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13 August 2017

How to Become a Nazi: The Mortal Storm

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. 


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