it, and they are hotly pursued by a group of Nazi
Freya and Martin
operatives, led by Fritz, who, in a gesture of particular cruelty, has been assigned the task of bringing Freya back. Freya is shot. Martin carries her through the pass into Austria, where they can be free -- but she is dies in his arms. 

Fritz is confronted by Freya 's brothers Otto and Erich, and he insists that "It was my duty!" Erich furiously quits the party and vows to join Martin in the fight. 

This beautiful film unfolds inexorably; you almost know what will happen from the first moment. But it is riveting all the same. This is how totalitarianism works; individual conscience is dismantled, bit by bit. You know the close, happy family is doomed, and that many of the normal, attractive people you see are in the process of destroying their own sense of decency, and turning themselves into monsters.

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